These Are the Features You Need in Your Next Car

Some features and technologies are well worth the money, while others, you can take or leave.

Car salesman showing new car interior to customer sitting inside the carShutterstock

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Picking your next car is a deeply personal choice. Once you’ve nailed down the basic blueprint regarding which make and model suits your budget, style, and daily driving needs, it’s time to start considering options and hunting for the exact new or used car.

How you equip a new vehicle will affect your enjoyment with it and its resale value. If your budget has you deciding between options, you might wonder which comfort and technology features are worth your money. To help you make the call, we’ve compiled this list of popular add-ons, noting which are musts, which are gravy, and which you can do without.

Must-Have Features

Proximity Key
Perhaps the single greatest convenience feature of the past two decades, a proximity key—or, more accurately, a proximity fob—allows you to unlock (and lock) the doors and start the vehicle without having a physical key in your hand. No longer do you have to dig through a bag or pat your pockets in wonder. As long as you have the fob nearby, you simply grab the handle or tap your finger on the door-handle-mounted button and you’re in. Similarly, you can start the vehicle or lock the doors with the fob buried in a purse or a pocket. Perhaps that seems like a small gain for what could be a high price, but trust us, once you’ve lived with “passive entry,” you’ll never spec another car without it.

Forward-Collision Warning and Automated Emergency Braking
A basic rule of thumb when it comes to spec’ing a car: Don’t skimp on safety. All modern vehicles have anti-lock braking, a complement of airbags, and some kind of traction and stability control system, but when new tech comes along, automakers generally charge extra for it. Case in point: forward-collision warning (FCW) and automated emergency braking (AEB). Using audible, visual, and/or haptic signals, FCW alerts the driver of any impending collision with the vehicle ahead. If the driver fails to react to the warning, AEB hits the brakes for you to prevent the crash or at least reduce the severity of it.

These features take a proactive role in your (and others’) safety, and for a time, they graced the options sheets of many models. If shopping for a used vehicle, consider adding this tech to your search criteria. If buying new, you’re likely covered: Given the effectiveness of FCW with AEB—lowering the rate of injury-causing rear-end collisions by 56%, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)—automakers have agreed to make these features standard equipment by September 2022.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
For many car shoppers, smartphone connectivity is as important as the steering wheel. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto allow you to use your phone as the infotainment system, bringing the interface you know and love to the center screen of your car. For several years, these systems required a cable to connect your device to the vehicle. Now, many automakers offer wireless connectivity, which not only eliminates the cable from the equation, but once you’ve paired your device with the system, you don’t have to relegate one of your cupholders to phone-holding duty. Leave your phone in your pocket or bag; the car knows it’s there.

USB Outlets
While we love wireless connectivity, you and your passengers still need cables for device charging (unless you have an option for a wireless charging pad, which we'll get to later). Most new vehicles have at least one USB port, but that may not cut it. Particularly for large SUVs with three rows of seating, if you have the option of adding a port or two in the back, do it. Think of all the bickering you'll avoid on family road trips. It's worth it for that reason alone.

Blind-Spot Monitoring and Rear-Cross-Traffic Alert
If you spot these features on the options sheet, it’s a wise idea to include them with your purchase. Blind-spot monitoring does exactly what it sounds like: The system alerts you—usually with lights mounted on the side mirrors—if another vehicle is lurking over your shoulder. If you were to signal a lane change toward that vehicle, the car beeps in warning.

Rear-cross-traffic alert uses the same sensors to notify you of vehicles, pedestrians, animals, or other threats moving toward your path while you’re in reverse. It’s particularly useful for backing out of a tight parking spot when the neighboring SUVs block your sightlines.

Nice-to-Have Features

Adaptive Cruise Control
This system regulates your car’s speed while maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle ahead. It’s a big improvement over basic cruise control in light and moderate traffic, as you no longer need to toggle the controls when the vehicle ahead of you won’t settle on one speed. These systems don’t work as well in heavy, fast-moving traffic, but then again, neither does old-fashioned cruise control.

Surround-View Camera Suite
As of May 2018, all new cars sold in the U.S. are required to have a backup camera. Building on this, many automakers offer more advanced, multi-camera setups, capable of showing the driver an overhead view of the vehicle as well as close-up shots of hard-to-see areas. This feature—often called a surround-view or 360-degree camera system—teeters on the edge of the must-have category for many people, including truck or SUV owners who routinely tow, sports car drivers who wish to avoid scrapes from steep driveways and parking curbs, and anyone who regularly parallel parks.

