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Holiday wish list must-haves: Part III

Here's what the car experts at Consumer Reports want for the holidays

Published: December 2012

The experts at Consumer Reports test and write about hundreds of products each year, including coffeemakers and 3D TVs, mowers and refrigerators, treadmills and toilets and much more. Given their hands-on experience in the labs, we asked our technicians and editors what they covet for the holidays, putting price and practicality aside.

This week: Cars. Next week: Health. Previously: Electronic gizmos and gadgets and appliances and home.


Liza Barth, Web Associate Editor, Cars
My family-friendly holiday wish for cars

Living with Consumer Reports’ test cars gives me a chance to evaluate them in the real world. As a mom with two young children, I need to put in car seats twice a week through our routine rotations. As I switch from car to car, there are plenty of wishes I would like carmakers to address to make vehicles more family friendly. At the top of my list:

More accessible rear seat buckles and wider seats to accommodate car seats. My 6-year-old is in a booster and in certain cars the seats aren’t wide enough for the booster to sit flat, or it’s too wide for the space, overlapping the seat belt. Many times my son can’t buckle the seat belt himself because he can’t access it. I find this particularly true of Fords no matter what the vehicle size. I wish for wider rear seats to accommodate child seats.

Reachable LATCH anchor points. Studies find that most parents do not install car seats properly, risking serious consequences in a crash. And while LATCH was introduced 10 years ago to facilitate proper seat installation, I find that it remains a challenging task. Some are deeply recessed and hard to reach or others like the Audi’s sit in a plastic case, which doesn’t work very well with certain latches, like in my Britax car seat. My wish is to have a universally designed LATCH system that is in the same location in all cars.

Rear windows that are low enough for kids to see out. Even in their car seats, if my kids can barely see out their window, it’s challenging to divert their attention from each other. More glass and visibility makes the ride that much more pleasant, so kids don’t feel like they’re caged in. Plus, it makes it easier for the driver to monitor traffic and reverse in parking lots.

Make rear cameras standard. That extra visibility when backing up or parking is an invaluable safety feature. And I’ve found that it saves time, as well. With this technology, I don’t have to get out of my car or open the door to see how far away I am from the curb and I know no one is behind my car. We’re finding it increasingly common on the cars we purchase for testing. In particular, I applaud Honda for making it standard on their new cars.

Jeff Bartlett, Deputy Editor Online, Cars
No boring cars on my wish list

Increasingly, I’m realizing that unlike my commute, life is short—far too short to suffer boring cars.

My family has two 10-year-old SUVs that were relatively smart purchases back when gas was priced under $2 a gallon, but they are dreadfully dull and out of synch with our current $4-a-gallon reality. As the time draws near to replace one, I’m coming to accept the best choice may be a vehicle that emphasizes fun over pure practicality.

In my final days, I doubt I’ll wish that I had owned a more practical, more boring, and more beige car. When I think back to the cars I’ve owned, those with character stand out, such as the BMW 3 Series, Chevrolet Corvette, and Pontiac Firebird. Those without the elusive fun factor are precious few and utterly forgettable.

In the perpetual “What would I buy?” game that all in my profession play, I keep coming back to a Ford Mustang. It has heart-warming retro-themed styling, entertaining power, decent ride, adequate space, mischievous character, and daresay respectable fuel economy. While my nature would be to go for a V8-powered GT, this decade, the 305-hp V6 provides a great balance of fun and fuel efficiency.

Pricing starts at $22,200 for this flag-waving American icon. The sky is effectively the limit, with a stunning array of options such as a glass roof and history-evoking model variants, such as the Boss 302 and Shelby GT500. For me, the smart money is focused on the low end.

Seriously, what else can you buy for $22,000 that would be as fun?

For those looking to pool their resources to make my driveway dream come true, or looking for a targeted gift suggestion, here’s how I would option it up.

Quarter window louvers ($225), V6 performance package ($1,995) with a strut-tower brace, larger sway bars, unique front springs and brake calipers, 19-inch wheels, performance-oriented stability control, and more aggressive 3.31:1 rear axle ratio.

That’s it.

