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Gimmick or gotta have? Which new car features are worth the cash?

Published November 15, 2012

If it’s been a few years since you shopped for a new vehicle, you may find the broad range of features and options both surprising and perplexing. So which ones are worth considering?

In many respects, the answer is easier than ever, especially when it comes to safety equipment.

No longer do you have to ponder whether ABS and Electronic Stability Control are worth the extra cost, because there is no extra cost. They’re standard equipment on all new vehicles as of last year, thanks to government mandate.

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It’s a similar story for airbags. Multiple airbags are now standard in almost every new vehicle, protecting you not only in frontal collisions but also from side-impacts and, in some cases, rear-end collisions.

But there is a variety of new features, some of which seemed like science fiction as little as a decade ago. Some are standard equipment, but many are extra-cost options.

Among the most useful if you do much highway driving is adaptive cruise control, which automatically adjusts your speed to maintain a minimum space between your vehicle and the one ahead. It may sound like a crutch for the lazy driver, but try it for a while and you’ll wonder how you did without it.

Another popular feature is blind-spot alert, which lets you know if there’s a vehicle close beside you. Ditto for lane-departure warning, which prompts you if your vehicle drifts across a lane marker without the turn-signal activated.

Backup cameras and proximity sensors have been around for a while, but they’re becoming more sophisticated. In some cases, they warn of cross-traffic you may not be able to see, such as when backing out of a parking space.

Even more dramatic, and potentially useful, some systems display a virtual plan view of your vehicle, showing any objects around it that may present a hazard.

Key to such systems are in-car display screens, which used to be limited to navigation functions but now serve as command central for almost every secondary function in the vehicle. They’ve grown dimensionally as well as functionally, with almost all offering touch-screen capability.

Related to those screens is a whole raft of new audio and infotainment technologies and capabilities. Everything from USB and iPod ports to Bluetooth connections for every mobile device you own. Some even offer in-car Internet hotspots.

In most cases, you can control these devices through voice commands, once you’ve learned the protocol. You never again have to be separated from your friends or data.

There are also developments in basic technology, such as the drivetrain. Almost every manufacturer now offers one or more hybrids — increasingly as options on mainstream vehicles rather than stand-alone products, making the transition almost seamless.

Less well-known is micro-hybrid technology, commonly called automatic stop-start, designed to save fuel. Whenever your vehicle stops, such as at a red light or in heavy traffic, the engine shuts off. When you release the brake or touch the accelerator, it starts again. It’s highly effective, especially in city driving, where it offers the biggest bang for the buck.

There’s a growing trend toward smaller engines — to save fuel in normal driving conditions — augmented by turbochargers to provide the extra power you need for merging, passing or hill-climbing.

Transmissions are playing a greater role in fuel economy, with conventional four-speed automatics now almost extinct; five- or six-speeds the new norm, and seven-, eight- and nine-speeds common in higher-end vehicles.

Also more common are CVTs (Continuously Variable Transmissions), which have no fixed gear ratios but constantly vary the speed relationship between engine and transmission to keep the engine operating in its most efficient range.

Safety, infotainment and fuel efficiency are the driving forces behind new technology. Check out what best suits your personal needs before signing on the dotted line.

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