Oh, Say Can You See ... Your Car’s DVD?
There are plenty of in-car gadgets these days. The question is how many
we really need.
by Thomas Ryll
A few weeks back, a buddy induced his two kids to go along on a family trip to the
Southwest by allowing them to bring their cell phones. After all was seen and done, his
wife presented him with a weren’t-you-a-sucker laugh and a phone bill enhanced by $385
worth of road-trip calls. And you know the national-security-level conversations, beamed
up to satellite and back home at 65 cents a minute, that took place:
Teen: “What are you doing?”
Teen’s friend: “Oh, not much. What are you doing?”
Teen: “Oh, not much. Driving through some boring canyon.”
I’m of a vintage where kids were pampered by allowing a bicycle or family dog along on
a 1960s vacation. (It wasn’t until years later, while in my 20s, that I realized our vicious
dachshund should have been run over by our 1958 Pontiac station wagon, not hauled by
it.) I can also remember how we shut wet towels in the Pontiac’s doors in an attempt to
air-condition ourselves on 100-degree days in Idaho.
There probably are teenagers, and even adults, who will consent to a long trip without a
cell phone these days. There can’t be many people who would travel without air-
conditioning. I know I wouldn’t. After sixteen years of test-driving new cars, I’ve seen
the advent of systems that heat and cool an automobile’s seats. GPS-supported navigation
equipment. Multi-disc CD players. (Remember when six-CD players had to go in the
trunk instead of the dash? How yesterday.)
In a 12-week period late last year, I test-drove no fewer than six media-fleet vehicles
equipped with rear-sear DVD systems. The choices reached their zenith in the $50,000
Volvo S80 T6, with its seven-inch LCD screens in the back of each front-seat headrest.
And TWO living-room-style remote controls, one for the DVD system, the other for the
dash-mounted nav system—as if it were a long way from the driver.
I saw my first such entertainment system in 1999, in the form of what now is crude: a
factory-supplied videocassette player and non-LCD screen in a minivan. How far we
have come. Or, how far we have slid. In 1988 the $52,000 Mercedes 300CE had only one
outside power mirror; the left-side mirror was operated by a manual flipper, just like a
few bottom-feeder cars today. The $54,000 1993 BMW 740i didn’t even have a
cupholder. (In fairness to just about everybody else, both those omissions were notable
even at the time. The Germans had this thing about not coddling the driver back then, but
they’ve gotten over it. Trust me. You can get back massagers in a Mercedes S-Class
So how much of this stuff do we really need? After a recent weeklong drive of an Acura
MDX and its RV-style backup camera—with a color image, no less—the device went
from highly unnecessary novelty to a can’t-do-without-it feature, with a usefulness just
shy of the gas pedal’s. The Lincoln LS I test drove in early September was a pretty sweet
ride, as well it should be for $45,000. The 280-horse V-8 provided right-now
acceleration, the ride was comfortable and so was the interior, if a bit snug. Then there
were the gadgets. A nav system. A motorized pedal assembly, first seen in Ford SUVs a
couple years back, with back-and-forth movement that accommodates the tallest and
shortest drivers. And there’s no arguing that the LS’s electronic parking brake is more
than a curiosity: this credit-card-sized flipper sets the brake with a one-finger tug.
Problem: Consumer Reports says the LS is one of the highest-ranked cars in its class, but
CR won’t recommend the Lincoln because reliability has been much worse than average.
That’s the dark side to automotive gizmos: Whether this elaborate gear will prove to be
dependable. The trade paper Automotive News reported in September that Mercedes-Benz
was forced to buy back 2,000 of the latest US-market E-Class sedans because of
problems with Comand, the company’s integrated nav/entertainment/climate control
system. That’s insult to injury: Comand has been infuriatingly non-intuitive and clumsy
to operate since the outset, and now it’s apparently unreliable. Worse yet, Mercedes’
initial quality rankings by J.D. Power dove from fifth in 1997 to 15th
notches below Chevrolet. Automotive News reported that Mercedes execs say troubles
with increasingly complex electronics are forcing the company to take a more measured
approach to the introduction of leading-edge gadgetry.
Then there’s the even more disturbing notion that for all of the sophistication in today’s
vehicles, some manufacturers haven’t yet learned how to get the basics right.
My 1995 Dodge Caravan is an appalling case in point. After just 117,000 miles, it’s on its
third transmission. The second failed after only a few months. (Hardly unusual, as it turns
out. These failures are epidemic in ‘90s Chrysler minivans, and I have a friend whose
second transmission failed the DAY it was installed by the dealer.) Meanwhile, the
factory paint on my Caravan is peeling like an overexposed sunbather. The interior is
self-destructing at an alarming rate; what isn’t breaking is squeaking or rattling. So far an
ashtray, the cupholder, a cubbyhole latch and the plastic brake-release handle—you
would think this piece, if nothing else, would be sturdy—have all failed. Various trim
pieces are coming loose faster than I can reattach them. One of the motors that activates a
rear wing-window functions when it damn well feels like it, as does the power-release
mechanism for the sliding door.
The only consolation in all this is that I was able to buy the thing earlier this year from a
colleague for a song: $3,000, owing to its advanced state of factory-induced premature
deterioration. That’s little more than 10 percent of its price when new. Will the gadget-
stuffed $80,000 car you buy tomorrow be worth just $8,000 in eight years?
But how nice to look up at the Caravan’s ceiling-mounted console and see the digital
display with the outside temperature and the direction I’m driving. It still works. For now.
BrainstormNW - Oct 2003