Thursday, January 1, 2009

Top 10: Useful Car Gadgets

No.10 - Starlight headlining

Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe



When one parts with at least $400,000 to acquire Rolls-Royce’s new Phantom Coupe, one would expect the very finest appointments throughout. How mood lighting fits into this and can be considered a useful car gadget, it’s tough to quantify; it’s just ironically cool and marginally useful. Fiber-optic LEDs -- 1,600 of them -- are hand-fixed to the headliner and can be adjusted for brightness as needs and/or vanity dictate.

No.9 - Chrono Package

Porsche 911



No.8 - iDrive

BMW



Before you launch into vitriolic commentary and lose control of key bodily functions, consider this: BMW’s original version of iDrive was a pain, no question about it. We’re not talking about that old Windows-based nonsense. A few versions later, the most recent iteration of iDrive really does qualify as a useful car gadget. As you’ll see in the new 7-Series, the system is now far easier to navigate and is also surrounded by a few buttons for faster access to key info. And even with the controller, functions and stats are easier to find than ever before.

No.7 - Sirius Backseat TV

Dodge Grand Caravan



In the previous feature, we picked on the Caravan for its awkward sporting pretenses via the manual shift control of its automatic. That’s easily ignored when the kids glaze over and zombify to the Sirius Backseat TV feature. This useful car gadget option for the Grand Caravan (and a handful of other MOPARS) delivers live broadcasts of Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. On the downside, no sports channels are included, so you and your tailgating buddies will have to suffer… Unless you’re big Dora the Explorer fans.

No.6 - Manettino

Ferrari 430 Scuderia



The capability of the garden-variety Ferrari F430 has been upped with the 430 Scuderia and the inclusion of Manettino. It’s a multifunction system on the steering wheel that optimizes vehicle settings and performance -- not so far removed from those on the factory’s F1 cars. Set the controls to Sport mode and you’ll enjoy honed responses that’ll inspire confidence. Set it to Race mode and you’d better hope there’s skill to back that confidence up, because you’ll be unleashing everything the Scuderia has -- the kind of stuff that lets it lap Fiorano as quickly as an Enzo.

No.5 - Naim Audio System

Bentley Azure



Forget the driving experience of the HMS Bentley Azure; honestly, it’s rather bland. Yet there is still one reason you must sample this car, and it’s the Naim Audio System. Is it a useful car gadget? If you appreciate audio, and plenty of it, that’s not even a question worth pondering. The Naim package stands as the most powerful audio system to be fitted as original equipment in a car. It works out to 1,100 watts with a 13.2 channel amp, 11 speakers and two subs.

No.4 - SI-Drive

Subaru



There’s good, and then there’s better. Subaru already has overachieving all-wheel drive standard on its models, but this system lets you set distinct response patterns for your throttle and transmission. So, no, this is not Subaru’s answer to BMW’s iDrive. It’s a multimode system for six-cylinder and turbocharged Legacy and Outback models. Based on conditions, your driving environment or even your mood; you can opt for smoother, more fuel-efficient operation or let it all hang out with WRX STI-like sharpness. That’s minus the WRX’s polarizing looks, of course.

No.3 - Night Vision

BMW 5-Series



This isn’t the first adaptation of night vision in a production car (Remember Cadillac’s so-so effort with the Deville?), but this useful car gadget is exceptionally refined. You can keep your 5-Series from going bump with things in the night via the nav system monitor. Through a front-mounted infrared camera, BMW's Night Vision displays animals, people and whatever else is in the way over 300 yards ahead, and does so with far better definition and clarity than we’ve seen in other efforts.

No.2 - Personal Car Communicator

Volvo S80



Keyless drive systems are still mostly reserved for luxury cars, and even on their own, they easily qualify as useful car gadgets. However, what about one that can also keep you out of danger? Sadly, it’s a necessity of life for men and women to be aware of what lurks around us -- or even lies in wait inside our cars. To the latter point, Volvo has a typically ingenious solution: a heartbeat sensor built into the Personal Car Communicator keyless drive fob. So you'll be fully aware of any awaiting dangers in your car before you even get near it.

No.1 - OnStar

GM



For all of General Motors’ miscues, they certainly got it right with OnStar. The factory-installed useful car gadget that was once a novelty is now commonplace throughout the model lines from Cobalts to Cadillacs. And while you can become a little too reliant on it for turn-by-turn navigation and hands-free calling, some real safety benefits are worth noting too. Besides the ability to track vehicle diagnostics, OnStar can activate automatically in the event of a crash and even remotely slow stolen vehicles to a crawl when conditions allow.

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