Here's a handy guide to some of the do’s and don’ts of new car optioning.
Buying a new car can be a daunting experience, from the pushy sales person to the sheer range of options out there, you may end up wishing that you had just stuck with your old beater after a few hours of negotiating some of the purchasing hurdles. Once you have settled on the make and general model you may assume that the job is basically done, all that remains is to sign the lease and get behind the wheel, right? Not quite. Today even the most basic form of transport comes with an array of available extras that require further consideration.
Unless you are planning to go with the kitchen sink trim and just tick everything on the list, you will need to assess exactly which extras will be worth the additional outlay. Some manufacturers offer packages that combine a number of extras, which can be more cost effective than choosing each item individually. Although you may be forced to choose a higher trim level to access the more desirable features. Happily, we have made that job a little bit easier with a handy guide to some of the do's and don'ts of new car optioning.
Powerful engines consume more fuel so don't just go for the big V8 without sampling the rest of the offerings. Modern small capacity turbocharged engines can provide a good balance of power and efficiency although they tend to sound uninspiring so you may still want that big V6 or V8 for your sports car. A switchable sports exhaust is a nice addition too. Hybrid drivetrains are now an option on a lot of vehicles and the additional cost over a conventional gasoline engine may only be recouped if the majority of your commute can take advantage of the electric-only driving mode.
The added complexity of such a drivetrain may mean steeper maintenance costs down the line and continually improving technology in this arena can affect residuals come resale time. Americans may be known for favoring automatic transmissions over a manual gearbox but the choice really comes down to what you will be doing with your car. An unobtrusive CVT or conventional automatic transmission is fine for the daily grind while a sharp DCT transmission or interactive manual gearbox is preferable if you plan to use your car for some enthusiastic weekend drives up a mountain pass.
All-wheel-drive is a common option on anything from a compact crossover and sports coupe to full-sized SUVs. The additional weight and drag from this type of drivetrain negatively impacts fuel consumption and, depending on the car, may also dampen acceleration (on lower powered cars) and have a negative impact on cornering feel. Unless you specifically need the enhanced grip for slippery road conditions or are planning to venture off-road, it is not an essential option.
Larger wheels can fill out the arches and give any car a more aggressive and purposeful look. They also tend to detrimentally affect the ride quality and the tires will cost more to replace. The compromise makes more sense on a sports car but less so on an SUV. If you really want those big wheels adding adaptive dampers can help keep the ride comfortable over bumpy roads. Body kits and sporty wings may look cool but do little for the cars dynamic abilities. That said the typical convertible or sports coupe shopper will have slightly different priorities to the average minivan buyer, so one man's 20-inch alloys may be another man's heated seats.
Speaking about seats, upgraded seat coverings may be worth it if you are stepping up from a cloth interior to a leather-clad one but even the faux-leather materials nowadays are so good that upgrading to Nappa leather and other fancy coverings is generally not necessary. Carbon-fiber look design accents and fake wood trim are a matter of personal preference but bear in mind that not all color and trim options are equally desirable on the second-hand market. Heated seats can be great on cold days but heated armrests, center consoles and heated headrest are really not necessary.
You may want to consider a heated steering wheel though and a heated windscreen which can make icy winter mornings a much less painful experience. Massaging seats are a bit less of a necessity, few work as advertised unless you are buying a top-level luxury sedan and it is better to spend your money on powered seat controls instead. Make sure that it comes with a memory function as this will allow you to recall your settings after another family member has driven the car. Panoramic sunroofs are generally a pricey option but well worth it for the improved interior light quality and premium feel, while ambient lighting upgrades are nice-to-have's but not vital.
Digital cockpits look great and can be configured to suit the driver's specific needs. The latest large touchscreen infotainment systems also transfer a lot of functions from traditional buttons to a modern digital interface. Neither tend to come cheap and unless you have to have the latest gadgets, are not strictly necessary. Upgraded audio systems can add a big chunk to the base price and most new cars tend to have good quality standard systems anyway. If you are an audiophile then it may make sense, otherwise your money may be better spent elsewhere.
Bigger speakers and large subwoofers can impinge on trunk space depending on the make and model of car too. Navigation systems tend to be integrated in more premium vehicles but they remain a pricey option on many cars and seeing as your mobile phone has a perfectly functioning navigation system already, opting for a smartphone compatible infotainment system (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) may be a better choice. Rear seat entertainment systems sound like a great idea for those with children but an iPad or mobile phone is just as capable of keeping the kids occupied on longer journeys and will cost a whole lot less too. Rather look for the fitment of LATCH baby seat fixtures or integrated child safety cushions.
Keyless entry systems are great and can also incorporate hands-free tailgate activation, remote start functions and are in general a worthy box to tick regardless of the intended use of the vehicle.
While a brace of airbags, traction control and ABS were about as much passive and active safety as we could get a few years ago, things have taken a big leap forward in this segment in recent years. LED headlights, forward collision mitigation and lane departure warning systems are all worthy investments in the name of safety but be sure to try out some of the autonomous driving aids first as not all work as seamlessly as advertised.
Many safety systems tend to come bundled in packages so you may not have the luxury of picking the ones that you need but the ones to look out for are adaptive cruise control (great for both city and highway driving), parking assistance and the aforementioned collision warning system. A head up display can be a useful safety feature and most modern systems display speed limit warnings and other useful information so that you do not have to take your eyes off the road ahead. You can give night vision and autonomous driving systems (current systems require you to have your hands hovering over the steering wheel) a skip as they are more a of a gimmick than something you will be using on a regular basis.
The same goes for voice activation, unless you have tried it out first you may be disappointed in the hit and miss nature of these systems. The vehicle purchasing process can be made that much more pleasurable when you are armed with some information that empowers you to make the right choice for your specific needs. Where possible try out the optional extras that you are interested in, keep in mind the role your new car will be fulfilling too as many expensive features may turn out to be unnecessary expenses.