In general new cars are fantastic — vastly more reliable and better-built than the cars of the past. But some have features you wish would stop working, or that had never been installed in the first place.
Here’s a quick sampling:
GM’s always-on parking lights. When I was in high school, the sure brand of a loser wanna-be was the guy driving around the lot in his clapped-out ’77 Camaro with Gabriel Hi-Jacker air shocks out back and the parking lights turned on in the middle of the day. So cool, man. General Motors installs the same basic deal on several new cars, including the ’04 Corvette, which has pop-up style headlights and so can’t really deploy the also-annoying (and unnecessary) Daytime Running Lamps (DRLs) that keep the headlights burning whenever the car is running. But the Cadillac CTS, Camaro/Firebird, and some other GM models are equally afflicted — bestowing upon their owners all the cachet of a notice-me-please teenager cruising the shopping mall parking lots in his glass-packed 15-year-old Civic, hoping it’ll impress the girls.
Toyota’s back-up alarm. When a big trash truck or something like that starts backing-up, it’s not a bad idea to let people who might otherwise get smushed know what’s coming. But is it really necessary for a compact sports car (Celica) or econo-compact (Echo) to ding-ding-ding! every time you put the thing in reverse? Why not just have a flailing robot pop out of the trunk? Danger! Danger! Will Robinson!
Radar-Guided Park Assist: Okay, if you drive a monster SUV, maybe it makes sense to have radar sensors built into the front and rear bumpers to help you park that big lug without hitting anything. But a family sedan or mid-size coupe? What started out as a toy on high-end luxury vehicles (Mercedes, BMW, Lexus) is filtering down to lower-priced models. But if you can’t park a normal-size car without electronic assistance, should you really be driving at all?
"Intelligent" Cruise Control: See above; another example of dangerous, but well-intended automotive idiot-proofing. Infiniti and BMW pioneered this technology, which uses laser beams (or radar) to establish the distance between your car and the traffic ahead. If the cars up ahead slow down (or speed up) the system reduces (or increases) vehicle speed to compensate, maintaining a safe following distance and space. The driver just sits there. Is it convenient? Sure. Is it intelligent? Only if you don’t believe that it’s worthwhile to encourage drivers to be responsible for driving.
Over-active traction control: It’s a Catch-22 that many of today’s highest-powered sport sedans and coupes (Mercedes and BMW are the worst
offenders) come fitted with an intrusive computer that can’t be fully turned off — and which in many cases absolutely refuses to permit even a little tire squealage. There is nothing more defeating to a car’s feel than seeing that “Trac” light flash angrily every time you start to drive the thing hard, cutting engine power to make sure you get absolutely no enjoyment from all that power locked away up front. Driving a 110-hp econocar that leaves you alone to do what you want is more fun.
“Belt Minder”: This one’s Ford’s bad idea, but sadly others are aping the idea in the name of safety. Basically, if you decline to buckle up the car starts to beep angrily and a light blinks on and off until you do. Wearing a seat belt is a fine idea. But it’s not the automaker’s business to play the role of Mommy. Will future cars sound the alarm if weight sensors in the seat detect we’ve fattened up to the point of increasing our risk of stroke or diabetes?
One-touch power windows: A great idea run amok. It’s one thing to be able to hold down a button and have the window roll down or up — a huge improvement over old-style hand-crank windows. But then some bright bulb came up with the “one-touch” idea — and now it’s often an exercise in distilled self-torture to try and open the window just a crack or try to keep it partly down. The all-knowing controller wants it either all the way up or all the way down.
Auto-locking doors: Another over-the-top result of our increasingly safety-obsessed society. Put the car in gear and thwunk! All the locks slide closed, securing you inside. Sure, the auto-locks can be shut off, deprogrammed or whatever. But like cell phones, they’re really just another “convenience” that adds needlessly to the stress and complexity of life.