Commentary – My “Must-Have” Car Accessories

My name is Kristi Burns and I am NOT a mechanic, so I don’t mind being spoiled by “modern” car accessories as my husband does.

In fact, this can be a bone of contention when we both look for a new vehicle – he wants to get the “base” vehicle as long as it has the wheels he wants rather than the interior conveniences that would make me happy.

I can, however, appreciate where he’s coming from – why make a car so complicated that you need to take it to the dealer for every electrical problem that comes up; sometimes simplicity is better.

The first new car I purchased was a 1991 Mercury Tracer LTS (with with a Mazda 323/Miata engine) and it was pretty basic.  I decided ordering one exactly the way I wanted with a 5-speed manual and waiting two months was preferable to choosing from automatic trans models the dealer had in stock.  I recall with great certainty that I had selected power locks and windows when ordering the car initially.  However when I picked it up from the dealer and reached for said window levers, the buttons were simply not there.  My car had been built without power locks and windows.  The dealer frantically checked their records and claimed it had been ordered without the power accessories.  I decided I still liked the car in special-order navy blue enough to keep it.  While I was bummed about my missing luxury features, I have to say we kept the car over ten years and in 200,000 miles we never once had any problems with crank windows or power locks.

Being married to a car buff who owns a range of cars from “basic” classics to ones with a few modern conveniences, I often struggle to recall how the accessories in any particular car I might be in actually work.

When it comes to accessories, though, it’s hard to beat the Oldsmobile Omega/Chevy Citation that was available with a tailgate-fitted tent accessory.  My mom had one of these and we camped from Wisconsin to Oregon and then back in it.  If I were more of an outdoors person I might have enjoyed it more.  I thought the feature was cool…but for somebody else, not me.

Today’s accessories that I can’t live without now:

1. Bluetooth. Back in the 1970’s and ’80’s CHiPs featured a Saudi Arabian prince driving around with a “car phone” – literally a phone in the car.  In the early 1990’s, built-in cellphones were still a huge deal.  I recall almost colliding with a woman driving in front of me after she stopped in the middle of the road to talk with someone on her car phone.  My dad even sprung for one in his 1988 Mazda 626.  The 1991 Mercedes 420SEL my husband and I purchased ten years old still has the microphone that was part of the original built-in 1991 car phone unit.  Today, built-in car phones are obselete since better signal coverage allows smaller hand-held units to work everywhere.  Plus noone wants to compromise the go-anywhere ability of portable units.  Bluetooth ability built in to most cars now allows cellphones to pair up with the car for hand-free conversations using the car’s speaker system.

However, Bluetooth isn’t without its issues.  The system in our Touareg is NOT user friendly.  Some Bluetooth connections read your phone directory so you just have to say “Call XX” and it dials the number.   But our car does not.  First, one must press the telephone button on the steering wheel and wait for a beep to sound (forgetting to turn down the radio volume first results in a deafening “BEEP”).  The driver must then know the actual number in order to speak each digit slowly enough to allow the electronic voice to understand it, followed up with a “Dial” command.  We tried to use the feature to store numbers, but it works poorly and does not recommend later commands well – even more frustrating after doing all the work of storing them.

But the feature is still worth having, and apps can be downloaded to your  like, help.  Some cars are even equipped with phone keypads to help you dial.  Hopefully, there are some new developments on the front in the near future, but it’s still a must-have.

Uniden PRO520XL 40-channel CB radioThere were other communication devices in car besides phones. My grandparents had a 1975 Cadillac Coupe de Ville that had a CB (Citizen’s Band) radio, which was so cool. When we drove from Phoenix to northern Arizona, we would talk with truck drivers. Because their car was silver, their handle was “silver dollar.”


2. Environmental controls.  Nothing else has probably saved many marriages from imploding during a long trip than heated seats and dual heating/cooling controls have.  My husband is always warmer than I am, so the ability to change the temperature on my side (whether driver or passenger position) to make it warmer or use the heated seat controls to assist is a must.  Unfortunately most systems don’t allow side-to-side differences in how high or low the air blows (feet, face, etc.), but I’m hoping those are in the works.


