In the rapidly advancing automotive marketplace, it’s sometimes easy to lose track of clever new features that can greatly enhance the ownership experience. And at the same time, some items that sound good on paper can actually prove to be a waste of money or even reduce a car’s appeal.
While choosing the next car for your life in Northwest D.C., there are a number of amenities to consider opting for — and others that you may be better off without.
Features you may want:
■ Surround-view camera. While backup cameras, displaying the area directly behind your car as you reverse, have become almost ubiquitous, a growing number of vehicles go a step farther. Using a system of cameras on the front, back and sides of the vehicle, these cars stitch together an overhead view of your vehicle and all the obstacles surrounding it — curbs, walls, other cars, lane stripes and so forth. There’s also frequently an option to summon a conventional front or rear view. Put all together, a surround-view camera system helps you squeeze your car as close to the curb as possible or navigate a tight alley or garage. It also protects you against damaging your vehicle or anyone else’s. Most widely available on Nissan and Infiniti products, surround-view camera technology is spreading quickly throughout other brands as well, though typically only on cars’ high-end trims.
■ Emergency automatic braking. When cars, pedestrians and bicyclists are coming from all directions, it’s easy to focus on the wrong obstacle for an instant too long. An emergency automatic braking system can step in to warn you of an impending collision and even apply the brakes to lessen or avoid the impact. Emergency automatic braking is standard on most new Toyota, Lexus, Mazda and Nissan vehicles, and it’s commonly available as an option — though sometimes only as part of an expensive technology package or on high-end trims. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has convenient ratings of the effectiveness of each car’s system.
■ Full adjustments for the front passenger seat. While finding a comfortable driving position is understandably an essential part of car shopping, it’s easy to overlook the passenger seat. But in many households, important members of the family frequently occupy the “shotgun” position. A height-adjustable seat is particularly valuable — a short passenger can desire a better view and a tall one might need more headroom. Furthermore, elderly passengers can benefit greatly by raising the seat to get in or out of a low car. Many cars include a passenger-side height adjuster only on their high-end versions, and some don’t offer it at all.
■ Hybrid powertrain. Gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius are especially popular in D.C. — and not only because so many eco-conscious buyers live here. A well-executed hybrid is a particularly good city car because it can cruise and even accelerate gently in all-electric mode without burning any gasoline. Normal cars, even fuel-efficient diesels, get their worst mileage in urban conditions. And electric cars aren’t the easiest for everyone in D.C. to plug in. A wide variety of popular mainstream and luxury vehicles are available with hybrid powertrains, and they’re well-suited to Northwest D.C.
Features you may want to skip:
■ In-dash navigation system. While it may seem convenient to have a GPS built into your dashboard, most of today’s cars include outdated hardware and software that will only get older during the life of the vehicle. It’s particularly frustrating to input navigation directions in the D.C. area, because many systems force you to take a separate step to change your state before searching for an address or point of interest — a problem if you venture frequently into Maryland or Virginia. Google Maps or another smartphone app can often correctly guess a desired destination once you’ve put in just two or three characters. That said, there are now many cars that allow the best of both worlds: Choose an infotainment system with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatibility, and certain apps from your cellphone — including navigation — can work through the car’s big handy screen.
■ Sport-tuned suspension and big wheels. Many car reviewers lavish praise upon “sport packages,” which tighten up a car’s suspension and often include grippier tires for higher handling limits during hard driving. And big wheels often look like the perfect fit for a stylish car, or may even be automatically bundled with other desirable luxury features. But the suspension revisions and big wheels can result in a bumpy ride quality on the District’s potholes. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible to reach a car’s handling limits on D.C. streets, and the big wheels are at greater risk of damage.
■ Sedan body style. Four-door sedans are a staple of American transportation. But if you need to look for scarce street parking, or you’d otherwise benefit from the smallest car that’s roomy enough, sedans are generally not the best option. The most space-efficient way to get more room is height rather than length: a hatchback or crossover SUV, the rides of choice in congested European cities. By shaving a foot or more off your car’s length, you may find yourself able to park much closer to your destination — without even having to give up interior space.
■ All-wheel-drive. Think carefully about this one. While all-wheel-drive can provide useful traction in slippery conditions, it’s often better to stay off D.C. roads altogether when wintry weather strikes — other stuck drivers will still be causing congestion, and even all-wheel-drive can’t overcome ice. The system also drives up cost and reduces fuel efficiency.