Dear Car Talk:
In a recent column, you gave some advice on buying a new car. My wife and I are in a similar situation, looking for our first vehicle in about 20 years. We're thinking of a small SUV -- like a Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester or Mazda CX-5. But I'm unsure about the new safety features that just weren't available the last time we were in the market for a car. A rearview camera is a must, but what about the others -- blind-spot alerts, bird's-eye cameras, lane-drift alerts? Which ones are worthwhile, and which will I be kicking myself for spending the bucks on a month from now? Thanks!
-- Mike and Marcia
They're all worth it. A rearview camera is necessary because you can't see out the back of most cars these days. The Forester is a rare exception.
The bird's-eye-view cameras stitch together the views from four cameras -- one on each side of the car -- so it looks like you're watching from above. It makes parking and maneuvering in tight spaces much easier. Blind-spot monitoring is a feature that you won't believe you lived without, once you have it. It'll seem barbaric that we used to wrench our heads all the way around backward while going 65 mph, just to check our side flanks before changing lanes.
Adaptive cruise control maintains a safe distance from the car in front of you while you're using cruise control, slowing down and speeding up as needed.
Lane-departure warning reads the lines on the highway and alerts you, or even nudges the steering wheel, when you accidentally drift out of your lane. I actually enjoy drifting out of my lane, so I find that that feature disrupts my bad-driving pleasure, but it does work very well.
And, perhaps most importantly, the newest technology to filter down to moderately priced cars is pre-collision warning and automatic braking. Those technologies use sensors that keep track of your distance from an object in front of you (a car that's slowed down or stopped, or in some cases a pedestrian), and if you are not slowing down in time, it assumes you're distracted and sets off a warning light and sound. And in the better systems, if you still don't respond right away, it automatically applies the brakes. Pre-collision warning and automatic braking absolutely will save lives and reduce the severity of accidents. Every car should have them.
While it's great that these technologies are filtering down to mid-priced cars, it's unfortunate that you often can get automatic emergency braking only on the highest-end levels of cars -- the versions that come with the heated leather seats and the optional butt-scratchers. So you may end up spending several thousand dollars more than you would have otherwise.
But if you buy a car only once every decade or two, you might as well get the state-of-the-art safety equipment -- especially when it's as effective and life-saving as the stuff that's coming out now.
So get all of it, Mike and Marcia. You won't kick yourself for it. Besides, in a few years, the car will kick you automatically.