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 seat.)

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 in 2003--two 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

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