Driving a different car every day is a privilege of working in the Consumer Reports Cars Editorial department, and it's one I appreciate. But contrary to popular belief, it's not Audi R8s and Porsche 911s every day. (I wish!) In reality, it's living with mainstream cars from each manufacturer spanning the spectrum from entry-level to luxury and using them as we would our own cars. And that means figuring out and using the feature set of each vehicle.
Here are 10 features—five good, five not so good—in current CR test cars that have stood out in my mind.
Best features in new cars
1) Chrysler steering wheel audio controls:
These aren't particularly new, but placing the audio controls on the back of the steering wheel is a great use of dead space, and frees up the front of the steering wheel for comprehensive cruise and trip computer controls.
2) Convertible top operation while moving (Mini, Porsche):
These are just two of the manufacturers that offer this feature, but it's a great convenience. While owning a convertible certainly comes with some compromises, the ability to raise the top while in slow-moving traffic when you encounter a rainstorm is a major plus.
3) Ford capless gas caps:
This system eliminates the days of driving off from the gas station with your gas cap hanging loose and saves precious second on frigid days. Simply open the fuel door, pop in the nozzle, and start filling. When you're done, just close the door and off you go.
4) Power tailgate buttons that are mounted low:
Power tailgate buttons are fantastic additions to SUVs and minivans. They allow easy opening and closing of the hatch from a variety of locations (key fob, interior button, on the door itself). But some vehicles have the closing button on the underside of the hatch door, making it out of reach for shorter people when the door is raised. Ford is one manufacturer mounting the buttons low, in the cargo area. This makes it easily accessible to users of all heights.
5) Lower anchor LATCH connections (Lexus CT 200h, Volkswagen Touareg, and others):
I'm a relatively new parent (my baby is about to move to a convertible car seat), and I'm always putting the infant-seat base in a different test car. Lexus made lower LATCH anchor access pretty simple, but also elegant. They're hidden behind small zippered openings, out of sight if you don't need them, but easily accessible if you do. Very slick. The Volkswagen Touareg has very accessible anchors as well, but they aren't as well camouflaged. Ultimately convenience is key when it comes to juggling little ones.
Worst features in new cars
1) Chrysler steering wheel audio controls:
While I do like the placement of the audio controls (see above), the preset scan control needs a bit of tinkering. This button allows the driver to move through the presets—but it is a one-way move! There is no way to go backwards, only forwards. So, you want to jump back and forth between preset 4 and preset 5? Plan on visiting presets 6, 7, 8, 9, 1, 2, and 3 over, and over, and over again.
2) Kia Optima seat heater controls:
While the interior appointments and design of the new Kia Optima
is impressive, the location of the seat heater controls is perplexing. While they're positioned extremely well for the passenger, on the right-hand side of the transmission lever, the control for the driver is totally obscured by the transmission lever when the car is in gear.
3) Volkswagen Jetta seatback recline:
The previous-generation Volkswagen Jetta
(as well as the current Golf
) used a large, well-located knob for manual seatback recline. This allowed for fine-tuning of the seatback angle, giving the occupant the ability to set a near-perfect seating position. The redesigned Jetta has not only done away with the knob in exchange for a lever that allows only a handful of fixed positions determined by VW engineers, but the lever is also awkwardly located and extremely small, making it difficult to reach and annoying to use.
4) Toyota Hybrid backup chime:
There's plenty of discussion about equipping hybrid vehicles with the ability to project noise when they are running on battery power, in order to alert sight-impaired pedestrians to the presence of the moving vehicle. Conversely, Toyota has decided the driver needs to be alerted when those vehicles are in reverse. Apparently the shifter in the Toyota Prius
and Lexus CT
models may be confusing to use. When they are in reverse, a loud—and quite annoying—chime rings. Memo to Toyota: I am fully aware the car is in reverse. I selected that position myself. If the shifter is that
confusing, maybe it's not the driver who needs an alert.
5) Touch-screen audio systems for tuning:
It's simple: people like to use a knob for tuning. Trying to tune an audio system with a touch screen is an exercise in distracted driving. Ford and Chrysler have decided a tuning knob isn't compatible with an uplevel audio system, and the result is a frustrating and distracting experience for the driver.