10 best small but thoughtful new car features

March 20, 2020

Here at The Car Connection, we review more than 250 cars every year. We write those reviews with car buyers in mind. We consider several key criteria based on the six categories in our rating system: Design, Performance, Comfort and Quality, Safety, Features, and Fuel Economy.

However, beyond those basics, automakers can slip in some little thoughtful touches that make the everyday driving experience a little better. None of these surprise-and-delight features will raise any of our ratings, but we love them and you might, too. Here are ten of our favorite small bug significant new car features.

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Satellite radio song previews

Satellite radio’s greatest strength is its variety of content. However, with hundreds of channels to choose from, finding that content at any given moment can require scrolling through dozens of channels. Audi is one automaker that makes what’s playing on satellite radio stations much easier to find by listing not only the channel names channels but also the current song, commercial, or talk topic. Love Rush (the band, not the blowhard) like I do? You can spot “Spirit of the Radio” on channel 25 Classic Hits at a glance and quickly tune in to hear Geddy’s soaring lyrics, Alex’s blazing guitar, and Neil’s intricate drum riffs. Alternatively, if you see Def Leppard’s “Armegeddon It” on channel 38, Ozzie’s Boneyard, you can steer clear without having to hear one overwrought chord.

Volvo speed camera detection

Volvo speed camera detection

Speed camera detection

Speed cameras and red light cameras are a clear revenue grab by municipalities that have cost taxpayers millions. Land Rover and Volvo both a warning system that sounds a beep and flashes an icon in the instrument panel to let drivers know they are approaching one of these cameras. We appreciate that you have our backs, Land Rover and Volvo. Those who don’t drive a vehicle from these brands can also get warnings by pairing their phones with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and running the Waze app.

2013 Honda Accord EX-L

2013 Honda Accord EX-L

Turn signal cameras

Blind-spot monitors and surround-view camera systems are smart features offered by most automakers. Combine the two and you get turn signal cameras. These systems display the view behind the car when the driver activates a turn signal. Honda’s Lane Watch system uses a camera on the passenger side mirror that shows the view behind the car on the center screen when turning right. It also has a button on the turn signal stalk that keeps the camera on to help while parallel parking. Hyundai Motor Company’s system works on both sides and displays the blind-spot view in the instrument cluster. These systems provide an additional measure of safety when changing lanes.

Hyundai wiper setting alerts

Hyundai wiper setting alerts

Windshield wiper setting indicator

It can be hard to keep track of what windshield washer setting you’ve chosen when the wet stuff starts. Hyundai has a cool feature to help in some vehicles. When a driver changes the washer setting, an icon pops up in the instrument cluster to indicate the current setting. It stays up for a couple seconds then disappears, and it’s a good way to help drivers remember which direction to turn the stalk to raise or lower the speed. It’s a small, but thoughtful feature.

BMW seat heating distribution

BMW seat heating distribution

Heated seat backs

Seat heaters are great in winter…for about 10 minutes. Then they get too hot and start to heat up the ol’ undercarriage. I don’t want my biscuits to burn, so I’m not a fan of the typical seat heaters that heat both the seat back and bottom. However, seat heaters that warm only the back can be a boon for people with back pain while also preventing prickly heat on our bottoms. GMC and BMW offer heating for the front seat bottoms or seat backs or both. That’s a perfect solution that more automakers should adopt.

2019 Audi E-Tron Apple CarPlay

2019 Audi E-Tron Apple CarPlay

Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

Automotive infotainment interfaces vary by automaker and sometimes within a brand. Some are intuitive and others frustrate. However, we’re all used to how our phones operate, so importing those interfaces onto vehicle screens makes sense, thus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Most systems are connected via a phone cord, which means you have to remember your cord every time you get in the car and risk the possibility of someone stealing it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve left the house only to run back in to grab a cord. BMW, Ford, and GM offer wireless connections that are doubly useful when the vehicles also have wireless phone charging as CarPlay and Android Auto can drain your battery the more apps you use. Going wireless just makes life easier.

2019 BMW X7

2019 BMW X7

Heated armrests

Heated seats and heated steering wheels are now ubiquitous across the auto industry. Even economy cars offer them. But Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz love us so much that they offer heated armrests, on both the doors and center console. It’s like your car giving you a warm hug. Sometimes these functions are buried deep in a vehicle’s infotainment system, so do some digging to see if your luxury car offers heated armrests.

Bentley open-pore veneer

Bentley open-pore veneer

Open-pore wood

Glossy wood veneer can look great in a car, but it can also look like wallpapered plastic. In nature, wood has a matte, or open-pore, finish, and even when varnished it rarely looks as polished as the wood trim in luxury cars. Open-pore wood always looks like...wood. Used properly, like in the Bentley above or in vehicles from BMW, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, and Rolls-Royce—it evokes an upscale environment that can also be enhanced by…

2019 BMW X7

2019 BMW X7

Crystal shift knobs

Shift knobs can be a surprise-and-delight feature. A substantial feel and positive action improve the driving experience. A good design also dresses up a cabin, and no design is more effective at that than the crystal shift knobs available in Volvo and BMW vehicles. The crystal knob can give a car’s interior the feel of a high-end study with crystal decanters.

2018 Mercedes-Benz S560 4Matic

2018 Mercedes-Benz S560 4Matic

Relaxation systems

A stressful day at work can be exacerbated by the frustrations of rush hour traffic. Some cars are there to help like a friend with a sympathetic ear. When equipped with the optional navigation system, the new Hyundai Sonata has a Nature Sounds program that can play seven calming programs similar to white noise programs used to help people fall asleep. Examples include “Lively Forest” with the sounds of forest animals and “Snowy Village” that includes the sound of footsteps crunching the snow. Mercedes’ Energizing Comfort system goes much further. It uses the climate control, massaging seats (always a wonderful feature), seat heaters and coolers, audio system, ambient lighting, and fragrance system to create seven programs designed to relax or rejuvenate front-seat occupants. BMW has a similar system called Caring Car.

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