Grand total: $25,215. My region is currently offering a $1,500 rebate, putting this configuration below $24,000, before negotiating. Oh, yeah, this is a bang-for-the-buck champion.

And to get a truly great deal, negotiate the purchase the week after Christmas. Muscle and sports cars don’t sell well in winter. Throw in the added pressure for month- and year-end sales targets, and the dealership will be most eager during this time.

Another, radically different vehicle that truly tempts me for all the wrong reasons is a Jeep Wrangler. But, I’ve already chronicled my torrid affair with that low-rated, go-anywhere SUV. For now, it is the Mustang that ranks atop my new-car wish list.

Eric Evarts, Senior Associate Editor, Cars
Wishing for a merry Christmas Escape

All I want for Christmas is our new Ford Escape Titanium in its sharp metallic Tuxedo Black paint. I don’t care about the presents underneath the tree. . . .

You see, my Subaru is dying a death by a thousand cuts. Its transmission is a goner. It needs tires. It needs shocks. The driver’s seatbelt is sticky and sometimes won’t release. And to add insult to injury, the local chipmunk population has taken up residence in the ventilation system. Fortunately, I spend most of my time driving Consumer Reports’ test cars. And my favorite this year—my favorite in several years—is the Escape.

It has all my favorite features: a sunroof, seat heaters, cloth and leather seats, and all-wheel-drive, keyless entry, and most impressive, Ford’s capless fuel filler system. With its 2.0-liter engine, it has a 3,500-pound towing capacity for an occasional utility trailer (or more if needed), and a hitch. Even this iteration of MyFord Touch is easier to live with than other applications. The infotainment system has redundant hard buttons for climate controls, reconfigured steering-wheel buttons that give easy access to volume and seek functions, and a center volume knob and rocker dish for seek and incremental tuning.

For my wife, it has all these things plus Sync, which would make it much easier for her to play her podcasts, iTunes, and audiobooks on her frequent long trips for work. It even has satellite radio. It’s capable of gas mileage similar to her old car and burns regular gas. It has a power tailgate. And since she hates parallel parking, our Escape Titanium has Park Assist that will do it for her—brilliant!

All that aside, it seems to me the one thing you do every single time you interact with a car is sit inside it and drive! And that’s where the Escape shines. Its ride and handling are impeccable. With its nimble chassis, tidy size, and turbocharged engine, it tackles the twisty, hilly roads around us with authority few other SUVs can approach. Interior materials are mostly a class above.

No car is perfect. The on-screen buttons in MyFord Touch are still too small. The power tailgate is slo-o-o-o-w.  The navigation system has led us astray. Visibility is barely adequate. And I’d like more cargo space. But all that said, the Escape is about as close for me as modern cars come.

Oh, I don’t want a lot for Christmas; This is all I’m asking for. I just want to see (this Titanium) baby, standing right outside my door (in my driveway).

Gordon Hard, Senior Editor, Cars
If I could wish away automotive annoyances

Most cars are designed for selfish people: People who don’t look back, don’t back up, and don’t care if their friends are happy. Well, maybe the people who actually buy cars aren’t that way. But designers seem to believe that car owners are thin-skinned, insecure monomaniacs. Thus, the abundance of showy, look-at-me metallic trim vehicles and inherent contempt for every occupant who is not the driver. Some particular automotive annoyances I would like to wish away this year:

The falling roof. Raked roofs nearly always crimp rear headroom and inhibit the driver’s rear view, making it tougher to change lanes or park. The design idea is to make every sedan and most SUVs look more like a coupe. Sexy. Sleek. Desirable. The fact that almost nobody buys coupes anymore seems to be beside the point.

Lousy rear seats. The typical sedan’s rear bench seat is a low, short shelf with a hump in the middle whose sole purpose seems to be humiliating a center-seat passenger. Rear-seat occupants are also assumed to have no feet, or very small ones. If you wear adult-sized shoes you must tuck your toes beneath the seat ahead and hope the front occupant makes no sudden moves. One of the worst toe-crunchers is the brand-new Cadillac ATS.

Under-thought trunk and cargo features. Everybody has to haul stuff in the car sometimes. That’s one of the big reasons people buy a car. And yet in many cars, the trunk opening is small. Too small.