Wireless Smartphone Charging
We wouldn’t call this essential new car gear, but a wireless smartphone charging pad ensures you can top up your device’s battery when you forget the cable at home—important if you’re traveling a long distance through dead zones and using your phone for directions or to play podcasts to pass the time. The pad also provides a dedicated place to set your phone (though, whether it’ll hold it there is less certain). Problem is, automakers tend to reserve this option for top trim levels or lump it together with other features for some kind of tech package, making it a pricey proposition.

Rain-Sensing Windshield Wipers
Technically the wipers don't sense the rain; a sensor shining infrared light at the windshield does. When rain or other precipitation interferes with that light, the sensor tells the car to activate the wipers. The system is smart enough to take into account the intensity of the rainfall and adjust the wiper's speed accordingly. It makes the motoring experience easier by eliminating one of the driver's tasks, but we wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. Climate matters here. Someone living in drought-ridden Los Angeles won't get as much utility from rain-sensing wipers as, say, a Seattleite.

Automatic High Beam Headlights
Chances are, you’re underusing your high beams. According to a study conducted in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by the IIHS, only 18% of vehicles had their high-beams on in appropriate situations. This differs considerably from the self-reported data, wherein 81% of drivers claimed they regularly use their high beams in rural areas, and 22% reported consistent usage on city streets.

Whether you feel the environment provides enough light already, or you worry about blinding oncoming traffic and the hassle of constantly flicking the light stalk, or you simply forget, the underusage of high beams adds unnecessary risk to night driving. So let your car do the work for you, if you can swing the often high cost of this option. It’s perhaps worth noting that some early systems took an uncomfortable amount of time to respond to oncoming traffic, but the technology has improved tremendously within the past few years.

Heated Seats, Ventilated Seats, and Heated Steering Wheel
Anyone living in the Snowbelt may feel that heating for the seats and steering wheel is essential to combat Old Man Winter, while those in hot climates may insist on ventilated or cooled seats. This is one of those highly personal choices that only you can make for yourself. And there are other solutions to frozen hands and sticking thighs—gloves and pants, for instance. You can also try to plan ahead, starting the car 15 minutes before you leave so as to give the HVAC system time to condition the cabin.

Features You Can Likely Skip

Don't get us wrong: It’s important to know where you are and where you’re going. But by the time a car comes to market, its navigation system is already obsolete. Some automakers get around this by periodically sending over-the-air updates to your vehicle’s maps, but for real-time traffic (not to mention speed-trap alerts and detour routes), your phone's navigation apps are more reliable and up to date than your car's. As long as you find a car with a smartphone-mirroring system, there’s no reason to pay for native navigation.

Satellite Radio
Satellite radio is a wonderful way to find your favorite music, get news reports, and hear what’s going on with the big game. But so is your phone. In fact, your phone is better for all of those things. It provides a customized experience, relaying only those songs, news alerts, and sports updates you want to hear. Besides, after the trial period, satellite radio requires a monthly subscription, which is difficult to justify if you’re already paying for another music service.

Premium Audio System
Unless you're a record producer who waits until the morning of a signing meeting to listen to the artist's demo, a premium audio system isn't a vital upgrade. Many stereo upgrades cost thousands of dollars, which seems a little steep, especially when you consider that radio stations and streaming services often don’t provide the high quality audio needed to get the most out of these systems. We suspect the basic system will do a serviceable job amplifying your Road Jamz 3 playlist, but if you're concerned about it, make sure to crank the tunes during your test drive before making a decision.

Onboard Wi-Fi Hotspot
In-car Wi-Fi has its uses. Staying connected when cellular signals turn spotty may be important to you. Your vehicle has a better antenna than your phone and, therefore, may have better reception in areas with weak signals. But just like with satellite radio, onboard hotspots require a monthly subscription, and most drivers will only use these systems sporadically. If you really need to work on the go or keep the kids entertained with streaming video, it may make more sense to look into a cellular plan that allows other devices to piggyback off your phone’s service.

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Nick Kurczewski
Nick Kurczewski is a freelance automotive journalist based in the New York metro area. With approximately 20 years of experience, he has covered all aspects of the car world, from the pit lane at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to car shows around the world, and a Zamboni lesson in Lower Manhattan. He’s also adept at providing helpful car advice and steering people towards the ideal car, truck, or SUV for their driving needs.