Today's technology-laden cars, SUVs and even trucks can be challenging for older drivers as well as car buyers who have been out of the market for several years. I'm among the many mature drivers who don't replace vehicles until they've been driven into the ground — my husband and I often go a decade or more between car purchases. Our current vehicles are of 2004 and 2006 vintage, and they lack much of the technology that's rapidly becoming common, often standard, on today's new cars.
As a Cars.com's copy editor, I'm encouraged to drive the test vehicles we receive at our Chicago offices so that I can experience the things I read about when I edit articles. I enjoy this part of the job, but it's proven to be a challenge due to unfamiliar technology. I often find myself communing with the owner's manual before I can leave the parking garage with one of our test cars.
Here are a few things other potentially overwhelmed car shoppers of any vintage should prepare to encounter:
Backup cameras: Cars.com's long-term 2013 Honda Civic provided my first exposure to a backup camera, and I've quickly become a fan. Put the car in Reverse and what's behind you pops up on a display screen. Drivers still need to physically look behind them and check blind spots, but the cameras provide great visibility and boost driver confidence. This safety feature is due to become a government-mandated standard feature in 2018.
Blind spot monitors/lane departure warning systems: A blind spot monitor uses sensors to visually and audibly alert drivers to objects in their blind spot. Lane departure warning uses visible and audible alerts when a driver has strayed into another lane. They're easy to use (sometimes they are part of the vehicle's default mode; sometimes you need to hit a switch or button to activate them), and I think they should be standard in every vehicle.
Heat up or chill out: Living in the Midwest where winter can be harsh — especially this past winter — I appreciated not only the 2014 Audi SQ5's (Prestige trim) heated side mirrors but also windshield washer jets and heated driver and passenger seats, which are more common in luxury cars and higher trim levels of mainstream brands. Heated steering wheels are becoming a more common option too. Many cars also offer optional ventilated seats for summertime comfort.
Multimedia screens: Most cars seem to come with a separate instruction manual for the multimedia system, which is usually tied to a large screen in the middle of the dashboard. Intimidating? Yes! While driving Cars.com's 2014 Jeep Cherokee long-term tester, I decided it was time to conquer my fear. My colleagues consider Chrysler's Uconnect system to be the easiest to use, and it was. From the essentials of radio and climate control to the perks of navigation and smartphone integration, I found the system easy to use. Ditto with the MyLink system in our 2014 Chevrolet Impala long-term tester. With these experiences under my belt, I'm finding it easier to navigate my way around other manufacturers' systems, even the often-dissed MyFord/MyLincoln Touch systems.
Push-button start: Seems intuitive, right? Push the big start button in the dashboard and the car rumbles to life. Not so much, as I discovered the weekend I had the 2013 Volkswagen CC with available push-button start. I'd read a lot about push-button start and was eager to give it a try, so I got in the CC, pushed the button and — nothing. After pushing the button several times to no avail, I finally got out the owner's manual and in a few minutes discovered one must push the brake pedal and the start button simultaneously. Granted, this is something car salespeople would show you when testing a car, but the push-button ignition can also cause consternation when shutting the car off. Put the car in Park, push the button and it shuts off the engine — but often accessories like multimedia screens stay on until, and sometimes after, you exit the vehicle. BMWs, for example, will keep playing the radio after you've shut off the engine, unbuckled your seat belt, gotten out and shut the door. They only turn off once you lock the doors.
Keyless entry and keyless access: Push-button start also ties into keyless entry and keyless access, which sound similar but are different. Keyless entry allows you to lock and unlock doors by pressing a button on a key or key fob. This is very common. Keyless access (also called a smart key, to add to the confusion) uses a fob that transmits a signal when the driver gets close to the vehicle to unlock it without hitting anything on the fob. The "key" can be in a pocket or a purse, not in your hand. It's used in conjunction with push-button start, making the vehicle totally keyless.
Seat adjustments: Seat positioning is another area that's greatly evolved in the last decade, and I've found it challenging to figure out which lever or button adjusts what. It's no longer a matter of moving the seat back or forth and adjusting the seatback angle. Drivers, and often front-seat passengers, also can adjust how high or low they sit. Height adjustment is now something shoppers should expect; so don't be wowed by a salesperson who tries to oversell it. Lumbar support also is more common. Some luxury cars even have an extension for added thigh support ... sometimes it's even powered. The controls for all these adjustments aren't always easy to see or find, so I find myself consulting the owner's manual for several minutes just to get in a comfortable driving position.
Cars.com photo illustration by Paul Dolan; photo by IPGGutenbergUKLtd/Thinkstock. Cars.com photos by Evan Sears and Anastasia Page