Every car needs (but many lack) a big, wide cargo pass-through and rear seatbacks that fold flat. The now-common 60/40 split rear seatbacks are a good start, but seatbacks should release easily—many require an awkward reach-around—and fold completely flat. Not a ramp, not a whack-a-mole course, but a flat load floor extending from the rear bumper to the front seatbacks. It would be good if a sedan’s front passenger seatback folded forward and flat as well. Aside from those in some Volvos, very few do.

Rik Paul, Editor, Cars
An in-car infotainment system that makes me smile, rather than wince

This year, I would like an in-car infotainment system that makes me smile, rather than wince.

Automakers’ frantic scramble to develop the latest in-dash electronics reminds me of the Oklahoma land rush. But instead of wildly galloping horses and rumbling covered wagons, with settlers trying to stake their claims in the dusty prairie, the auto manufacturers are trying to one-up each other with ever-more feature-packed systems and high-tech control systems. 

The concept is appealing. Most new models now let you plug in a portable music player—through a mini-plug, USB port, or iPod connector—to play tunes through the car’s audio system (and, let’s face it, no over-the-air radio station is a match for our favorite playlists). Sometimes you can even control the player through buttons mounted on the steering wheel. The latest infotainment systems let you stream content, via Bluetooth or hard wire, from your smart phone to apps in the car’s in-dash display, so you can listen to Pandora, search for the lowest gas prices, access weather reports, check sports scores, and way more. Who wouldn’t want that convenience?

The problem is that in the all-out scramble to offer the latest high-tech features (after all, no automaker wants its cars to be dismissed as “so-o-o 2010”), few systems have really been well thought through. Some use touch screens with small, hard-to-use buttons and slow responsiveness. Others force you to use a joy-stick-like multifunction controller that requires a K2-steep learning curve. And far too many make you wade through multiple screens and complex menus, even to perform basic functions. All of this can make you take your eyes—and mind—off of the road for longer than necessary, which contributes to the growing epidemic of distracted driving.

Yes, the systems probably get great oohs and aahs in the design lab. But too often it seems as if the development guys have left one important variable out of the algorithm: the driver.

So, this year I’m wishing for a feature-rich infotainment system that makes it easy to listen to portable music--Pandora, Spotify, whatever--while I’m driving, but disables any extracurricular apps that I might be tempted to browse or dwell on when I should be watching for the next unexpected event on the road in front of me. And when stopped, it would let me check weather maps on those hit-or-miss days of “intermittent thunder storms,” search and plot a route to the gas station with the two-cents-per-gallon lower prices, check the results of my favorite sports teams (when I’m brave enough), and turn off the seat heater without diving five menus deep into an M. C. Escher-like control system.

Is that too much to ask for?

Jim Travers, Associate Editor, Cars
Holiday wish fulfillment in a Porsche Boxster

This might just be the best holiday season ever if I woke up to find a new Porsche Boxster under my holiday tree, even if that meant having to sleep outside due to space and environmental concerns.

In an age of cars designed more to cocoon drivers in their own little world rather than put them in touch with their surroundings, the Boxster puts you right there, top down with all the sights, sounds, and smells, for better or worse. Even the most devoted video game fan might discover the appeal of reality if somebody slipped them the keys.  

The Porsche two-seater is kind of like the traditional British and European sports cars I grew up with, only less rusty and prone to frequent breakage. The Boxster has similarly direct steering with plenty of feedback, along with terrific handling and excellent brakes. Only everything is better than I remember from the various beater sports cars of my youth, and the fun-to-drive factor is off the charts.

Another bonus: Not only does the electrical system continue to function and not shut down the fun like the electrics in my old MGB at the slightest hint of a shower, you can even raise or lower the power top in the Boxster at speeds up to 30 mph when it does start to rain. That not only makes it easier to avoid getting caught in the rain, it means today’s attention-span-challenged driver can put the top up or down on impulse.

Compared to those old top-down classics, the Boxster is a much safer car whether moving or stopped, with the latest assortment of air bags, ESC, and other important safety features.

But ultimately, it is the overall refinement and sublime driving dynamics that have visions of this redesigned roadster dancing like sugar plums in my head.

   

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