Remember when Dad would get into his car for work, the family enthusiastically waving good-bye from the driveway? How about the road trips with Mom and Pop leading singalongs, or the I Spy game from the backseat? Whatever happened to those days?
Traffic is what happened.
Dad is now leaving at the crack of dark-thirty while everyone is still asleep, trying to beat rush hour (which is now all day), e-mailing New York from his BlackBerry and calling Chicago from his mobile phone. The kids don't want to spend time traveling in the car when they could still be at home playing video games or downloading music to their iPods. Everyone is grumpy.
Creature comforts in cars used to be stuff like air conditioning and cruise control. But now it's all about bringing the conveniences of home into the car to make for a more pleasant driving experience. Comforts, conveniences and luxuries that can help us multitask or — dare we say — even be relaxed in the bumper-to-bumper world are cropping up in even the most economical vehicles. Plus, can you imagine driving anywhere nowadays without Nemo babysitting the wee ones? Here are our favorites:
1. Satellite Radio
XM or Sirius is available for nearly every make and model of vehicle. The 2007 models in particular are jumping to commercial-free music, talk, sports, comedy, Martha Stewart, Oprah, Stern and even Playboy channels. The high-end brands such as Land Rover, Lexus, Jaguar and Audi naturally have it, but you can also find it in a Suzuki Grand Vitara, Honda Odyssey or Mazda pickup. Kia will offer Sirius as standard equipment in 2009. Just don't look for it in a Dodge Viper.
2. Wireless Communication
In a word: Bluetooth. This is a wireless connection and primarily allows hands-free cell phone use so you can keep both hands on the wheel (and in some states hands-free is the law). Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep pair Bluetooth with UConnect (available on pretty much every vehicle) for voice activation. Notably, UConnect does not require a navigation system, whereas the Bluetooth setups in Acura, Lexus and Toyota vehicles are linked with voice-activated nav systems. GM utilizes Bluetooth on the Cadillac STS/STS-V, but the company's wireless communication is really defined by OnStar, which from a marketing standpoint focuses on safety and security. (On GM vehicles without Bluetooth, OnStar offers hands-free calling, but you must set up a separate phone and number rather than "pairing" your current cell phone.) The Maybach Business Package couples Bluetooth with a dual-port wireless Internet router. Other companies, such as Mazda, will begin to incorporate Bluetooth by next year. Some vehicles are still at the basic level, offering HomeLink communication for opening and closing the garage to save you the hassle of clipping remotes to your visors.
3. Heated and Cooled Cupholders
For many Americans, the invention of the cupholder is like the discovery of fire for the cavemen. We were wowed by the simple-but-ingenious hole (or 13 holes) in our vehicle for everything from juice boxes to 100-ouncers. But cupholders have grown up and graduated to warming and cooling our beverages, too. A couple of automakers will introduce this technology on '07 models, but for now you can find it in the Cadillac Escalade ESV Platinum Edition.
4. DVD/Rear-Seat Entertainment
If you're a parent — or roll with short-attention-span friends — you're familiar with the beauty of this option. Watching movies and playing video games used to be only a minivan characteristic. Sure, the Kia Sedona, Mazda MPV, Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna minivans have onboard entertainment available, but so does nearly any vehicle with a backseat — the Acura MDX, Hummer H2, Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, Porsche Cayenne, Range Rovers, Saab 9-5, Saturn Relay, Scion xB, Subaru B9 Tribeca and Volvo XC90, among them. It's even made its way into pickups, including the Chevy Avalanche. Some vehicles, like GM's minivans, even offer an onboard hard drive so you can store movie files rather than fumbling with DVDs.
