There’s plenty to dislike about some modern cars, but all things considered there’s an awful lot to love, and this list is an exploration of some of the best features in the car industry. From the simple steering wheel and hydraulic steering to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, here are some of our favourite features around.
The 13 best car features
If you’ve ever watched a crash test video you’ll know just how important seatbelts are, which is why they’re sitting front and centre on this list. A world-changing invention, seatbelts were first introduced by Nash in 1949, an option fitted to thousands of cars but one that many customers later asked to be removed by dealerships. Similarly, Ford offered seatbelts from 1955 but estimated that fewer than two per cent of customers actually used them.
It all changed in 1959, however, when Volvo began fitting three-point seatbelts as standard in the 122. The use of seatbelts didn’t become mandatory for all occupants of a car in the USA until 1984, in New York (other states followed suit, with the exception of New Hampshire which to this day does not require the use of a belt), and in the UK until 1991. Volvo including them as standard was a signpost to other manufacturers to take safety more seriously.
There’s a reason why disc brakes are used in road cars and racers alike: they’re effective. Drum brakes, although able to bring you to a stop, are relatively inefficient, not to mention more complicated and prone to overheating. Discs on the other hand are simple and often much more powerful, which is why they sit on this list in the number two spot. The Lanchester Motor Company patented a type of disc brake as early as 1902 and an American company called Crosley had even used them on road cars in 1949, but it was Jaguar in the early 1950s that realised just how useful discs could be, not just on the road but the track too.
It was Stirling Moss who drove a Jaguar XK120 to fourth place at the Goodwood Easter Meeting in 1952, the first time a disc-braked racer had competed, and one year later Jaguar famously triumphed at Le Mans with the similarly equipped C-type. By 1958 discs were optional on Jaguar road cars, while Citroën had introduced discs on the DS in 1955. Now it’s hard to imagine a world without them.
We take three-pedal manual and two-pedal automatic cars for granted. Because in the pioneering days of motoring, when the choice up until that point had been to walk or ride a horse, controlling a car was, by today’s standards, incomprehensively complicated. Some had hand throttles, others a combination of pedals and levers, while others had fixed pedal positions and therefore fixed speeds in each gear.
In a handful of machines the clutch pedal was on the right, and even the Ford Model T, hailed as a motoring pioneer, had a foot brake on the right. The 1914 Stutz Bearcat came close to the modern formula, with a clutch on the left but a central throttle and brake on the right, but it was the Cadillac Type 53 that was the first to feature a clutch, brake and accelerator in that order from left to right. Phew.
Recent developments in interior design have brought the simplicity of the volume dial into sharp focus. The ability to reach across, feel a volume control and simply rotate it left for some peace and quiet and right for some extra decibels of those banging tunes doesn’t sound all that impressive or life changing. But as more and more cars have banished the volume knob in favour of irritating sliding or haptic feedback controls, jumping behind the wheel of something a little older with a proper volume dial makes you wonder why manufacturers have decided to go in different directions just to have something to show off in a brochure.
Another car feature modern automobiles have made us miss is hydraulic steering. While the steering in a Lotus Elise, with no power assistance at all, provides a level of communication 99 per cent of cars could only dream of, a good hydraulic steering system gives both feedback and low-speed usability. Many manufacturers have ditched hydraulic in favour of electric (or in Infiniti’s case fly-by-wire, which proved to be total guesswork), but McLaren hasn’t ditched it yet, and its cars are all the better for it.
Convertibles are great fun. Sure, there have been plenty with the torsional rigidity of a slice of bread, but some are fantastic despite being a little wobbly. A happy middle ground between the soft-top and the tin-top, however, is the folding hard-top. First seen on the Peugeot 402 Eclipse Decapotable in 1935, we’ve seen some truly fantastic solid drop-tops, cars that don’t just offer a little extra protection should the car take a tumble but are stronger and quieter than their fabric-roofed counterparts.
