(Sinclair Broadcast Group) - My automotive journalist brethren and I drive a lot of cars in a year. In fact, I drive anywhere from 50 to 100 new cars from January to December, and I often get a sneak peak at the latest and greatest features, gadgets and technologies before they hit the road in real cars.
Some are game-changers, and some are just plain annoying. In a recent Facebook post, I asked my auto buddies which features (or lack thereof) would cause them to pass up one vehicle for another. Wading through the onslaught of answers, I picked out the top five I absolutely agree with.
Engine Auto Stop/Start
If you’re not familiar, the auto stop/start function automatically shuts off the engine when you come to a complete stop. Every. Single. Time. You could be pausing in an intersection before a quick turn -- engine off. You could be in stop-and-go traffic, and with every brief stop in the lane -- engine off.
At best this feature is annoying, at worst, it’s a safety hazard because the wheel locks, the HVAC turns off and the time it takes for the engine to turn back on could cost you your window to make a turn through traffic.
Automakers are implementing this feature to help them hit the higher fuel economy standards, but I argue that the fuel savings is negligible -- especially if the engine is shut off only to turn back on immediately.
Though some implementations are better than others, there is always a distinct splutter and shake of the vehicle with every engine on/off.
BMW will allow you to turn this feature off -- and it will stay off until you turn it back on (Hallelujah!). Other automakers like Volvo, Ford and Jaguar allow you to turn the feature off, but you have to do so every time you turn the car on (moderately annoying). Then there are all the vehicles by General Motors. Whether you want it or not, you’re stuck with the auto stop/start with no option to turn it off. Period. (Unacceptable.)
Continuously Variable Transmission
The CVT is a kind of automatic transmission. However, unlike traditional automatics, there are no gears. So, instead of the “steps” you might feel as a vehicle accelerates, a vehicle with a CVT has one continuous and constant hum as the speed increases.
Automakers like them because they are efficient and help the vehicle reap higher fuel economy numbers. CVTs also require fewer parts and are, therefore, less expensive to construct.
A lot of people, however, consider them to be soulless. CVTs take the zip and fun out of driving, and they often cause the engine to produce a loud whining noise that makes the vehicle sound like it’s struggling to accelerate.
People who don’t care about the experience of driving will probably happily accept the CVT, but those who like to drive will have a difficult time buying a car with a CVT because it takes the joy out of driving.
Lane Keep Assist
LKA uses a series of cameras to watch where the car is driving and to keep the vehicle from making an unintended lane change. This is one of those features that is awesome in theory, but often leaves much to be desired in execution.
Some systems apply the brakes to nudge you back into the lane. Other systems will give you audible or haptic feedback if you’re crossing a line you shouldn’t. But then there are those systems that are so aggressive they forcefully keep you in the lane, tugging against your hands and actual human steering if it doesn’t agree with the line you’re taking.
This is dangerous if the system doesn’t pick up on the correct lane lines. I was testing an Audi A7 through a construction zone about a year ago, and rather than following the newly minted temporary lane lines, the test vehicle stubbornly wanted to follow the original lane lines and I had to put up a fight to keep from crashing into a construction pylon.
While there is a valid argument this feature might be good for our aging population who have weakened vision and less reaction time, the big concern is that society might use this feature as a crutch. Feel like eating while you’re driving? You can take both hands off the wheel to stuff a burger in your mouth. Had a couple drinks and feeling a little tipsy? Eh, the car will make sure you don’t do anything really stupid. Until it doesn’t.
Autonomous cars and autopilot systems are coming. But, until they are perfected, I’d rather automakers stop using the driving public for their beta testing.
Controls embedded in the display screen
As the age of technology dawns, it’s logical automakers would try to implement some smartphone features into cars. Swipe, zoom and tap all make sense when you’re talking about navigation features or paging through radio presets.
But some automakers have gone too far, eschewing hard buttons and dials on the center stack in favor of digital controls that fat fingers have problems accurately accessing.
One of the best (or worst!) examples of touch tech that went too far is the volume slider in Honda vehicles. Yes, there are redundant controls on the steering wheel, but if a passenger wants to access the volume, it has to be done through the slider on the infotainment screen. It was touchy and didn’t always work very well –- especially if your fingers were cold. Luckily, Honda realized how much people disliked this feature, and it brought back the volume dial in the new CR-V.
Other examples include HVAC, heated seat or audio tuning controls that are deeply embedded in the infotainment system. They require a tap, tap, slide to make them work. In addition to taking your eyes off the road to page through info screens, fat or cold fingers often hit the wrong button or evoke no response.
If it’s not navigation, leave the buttons and dials alone, people!
Only one USB port
I drive alone a lot. But as soon as my husband gets in the car, we fight over the USB ports for our devices -- either to connect our music or charge up. So, in 2017, I find it somewhat odd that there are entirely all-new vehicles coming out with only one USB port.
On a road trip, two of us will have at least three devices we want to connect or charge. Imagine adding a backseat passenger or a whole family into the mix. Will one USB port cut it?
We asked a PR person from one automaker upon the launch of its shiny-new-never-existing-before vehicle what the reasoning was for just one USB port -– in a vehicle that targets device-happy millennials. The response: We think one is sufficient.
Sufficient, maybe, but not practical or preferable.
C’mon automakers. It’s 2017. Shell out for an additional USB port or two -- and make them the fast charge variety, please.