If you haven't purchased a car in a number of years, you might think buying new is the only way to experience modern car technology. But if you buy a used car in the two- to three-year "sweet spot," you might be surprised by the technology that is available. For this story, the term "car technology" includes comfort and convenience features (dual-zone climate control), safety tech (blind-spot monitoring) and infotainment (Bluetooth audio).
Car technology has an interesting life cycle in a vehicle. When a car is new, the technology is cutting-edge and adds to the appeal of the new purchase. Carmakers often bundle the features in expensive packages or make them available on higher trim levels, which elevates the price. However, the value of such ample optional content quickly drops and often increases the rate of depreciation, says Joe Spina, director of remarketing for Edmunds.com. That means used car shoppers pay less for car tech than new car shoppers.
However, is used car tech too outdated to even be useful? On cars five years or older, that can certainly be the case, especially regarding navigation systems or electronics interfaces (think touchscreens or knob-screen systems like BMW's iDrive). Yet shoppers looking for certified pre-owned cars or those in the two- to three-year-old range will find technology fairly comparable with what can be found on a new-car lot. There won't be as many cars from which to choose, and improvements certainly could've been made, but we're not exactly talking VHS to Netflix here. Think iPhone 5 to iPhone 6, if there's any difference at all.
With that in mind, here are high-tech features available in a number of used cars today. These features may not have come standard on the car, so carefully check for the options when you test-drive the vehicle.
Adaptive Cruise Control
Did you ever use cruise control and have to cancel it the moment a car gets in your lane? Adaptive cruise control solves that with a sensor that detects a vehicle in front of you and reduces your speed to keep a safe distance without you having to disable the cruise control. This feature is typically found on luxury vehicles or on top-of-the-line trims from non-luxury carmakers.
A back-up camera (also called a rearview camera) displays a live feed from the rear of the vehicle that helps with parking and spotting objects behind you. Newer systems can simulate a top-down, 360-degree view of the car and the objects around you. Back-up cameras have become increasingly standard on a number of vehicles in the past couple years and so can be found in just about every vehicle style and brand (if not always on every trim level), assuming the prior owner chose that option. Back-up cameras will be required standard equipment beginning with the 2018 model year.
Blind-spot monitoring systems use sensors in the front and rear to detect a vehicle just out of the driver's peripheral vision. If a vehicle is in your blind spot and you use your turn signals, an icon will light up in the side mirrors (or occasionally inside the car next to the mirror), letting you know it isn't safe to change lanes. Some systems will beep in addition to lighting up, or change colors to indicate increased proximity to the car in question. Blind-spot monitoring systems are often available as part of a safety package on many midsize sedans and SUVs.
Your old car might have been able to take calls, but newer cars can also play music wirelessly via Bluetooth. Bluetooth audio allows you to listen to music or podcasts from your mobile device without having to worry about wires or whether the car has the right plug. The more advanced systems will let you pause, skip tracks or even display song titles. This feature should be available on any two- to four-year-old car with a Bluetooth connection.
Car apps use an Internet connection or your smartphone to display such information as weather, a point-of-interest search via Google, current headlines or your Pandora stations. The apps present the information on the vehicle's screen, which, in theory, makes it less distracting than glancing down at your phone. These systems are a bit hit or miss in terms of quality, but are a high-tech feature nonetheless and may hold value for some. You can find these car apps on two- and three-year-old vehicles from BMW, Honda, Kia and Toyota. A subscription may be required for some features.
Dual-Zone Climate Control
Dual-zone climate control is the solution for any driver who has ever fought with the passenger over the temperature in the car. The heating and air-conditioning system has individual settings for the driver and passenger. It doesn't exactly scream "high tech," but it is a handy feature to have and will not become outdated like other technologies. Dual-zone climate control has become fairly common, trickling down from luxury vehicles to even the higher trim levels of compact sedans.
Forward-Collision Warning and Auto Braking
A forward-collision warning system measures the speed and distance of your car relative to an object in front of you. If you are approaching too fast, a warning message and a series of lights will flash as a reminder to slow down. This is a great feature to have if the driver is distracted, and it can reduce your chance of colliding with the vehicle in front of you. Beyond the warning, many systems also aid braking or do it for you in the event of inaction. Forward-collision warning is almost always included with adaptive cruise control, but brands like Subaru and Mazda have offered stand-alone systems for several years now, increasing the chances of finding a so-equipped car at a used car dealer.
A head-up display projects a digital readout of the speedometer, navigation directions or radio station onto the windshield of the vehicle. It places the information at eye level, so you don't have to glance down at the gauge cluster or stereo. The technology has been around for a number of years, but it didn't really hit critical mass until recent years. This feature is available throughout the General Motors lineup of brands as well as luxury vehicles from brands such as Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and a few others.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.