Driver's Seat: Look on the bright side of car features

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I have the privilege of sitting in more new cars in three months than most people will in a couple of years.

Most of the time, that's a blessing, as I get to try out some of the latest features and tell readers what I think of them. And yet, most of the time I sound like the kid in school who whined about everything: The weather, the bus ride in, what the other kids did wrong. Maybe that was me, but I'm grown up now. Stop rolling your eyes at me, Mrs. Passenger Seat.

Over the years I've learned to count my blessings. So I'll save my whining for another column and accentuate the positive, explaining some of the favorite features I've found recently.

"Shiftable" automatics: I was surprised how my references in recent columns about these transmissions led to more than a few questions about how they work. But these are about the best thing to happen on the car scene in a long while.

They've been around since about the turn of the millennium, but people who take care of their cars long-term -- or who, for other reasons, may have an averaged-aged car or older -- may have missed them entirely. (For instance, Mama Driver's Seat has a 1992 Ford Taurus she bought new, and it's probably in nicer shape than the lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat's 2013 Kia Soul.)

When I write about a "shiftable" automatic, I'm also referring to the ShiftTronic or TipTronic transmissions (the brand name varies by automaker), at one time called manumatic.

Drivers can treat them like an automatic, or move the lever to the left or the right (depending, again, on the maker) and move it forward and backward to upshift or downshift. Some have steering wheel-mounted paddles as well.

They sound complicated but they aren't. They allow a family like mine -- where Mr. Driver's Seat is a shifty gearhead and everyone else is a major disappointment who can't drive anything but an automatic -- to have one car that everyone can use and be happy with.

I never would have thought this transmission could match the fun of a clutch, but being able to switch back to automatic mode when the traffic gets heavy is a great relief. It depends how they're engineered, though; some are fun (Kia Soul, Hyundai Accent, anything from Mazda or most of the premium brands) while others are mainly designed for downshifting on hills and whatnot (I'm looking at you, Toyota).

Better ventilation: For years, cars have offered limited ventilation capabilities, especially if a driver needed to run the defroster.

Now in addition to better blends of head, chest and feet, I'm seeing something new popping up in a couple recent vehicles -- a vent in the center of the dashboard. This allows the hottest spot in the vehicle to get some cooling force right at startup. It's been a welcome addition for this long, hot summer.

It first appeared in my lineup on a 2013 Toyota RAV4, and now is front and center in a Fiat 500L. Let's hope all the automakers are becoming a fan of this kind of invention of the "How didn't we think of this before?" variety.

Trip computers: We have the Prius to thank for the real popularization of this development.

Because Toyota wanted people to see how much fuel they were saving in the first generation Prius, the company made this information standard on the hybrid-powered vehicle.

Now I can't remember the last test vehicle I drove that didn't at least offer average and current fuel economy. It's become that much easier for drivers to track how their driving can control fuel consumption.

Non-embarrassing small cars: My 1980 Ford Fiesta was a sad machine. Air conditioning? Those windows roll down. Heater vents? Yeah, there's a tiny one on the dashboard. Radio? AM was an option mine didn't have. Glovebox? I don't think so.

Today, even the tiniest of cars offer an array of features that make them feel luxurious and classy. And almost every one has safety features like ABS, traction control and electronic stability control, though I think those features should be required.

Six digits on the odometer: Electronics, better alloys and better manufacturing techniques have moved cars into a reliability realm that was just almost unheard of 30 years ago. This is part of the reason the average age of cars has risen to almost 11 years.


Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at


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