My husband used to work for Audi and brought home a new A8 sedan one hot summer night.  I was impressed with the effectiveness of the air-conditioned seats.  Instead of most systems that blew air out of small pores in the seat cover, this one sucked air in to pull heat away from you.

I recall dealing with a lack of air conditioning in my car when I owned my ’91 Mercury Tracer LTS.  After a very minor fender bender one autumn, air conditioning lines ruptured somewhere letting all the refrigerent out of the car’s system – something I did not notice until the following summer.  The car was out of warranty and I didn’t have the money to fix this, so I left it. Most of the time I’m OK with the air conditioner so it didn’t really bother me.

Heated Seats:

The first time I experienced heated seats was in my dad’s 1994 540i.  A very, very nice feature.  His most interesting comment was, “Doesn’t if feel like you wet your pants?”  Soon after that most cars, even cars with cloth seats had them.  Although his car had just one on/off setting, most new vehicles have anywhere from 3 to 6 settings heated seats can be switched to.

Some high-end cars offer heated and cooled steering wheels, and also have heated seats for rear passengers as well.

3. Sunroof. The poor sunroof. It gets such a bad reputation, but for the most part these are pretty necessary even if you never use it.

My husband’s first car was a 1979 VW Rabbit that had a manual crank to open the sunroof.  One time cranking the sunroof closed during a sudden downpour, the handle loosened and flew off out the sunroof opening into the road behind him.  My husband claims that he sees so many problems with sunroofs causing water leaks that it makes him want to own a car without the feature.

A panoramic sunroof is nice, but expensive to replace.

Fast forward to early 1998 when we were ordering a new 1998 Volkswagen Passat.  We argued over the options each of us wanted – I wanted leather, automatic, power options, sunroof and I did not care if I had the smaller engine choice.  My husband preferred to spend our money on a V6 engine instead of a 4-cylinder, preferring a 5-speed manual, cloth seats, and no sunroof.

Since it would me mostly my car to use, we compromised and ordered the 4-cylinder and automatic with leather interior but without sunroof and automatic climate control.  After lengthy delays on the part of Volkswagen manufacturing, our car ended up being made as a 1999 model (instead of the “1998” model we ordered).  As a result of that model year difference, leather and automatic trans models were now automatically built with sunroofs even though we specifically chose to delete it.  I was delighted, and he was extremely irritated at the now higher-than-ordered price the car came with.  The dealer made it up to us with extremely low financing, and we took the car.  My husband grumbled anew years later when the car suddenly filled up with water during a rainstorm as a result of a poor sunroof drain tube design.

Most of the time, factory-built sunroofs are pretty weatherproof.  However, be careful that tree buds, seeds and leaf pieces don’t find their way into and clog sunroof drain tubes when left open…or even in the closed position.

Our Land Rover has two sunroofs – one over the front seats, and another in the back. Both are sealed tightly. Currently, there are several car models that have “panoramic” sunroofs, which is one long piece of glass that can be very expensive to replace, and leave more room for leaks.  Seals on early designs of these tend to shrink, causing leaks that can only be corrected by the entire sunroof cassette being removed and replaced.

4. DVD/Integrated Video Players. Are we there yet?  Growing up, I took many long car expeditions with my parents and we would play fun games such as “I Spy”, “Buzz”, “20 Questions”, etc.  Fast forward 30+ years when vehicles started offering DVD players  for those who wanted to keep their kids busy watching a DVD during a long family trip or just a trip to soccer practice.  They even provided access to video games.

In-car DVD players – either integrated or portable – make trips easy for parents and others.

When we bought the Land Rover certified pre-owned, my husband reported he was told by the saleswoman it had a DVD player in it.  I have to admit that I was pretty excited to hear that.  However, she proved to have been mistaken and it did not…which was OK since the video player was really only usable by those in the backseats anyway.