Full-sized spare wheel
Spacesaver wheels are fine to get you away from the side of a busy road, and sometimes – if the stars align – the tyre sealant you can pump into your tyres will get you home. But nothing beats a full-size spare wheel and tyre. Although they take up more space and, unless you have carbon wheels, are a hefty bit of kit to be lugging around all of the time, they allow you to carry on with your journey whatever the distance, and neither your onward speed nor your distance will be affected. Full-size spares for the win.
Heated steering wheels
Some think heated steering wheels are pointless, another unnecessary gimmick and something else to go wrong. In truth, a resident of California is unlikely to need such a system. But in the UK and elsewhere, where the weather can be more than a little chilly at times, a good heated steering wheel is as satisfying to grip as a nice hot mug of tea. The first patent for a heated steering wheel was filed in Japan in 1981 and put into production by Nissan in 1983. We sincerely hope whoever came up with the idea has cosy hands for all time.
Apple CarPlay/Android Auto integration
Many of us got on fine for years with the radio, cassette tapes, CDs and then auxiliary cables. But the integration of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto was a game-changer. CarPlay, introduced in March 2014, and Android Auto that followed a year later meant that drivers would no longer need to use their phone to select the music they wanted but could do so directly with the in-car infotainment screen.
It also meant a user’s mapping app could be displayed on-screen, rather than having to rely on whatever often unreliable in-car sat-nav a car had, and calls and messages could be directed through the car more seamlessly too. Some manufacturers still prefer you to work through their own smartphone pairing systems, and in a handful of vehicles, sadly, it remains a cost option (Apple CarPlay in a Ferrari will set you back £2,400, approximately £2,400 more than it should), but to those companies that include it as standard we are all very grateful.
Traction control off button
This isn’t even because we want to channel our inner Tokyo Drift hooligans at every roundabout. This all boils down to control. Traction and stability controls are there to have your back, to look after you when the unexpected happens and in situations where, skilled behind the wheel though you might be, the sheer shock of a situation might otherwise see you lose control.
There are, however, moments where you maybe want to remove such safety nets, and it is at this moment a simple ‘ESC Off’ button is so joyous. No delving into menus, no pulling fuses, a simple ‘off’ button gives you full control not just when you want to have fun but in situations where traction and stability systems would just get in the way of doing something simple, like getting up and out of a snow-covered driveway.
The steering wheel might seem like an odd feature to include because, well, what cars do you know of that don’t have them? But feature they do, and the reason being is they took off while tillers, thankfully, did not. That’s right, there was a time when car makers thought steering a car as you would a boat was a good idea. The Benz Patent Motorwagen of 1886? It used a tiller. It was in the 1894 Paris-Rouen race that a car with a steering wheel was first seen, the Panhard et Levassor of Alfred Vacheron. Vacheron might have finished in 11th position, but his clever steering device did not go unnoticed, and from there, mercifully, the wheel was king. Although Tesla might be trying to convince the world a yoke is exciting and sensible (to be clear, it is neither), we hope the wheel remains for as long as cars do.
You thought we’d forgotten about ABS, didn’t you? Not a chance. Although there are certainly times where ABS isn’t necessary, and there are many, many ABS systems that are a little too keen to get to work, there’s no denying their importance in the motoring world. Where once a relatively inexperienced driver would fly screeching towards whatever it was they were trying not to hit, ABS means they can throw their foot at the brake pedal and come to a stop while retaining control. Another life-saver? Absolutely.
You know the feeling: you climb into a car that’s been sat in the sun and the seats are seemingly as hot as the sun. Not only are you warm because of the cabin temperature, but you feel like you’re melting in much the same way as the Nazis at the end of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Well of course you’ll open the window and whack on the air conditioning, but the real luxury is winding up the cooled seats. All of a sudden, what feels like thousands of tiny desk fans are blowing sweet, chilled air across your back, behind and legs. The first car with any kind of cooled seat was the 2000 Lincoln Navigator, but today you’ll find them available in everything from a Rolls-Royce to a Kia.
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