Top 10 Scariest Features
We like heated seats and high-end stereos as much as the next car shopper, but some of today's automotive features provoke more fright than delight. Take GM's left-hand steering-column stalk: Until recently, this stalk housed the cruise controls in the form of a tiny, three-position switch plus a secondary button. The same stalk also managed high-beam headlights, windshield wipers and turn signals. Twist something the wrong way and the car could turn into a five-passenger R2-D2.
With things like that in mind, we chose 10 not-so-delightful features in today's cars, from chairs that perform pneumatic jujitsu on your back to owner's manuals that could qualify for a summer reading list.
10. Rain-Sensing Wipers
Rain-sensing windshield wipers have crept from high-end luxury cars to everyday models like the Toyota Avalon. They generally use infrared sensors to monitor a certain section of the windshield for moisture or dirt, then trigger the wipers to respond according to a threshold the driver sets. They usually work OK — until, invariably, they don't. When one editor's Volkswagen Jetta tester had its rain-sensing wipers suddenly spring to action one cloudless night, it was mildly frightening, to say the least.
9. Soda Can Cool Zone
Various automakers offer air-conditioned compartments to keep sodas and other sundries cool. Problem is, those cool zones get hot in the summer when the car is off; we had a couple sodas explode in a certain Dodge after a 90-degree weekend. A spokeswoman told us the car's so-called Chill Zone is not intended to be used as a refrigerator. All the same, we came away a bit steamed. And sticky.
8. Smart Transmission
The Smart ForTwo deserves its own category. The minicar's automated-manual transmission shifts gears with its own electronic clutch while the driver sees a traditional automatic setup. Drive the thing and you feel like you're on a bucking bronco. Once you're through first gear, the transmission stutters, shudders and very nearly takes a personal day before engaging second. The same thing happens on the way to third, and fourth, and fifth. Sorry, Smart, but this gearbox is anything but.
7. Power-Sliding Doors
Parents, rest assured the power-sliding doors on upscale minivans employ all sorts of electronic cutoffs to ensure they won't eat your Brownie troop. But we'll admit the prospect of power doors that can do their thing by remote 20 or 30 feet away can be a bit, um, dicey. They can also add hundreds of dollars to a car's out-the-door sticker. If you're feeling the pinch, go with manual sliders and open 'em yourself.
6. Multi-Manual Owner's Booklets
The thought of wading through an owner's manual to figure out how something works is daunting enough. Try wading through 10 of them or more; that's the number of pamphlets, manuals and quick-start guides included in some cars' libraries. With online directories only a click away, do you really need a state-by-state list of dealerships? Memo to carmakers: Just because it goes in the glove box doesn't mean it needs to be a box set.
5. Self-Parking Cars
Lexus' self-parking feature is optional on the LS sedan. Line up the superimposed square in the backup camera with your intended parking spot, gently let off the brakes and the LS will slowly steer around adjacent cars as it backs into the spot. You have to press the brakes to bring the car to a stop at the end. We didn't know Big Brother had a valet job, either.
Even among the trio of similar dashboard interfaces from Audi and Mercedes, BMW's iDrive is utter knobsense. Directional inputs send you to various submenus, but in most models there are no shortcut or previous-screen buttons around the knob. In many models, street labels sit on a horizontal plane no matter the direction of the street, and if you need to scroll along the map you have to spin the knob to move east/west, then click it down and spin it again to move north/south. If you get the hang of it, you'll be ready for "Survivor" tryouts.
3. Voice Turn-by-Turn Navigation
Navigation systems have been barking out orders for years. With the exception of Land Rover's charming Brit, most of them employ a female American voice whose intonations range from casually disinterested to downright annoyed. Some systems try gamely to pronounce street names, but the result is usually anything but clear: You're cruising along, and she suddenly directs you to turn left on ... what was that? Ah, Fockner Ave.
2. Heart-Rate Monitor
You read correctly. Volvo's Personal Car Communicator monitors the cabin and pulses a light on your keyfob if your car has an unexpected visitor inside. TV ads show a woman approaching her S80 in a deserted parking garage, seeing the warning and hightailing it away. The thought of having this feature is scary in and of itself — not for fear of being carjacked, but because we wonder what sort of paranoia would drive you to want it.
1. Overly Aggressive Seats
Driver's seats run the gamut, from flat benches to the sort of hip-huggers you'd get in an F-15, and some of the more extravagant ones don't sit so well with us. The BMW 7 Series offers a massaging driver's seat, but its throbbing motions feel downright Frankensteinian compared to a real massage. In some of Mercedes-Benz's pricier models, active side bolsters automatically inflate to hold you in as you take a corner. They're convenient on highway offramps and winding roads, but 90-degree city turns can result in sudden rib pinching as the seats go hog-wild to keep up. Avoid large spicy meals beforehand — or wade through the Benz's onboard computer menus to turn the feature off.