5. Advanced Audio
The audio market is advancing like crazy, and cars are reflecting that, with automakers scrambling to include discrete 5.1 surround sound, iPod connectivity, onboard hard drives, MP3 capability and other music options as standard in new vehicles. But it's not just the youth-oriented Honda Element and Scion doing the upgrading. Jaguar runs these audio connections through its DVD entertainment system, and the Mercedes S-Class has a memory card slot for playing music from the home PC. And if you want to talk advanced audio, BMW's Z4 Premium Sound System package is THX-certified — you know, the same one that makes you go deaf in a movie theater.
6. In-Vehicle Cooler
It's not a luxury-vehicle item anymore (say, Maybach's refrigerated compartment with its own compressor, and the BMW 760Li's ability to chill a bottle of wine). Whether it's the glovebox or a compartment within the center console that acts as a cooler, you'll quickly forget the days of having to buy ice and a Styrofoam box. Sure, they have limited storage capacity by nature, but it's all about convenience, folks. The Dodge Caliber calls its cooler the Chill Zone Box, while the Saab 9-3 and 9-5, and Volkswagen Passat, GTI, Jetta and Touareg have cooled gloveboxes. Land Rover's Range Rover Sport and LR3, the Lexus LS 430, and Volvo go the center-console route. And the Chevy Avalanche chills on the sides of its cargo boxes.
From real-time traffic to instant rerouting, you'll never have an excuse to get lost or deal with a Sigalert again. Today's navigation systems run from basic GPS to advanced functions, which range from 3-D (Nissan, Infiniti and soon Porsche, which is working with Google) to electronic logbooks (Porsche) to off-road mapping (Land Rover). Instructions in English, Spanish or French are becoming the norm. Mitsubishi's Galant Ralliart has a hard-drive system that stores maps — as well as music files, of course. In some cases, the navigation system is the epicenter of the vehicle, not only of where you are, but also the climate controls, the mobile phone and the audio system.
8. Table Onboard
The modern tailgate party? Drag out the table and put on the tablecloth and candles. The Honda CR-V and Chevy Malibu Maxx each have one, while it's an available accessory for the Chevy Equinox and Pontiac Torrent. The Volvo wagons and XC90 SUV can get it from the dealership, and the Jaguar XJ-Series Super V8 and Super V8 Portfolio have picnic trays that fold down from the front seatbacks.
9. Do-It-All Seats (Heat, Cool, Recline, and Mmmm Massage)
What can we say? On a cold day, you want to be warm. On a hot day, you don't want to tear your skin off the seat. And on any given Sunday (or Monday through Saturday), you welcome a massage. Heated car seats are pretty popular, popping up in multiple models from Acura, Buick, the Chrysler Group (including the cloth-seat Dodge Dakota), Ford, GM, Honda, Infiniti, Kia, Mazda, Mini, Porsche, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen well, you get the picture. If it has tires, it probably has heated seats no matter what its price range, and that could be front, rear or both. Adding the cooling feature are some models in the Audi, BMW, Buick, Infiniti and Lexus lineups, while giving that little extra something in the form of a rubdown are the Audi A8 and Lexus LS 430. Additionally, Mercedes-Benz offers Drive Dynamic seats that in addition to their massaging capabilities, actively adjust to hold you snug during fast cornering. Reclining rear seats are also showing up in some models, including the Audi Q7, Chrysler Group, Lexus LS and Scion tC.
10. Keyless Ignitions Systems and Remote Start
This is the next best thing to having a servant. Or a personal robot. You can use the key fob to start your vehicle, or crank up the A/C or heater to bring the interior to a desirable temperature before you get in. Heck, it might even de-ice your windshield for you. Most convenient of all, you never have to take the key out of your pocket or purse to start up the vehicle. The Acura RL, and some Chrysler, Ford, GM, Toyota, a Subaru, and Volvos offer this technology from the factory or as a dealer-installed accessory. Additionally, the BMW 5, 6 and 7 Series and M5 all use engine heat to warm the interior for 16 minutes after the engine has been shut off. Many high-end European cars will also activate the climate control system to cool down the cabin when you leave your car in a hot, sunny parking lot.