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Looking to buy a new car? A lot has changed

Thinking of buying a new car? A lot has changed since you were last in a showroom.

Published November 15, 2012

If you’re thinking of buying a new car, the odds are your existing car is seven or eight years old. And if so, a lot has changed since you were last in a showroom.

Safety

Cars generally grow a little stronger and a little more rigid with every new model and revised generation, thanks to the development of new materials such as stronger steel and better construction techniques.

All cars now incorporate some level of computerization, and software helps maximize driver control. Under Canadian law, every vehicle manufactured since Sept. 1, 2011, must include Electronic Stability Control (ESC), in which sensors detect if the car’s steering matches its direction of travel. When they detect the car is sliding, one or more of the brakes will be activated, or power will be cut to the engine, or both, to set it back on course. ESC first began to be introduced in 2007 models.

It is not compulsory for Canadian cars to be equipped with an Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), but almost all are. ABS was becoming common eight years ago, but it’s come a long way since — many systems are now in their third or fourth generations and work more effectively under all conditions to control locked-up wheels, allowing drivers to steer through skids.

If the worst does happen, there are far more airbags now in the average car than there ever used to be. Eight years ago, affordable cars had just two or maybe four airbags; now side airbags are common and most cars are equipped with at least six bags and often more — the tiny Scion iQ has 11.

Communication

It was only a few years ago that cars still came with cassette decks — now, it’s the CD player that’s threatened. The Chevy Spark doesn’t even offer a CD player, since the young driver it’s aimed at probably relies on a smart phone or iPod for music.

Pretty much every car comes with a satellite radio connection that you can choose to subscribe to. Each manufacturer has a contract with either XM or Sirius to provide their channels and usually offers a few months of listening for free, but once the trial subscription runs out, it’ll cost you a monthly fee to keep listening.

Most cars also now come with a USB port to charge the driver’s phone and to play music from the driver’s personal device. Auxiliary sockets are standard for connecting music players, but many drivers now prefer to just do everything wirelessly through a Bluetooth connection. Once paired, you can forget about it and set the audio input to Bluetooth whenever you want to listen to your own music, coming from the player in your pocket.

Bluetooth is essential for hands-free phone calls, too, since it’s now illegal in most parts of North America to hold a phone while having a phone conversation. Most cars offer Bluetooth as at least an option. Some makes, such as BMW and Acura, even offer a system through which your tweets and text messages can be read out loud to you by a computer voice as you drive, and you can reply with automatic messages that tell the sender that you’re driving and will reply soon.

Comfort and convenience

Navigation systems are generally clearer and simpler than they used to be, and less costly. Mapping programs are no longer pre-installed but usually delivered on a DVD that is updated annually. Ford and Nissan were among the first to connect their GPS systems to automatic traffic updates, so that the onscreen map will show you where traffic ahead is congested and suggest alternative routes.

Many makers now use recycled materials in their cars’ cabins, such as soybean foam in the seats. In turn, this has helped reduce the “new-car smell” that came with a car fresh from the showroom — that smell was the result of chemicals used in the materials’ manufacture that aren’t relied on anymore.

Reliability

Don’t expect to visit the dealership as often as you used to for scheduled maintenance. Oil changes are generally further apart than they used to be: most makers of “regular” cars (i.e. not high performance) now recommend oil changes every 8,000 km, while some stretch it to twice that. This is thanks to better engines and better oils. However, the old advice to change your filter with every second oil change no longer holds; filters are smaller than they used to be, and should really be replaced at every oil change to be most effective.

Don’t bother changing the transmission fluid on many automatic gearboxes, though, or even checking its level. Makers such as Hyundai and Toyota now have sealed transmissions that don’t require any maintenance at all.

Similarly, don’t expect the big service bill for changing the timing belt — most cars now use non-stretch timing chains.

Performance

Sure, sports cars are even quicker and better handling than before but the buzzword these days is “green,” as in fuel economy and tailpipe emissions. Even Lamborghinis and Ferraris tout their improved fuel consumption each year, thanks to constant technological development and the use of lighter materials such as aluminum and carbon fibre.

Engines and Drivetrain

Eight years ago, everything was powered by either gas or dirty diesel. There were a couple of hybrids — the second generation Toyota Prius and the original Honda Insight — but that was all. These days, plenty of regular gas-powered cars get fuel economy that is at least as good as those hybrids offered.

Now, many models are offered with not only a hybrid option — in which the gas engine is assisted by an electric motor to reduce the consumption of gas — but sometimes an “eco” option as well, in which the engine is retuned and various other adjustments are made to reduce the need for speed and improve fuel economy.

As well, diesels are now more common and more popular, thanks to the use of cleaner fuel and the better combination of performance and economy they now offer.

It’s one thing for the engine to perform efficiently, but it’s also essential for the transmission to move power to the wheels. Eight years ago, automatic transmissions usually held four or five gears, but now five gears are standard and six gears are common. Many premium cars even have seven or eight gears.

Other makers have dispensed with gears altogether, improving the Continuously Variable Transmissions that used to be cursed for their whine and lack of feel. Nissan, for example, makes a CVT that delivers better fuel economy while drivers may never realize they’re driving a car equipped with belts and not gear cogs.

Tires

Of all the changes mentioned so far, perhaps it’s your car’s tires that have literally come the furthest. Improved rubber compounds developed by chemists in laboratories mean that tires last longer than ever before; some now come with a warranty that guarantees up to 130,000 kilometres of use.

Now, though, the chemists are all working toward better fuel economy from tires. Bridgestone, for example, has made a corporate commitment to reduce gas consumption by 25 per cent from 2005 standards by 2020. Hybrid and “eco” cars are usually equipped with more expensive low-rolling resistance tires that reduce friction on the road while having little impact on adhesion and performance.

Similarly, winter tires are now made from improved compounds that permit traction on ice and in snow that was unheard of just a few years ago. Like the rest of the car, they’ve come a long way in a very short time.

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