Top 10 Automotive Advancements That Aren't

10. Cooled/ventilated seats

This is the only feature that divided's editors. Car seats are at their best when they support drivers and passengers. They're also pretty good at warming their occupants on cold days. When they get more ambitious, the results are mixed. Cooled and ventilated seats blow or draw air through perforated leather seats, but many people find them ineffective. One editor likens them to sitting on spilled water — cold, but not refreshing. Others say they can't live without the feature in muggy summer weather. We all agree, though, that the effectiveness varies from car to car. Considering the cost, complexity and weight the feature adds to the car, you might be better off without 'em.

9. Heated/cooled cupholders

As gimmicks go, this one's a winner. In terms of function … not so much. While the cupholders themselves impress with their quick warm-up and cool-down, they don't account for the decanters motorists use. Travel mugs and coffee cups are designed specifically to keep heat or cold inside, so they also keep it outside, rendering the cupholders ineffective. Even fast-food cups and water bottles provide little temperature transfer. An aluminum can is probably best suited for cooling, but if hot beverages are your thing, it's hard to imagine a workable solution.

8. Continuously variable transmissions

Once heralded as the key to high mileage without expensive hybrid technology, the continuously variable automatic transmission is at its best with larger engines, as in the V-6-powered Nissan Altima and Murano, but it hasn't grown on us when teamed — as it most often is — with four-cylinders. The CVT allows the engine to rev and drone at unexpected times, and there's typically a response lag when passing power is needed. Six-speed (and more!) automatics that achieve similar results are likely to supplant the CVT over time.

7. E85 ethanol fuel

Owners of flexible-fuel vehicles can opt to use E85 — 85 percent ethyl alcohol and 15 percent gasoline — in lieu of straight gas. Here's the problem: They don't. Industry studies report that 90 percent of flex-fuel owners don't know they can use E85, and of the remaining 10 percent, most can't find the stuff. Those who can find it know that it lowers their vehicle’s fuel efficiency and, as a result, they typically sacrifice whatever per-gallon price advantage it offers in the first place, if any. Building flex-fuel capability into cars allows automakers to add up to 1.4 mpg to their fleetwide corporate average fuel economy rating, granting EPA credit for no measurable gain. Until it's made cheaply from waste materials or simple plants rather than food crops, ethanol is no advancement.

6. Electronic levers

What’s wrong with turn-signal stalks that click into place when you set them and then return to the center position after a turn? BMW's levers spring back to center immediately, so you can't figure out how to turn off a signal if you change your mind, and you can't feel whether they're on or off — a valuable cue along with the clicking sounds and flashing lights you might not notice. Springy gear selectors — courtesy of the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf, BMW and other German makes — are no better. The conventional ones are three clicks from Park to Drive, two back to Reverse, etc. The physical positions serve a valuable purpose.

5. Voice activation

The ability to control things like ventilation, audio and navigation systems with your voice isn't new, but it has improved significantly and spread to many brands. As much as anything, the technology's eyes-on-the-road, hands-on-the-wheel philosophy gives automakers cover from regulators, whose attention is as focused as drivers themselves are not. Sadly, voice recognition still gets it wrong much of the time, requiring several steps and more time than it takes to push a button or even a couple of touch-screen menus. Until these systems operate so flawlessly that you can bark out a command without getting sucked into a dialog with the HAL 9000, we can live without them.

4. Large wheels

Large wheels make cars look better, or so we're told. That's why car wheels have been growing for years. Twenty-inch wheels were all but unheard of a decade ago, and now we don't even blink to see them as original equipment at auto shows and dealerships. On some trucks and luxury and sports cars, wheels have gotten larger still as automakers have waged marketing wars. (Larger must be better, right?) Unfortunately, with larger wheels come shorter tire sidewalls and a firmer ride, and owners also feel it once those tires need to be replaced. With few exceptions, larger wheels require more expensive tires.

3. Auto-dimming rearview mirrors

The idea is a good one: The rearview mirror dims itself automatically as daylight wanes and headlights approach from the rear, and it darkens gradually according to conditions. (Manual mirrors are either all bright or fully dimmed.) In practice, though, auto dimming can take too long, allowing a car from another lane to blind you for a second or two when it falls in line behind you. Backseat passengers' heads can cast a shadow on the mirror's sensor, leading to the same result. Note that this criticism doesn't apply to dimming side mirrors; there's no manual alternative, so they're a net positive.

2. Electronic drivetrain control

Electronic drivetrain control is now the norm, with almost all new cars controlling their throttles and transmissions electronically. The many advantages can include more refined, lower-cost cruise control; more precise traction and stability control; higher efficiency; lower emissions; and special modes for sport, winter or off-road driving. So what's the problem? Delay. You often experience a lag that seldom existed with "less sophisticated" automatic transmissions and the tried-and-true mechanical cables that used to attach accelerator pedals to throttles. Even though this flaw has improved some over the years in new cars, the lag in certain new and used models on the market is simply appalling.

1. Touch-sensitive control panels

Two major automakers have replaced physical buttons on their control panels with touch-sensitive surfaces. The Chevrolet Volt's center dashboard panel is covered with them, Ford's MyFord Touch incorporates some, and MyLincoln Touch adds slider-style volume and tuning control. You lose the tactile feedback of pushing a button, replaced by a synthesized click noise. We suspect this technology is a cost-cutting step, but the automakers deny it. We don't believe them. No one could think this is a good idea on its own merit.

© 05/1/2012