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new car buying guide

Some modern high-tech car conveniences are more useful than others.Zephyr18/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Open the door of a new car and you’ll find perfume dispensers, heated and cooled cupholders, mood lighting, gesture control and even hot massaging seats. Nowadays, vehicles can be loaded with more weird gadgets than a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

These things can be very useful – perhaps even save you from a fender-bender – but others aren’t worth your time and money. Here are the key safety and tech features you should be looking for – and some you should avoid – in your next new car.

Safety systems

Safety equipment may not be the most exciting feature of a new car, but it is the most important. In the past, there was a lot more variation in crash-test performance, but most new vehicles today earn five-star safety ratings, says Kelly Funkhouser, head of connected and automated vehicles at Consumer Reports. “Any [rating] under five stars, that’s a big red flag,” she says.

You can look up a car’s safety rating on the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website.

Automatic emergency braking (AEB) is the next key safety feature you should be looking for. It can – but won’t always – prevent or reduce the severity of some crashes by automatically slamming on the brakes in the event the car’s sensors indicate a collision is imminent. It has proven to be effective enough that the NHTSA, Consumer Reports and other organizations have been pushing automakers to put AEB on all new vehicles.

Some newer versions of AEB work while the car is in reverse and can detect not just other cars but pedestrians and cyclists. “The [pedestrian- and cyclist-detection] technology is really going to get a whole lot better soon, but it’s hit or miss right now,” Funkhouser says. So, consider these more advanced AEB systems nice to have but not necessary.

Finally, be aware that car companies market AEB under various strange names such as Front Assist or Smart City Brake Support. And, remember, AEB is only a backup in case the driver makes a mistake.

Other recommended safety features are blind-spot warning and adaptive cruise control.

Almost everyone who tries a car with a blind-spot warning system loves it, according to Consumer Reports’ research. “They never want to buy a car without it again,” says Funkhouser. The system alerts drivers with audible, tactile or visual warnings if a vehicle is in their blind spot.

Adaptive cruise control (ACC) is similarly beloved. ACC works on the highway to maintain a set speed, accelerating or slowing the car as needed to keep a set distance to vehicles ahead. Data has not shown that ACC reduces collisions, says Funkhouser, but it can help drivers keep an appropriate following distance.

High-tech gadgets

“A lot of the bells and whistles [in cars], you use them to show off to your friends about how cool your new car is, and then immediately forget them,” Funkhouser says.

However, certain new bells and whistles are useful and often rated highly in consumer surveys by research and consulting firm J.D. Power.

People like many of the new camera-based technologies in cars, says Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction at J.D. Power. Rear-view mirrors that let drivers switch to a camera view – showing everything behind the vehicle, unobstructed by cargo or passengers – get positive reviews from owners.

Similarly, 360-degree cameras that show you a complete view of what’s around the car are great. For drivers who tow trailers, cameras that show the view from behind the trailer are a huge help.

Head-up display systems have been around for 20 years but are now becoming more than a cool gimmick. “It’s now hitting its stride,” Kolodge says. The displays project navigation information, blind-spot warnings and adaptive-cruise-control details onto the windshield.

If you’re buying a car with an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) – such as Tesla’s Autopilot of Cadillac’s Super Cruise – it should have a good driver-monitoring system (DMS). Camera-based DMS, as used by Cadillac and others, is best. They use eye-tracking cameras to help ensure drivers remain attentive and don’t place too much trust in the ADAS, which can be dangerous.

Nice-to-have, but not necessary, features include a great stereo, heated seats and steering wheel, a big panoramic glass roof – to make the cabin feel more open and airy – and massaging seats. Yes, the latter may seem like a gimmick, but you do come to appreciate even a bad massage on a long drive.

Screen time

The best infotainment system is the one that’s least distracting and makes the most sense to you. You should be looking for an infotainment system that lets you perform your usual tasks – whatever they may be – in as few clicks as possible, Kolodge advises.

Touch-screen-only systems look slick, but having dedicated physical controls for frequently used functions – like stereo volume – is extremely useful. (The simple volume knob has yet to be improved upon.)

Many people like having cars with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, systems that put your phone’s apps on the in-car screen. They can be helpful, especially if the car in question has a bad infotainment system or doesn’t come with navigation – something that is increasingly common in entry-level vehicles.

Perhaps the best advice on infotainment systems came recently from the comedian Stephen Colbert, speaking on The Late Show: “You know what’s super compelling infotainment to watch while you’re driving? The road. It may start slow, but true fans of watching the road know that if you stick with it – spoiler! – you don’t die.”

Tech to avoid

Customers are frequently disappointed by in-car tech that they’re already familiar with from their phones – like navigation apps or voice assistants, Kolodge explains.

That said, newer cloud-connected assistants – as used by Tesla, Mercedes and others – can usually understand natural speech relatively well. But in most cars, voice control is pretty terrible and not worth paying extra for.

Features that require paid subscriptions are also often disappointing for drivers, Kolodge says. Some automakers charge ongoing fees for things like live traffic info or phone apps that can remotely start your car. “In many cases, the value of that type of service is just falling short [of expectations],” says Kolodge.

Drivers’ disappointment level with gesture control is very high, according to recent J.D. Power research. Gesture control lets you wave your hand in the air to, for example, adjust the stereo volume. It simply doesn’t work very well, or it works when you don’t want it to.

Remote parking also sounds great, but in practice, it isn’t. These systems don’t always work, and it’s usually faster and easier to park the car yourself. People pay extra for the feature but most of them don’t use it, Kolodge says. The technology needs more refinement.

Similarly, lane-departure warning – which is supposed to warn the driver if the car drifts out of its lane – sounds good in theory, but it can be annoying. These systems are often either not sensitive enough or too sensitive, buzzing and beeping constantly.

Above all, it’s important to remember that every driver is different. “The thing that we’ve seen consistently is that what’s intuitive to me might not be intuitive to you,” says Kolodge. “What I might like as a safety feature, you might find to be annoying, distracting or startling, and you don’t trust it.” Her last piece of advice? “Really look to experience these technologies and find that perfect fit for you.”