“Pimp My Ride” made these a primary focus of their rehabs by adding at least 3 video screens in every car they “pimped.”  Because cellphones and tablets have the same ability to show videos and because many people have portable players anyway, I don’t notice these quite as often anymore.  (As always, be careful when operating a vehicle and watching other media types.)

5. Entertainment/Navigation Systems.  In our Touareg, we opted for a basic “am I close or am I far away from the object in front/back of me” parking assist system.  Some vehicles come standard with rear cameras that will let you see what’s behind you as you’re backing up and help you back up. You can add these aftermarket as well.  We chose not to pay for the more costly system.

As mentioned in part 1 of this blog, navigation systems are great, however, I prefer to use my portable phone since I can carry it with me (and still have unlimited data).  However, the other systems are popular, too.  We went to a family wedding in Florida and rented a car, but didn’t feel like spending extra for a vehicle with an integrated navigation system.  The paper map to the hotel seemed easy to follow.  But the funny thing is that all of my aunts and uncles had brought their own portable GPS systems (Tom Tom, Garmin, Magellan, etc.) either in their suitcase or rented at the car rental pick up.  We were the out-of-date ones!

On a visit to Germany, we rented a car and were attempting to follow directions from our hotel to the the Castle Neuschwanstein.  We realized once we were on the road that the directions were all in German that we did not understand.  Right out of the gate, we went the wrong way – we guess, because we ended up heading toward the Czech Republic rather than Austria.  The paper map from the rental company was more accurate, but we ended up going to the Mercedes-Benz Mecca: Stuttgart, with a paper map.  On the way back to Munich, the navigation system decided to work and suddenly popped up in the Peugot diesel we rented, but it wouldn’t have helped because it was all in GERMAN.

One of the things that turned us off from getting an Audi was its overly complicated radio/navigation center control that is a big button in the center arm console area.  It was difficult to figure out from the passenger seat and extremely difficult to use while driving.

It may seem simple, but try it without taking your eyes off the road! Oh, wait…don’t.

There really isn’t a need for center consoles to be so complicated.  Seriously.  Other complicated systems include the annoying multi-CD changer in a separate location such as the trunk, or under the front passenger seat as in our Land Rover.

Radios used to be simple.  An on/off and radio-station change knob, a volume knob and six buttons to store stations.  Of course, some cars had 8-track tapes, later cassette tapes (with auto reverse and track skipping), and of course CDs, and now integrated MP3 jacks. Satellite radio is a must for those on the road a lot.

Now that we have all of these conveniences, don’t think that the car companies don’t make us pay for them.  Usually, the items we DO want are in options packages that with things that you might not want and still we’ll pay $2K and more for them.

When Things Were Simpler

We take many things for granted that were new, and revolutionary, for car owners in the 1950’s:

  • Seat belts – lap belts became popular in 1958 after Saab introduced them in the New York Car Show (Wikipedia) in 1958
  • Air bags – Allen Breed developed the first sensor air bag in 1968
  • Air conditioning – Most cars today have A/C, but it wasn’t standard in all cars for a long time
  • Adjustable seats – especially since most cars had bench seats, not individual seats
  • Auto-manual / automatic transmissions – Today most cars are standard automatics rather than standard manual.

And I’m sure there are “must haves” that designers and engineers will dream up in the future that we would never consider today.  What’s your favorite “must have”?

About Kristi Burns

I've been married to a car fanatic for 20 years, and together for over 25. He and I share a passion for owning classic cars, working on them, participating in car club events & shows, and writing about things automotive.
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  • slade

    On the off chance you read this…that picture of the Tracer LTS was my car. I took that pic myself just after washing it (obviously) because I thought it looked quite nice and clean. Bought it new in early ’91 in Killeen, TX. That pic was taken at Ft. Polk, LA in probably late ’91 or ’92. Was a great little car.

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