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Weigh the options before deciding which features to spring for on a new car

"Did I really need this?" a friend asked, pointing at a copy of the window sticker of her new car. She was indicating one of a long list of options that came on the vehicle. • Technically, no, I tell her, because the base-model car has all the basics — tires, wheels, engine — and everything else is gravy. But I get this question a lot: "Do I really need to buy this option?"

There are quite a few features I'm willing to pay extra for, and even more that I won't. We'll get to those in a moment, but first, a word from your automotive editor: When you are buying a vehicle, be sure to compare apples to apples.

Example: The cheapest Hyundai Accent model starts at $9,970, while the cheapest model of the similar Toyota Yaris starts at $12,205. So the Hyundai is more than $2,000 cheaper? Look at the fine print: The Yaris comes with air conditioning, and the Accent doesn't.

And even if you think you really don't need air conditioning, the vast majority of the car-buying public disagrees, so when you go to sell or trade in your air-conditioning-less car, it will be worth so much less that you could have had air conditioning all along, essentially for free.

So the Yaris with air starts at $12,205, and the cheapest Hyundai Accent with air is $12,670. Now, which one is cheaper?

Automakers have not made this easy these past 20 years: At one time, on all but the top models, most everything was optional. Then came companies such as Acura, which pioneered everything's-included pricing: On many models, aside from color, you've had two choices in an Acura: with a navigation system, or without. Period.

Comparing that car with a vehicle from a manufacturer that still uses buffet-style pricing takes some scrutiny, and that can be hard to do with a hungry salesman breathing down your neck. But do it anyway.

Features worth getting

Safety equipment. Extra airbags? Bring 'em on. I want antilock brakes, and I want stability control (you have to have antilock brakes to get stability control, by the way). Again, on some models all this is standard, on some it's optional, but I want it.

Cruise control. I actually consider cruise control a safety feature. Using it on trips removes maintaining a reasonable speed from the duties a driver must handle, leaving a little more mental hard-drive space to deal with a crisis. Disagree if you want, but I like cruise control.

Automatic transmission. I still prefer a manual in a few select sporty cars, such as the Mazda MX-5 Miata, but modern automatics are so good that I prefer them in a commuter vehicle. The days of substantial fuel savings from a manual are over, too. Many automatics get better mileage than a manual.

Satellite radio. I still listen to a lot of local radio, but most everyone I know who has been exposed to Sirius or XM becomes an addict.

Features not worth getting

Navigation system. I like them and enjoy using them on test vehicles, but the aftermarket plug-in units have gotten so good that if I really needed electronic directions, I couldn't justify paying $2,000 for a factory nav system, when I can get a good one for $200.

Dealer add-ons. Feel free to pay extra for pinstriping, undercoating, fabric protection and extra warranties if you want to, but I typically don't. And if I do — such as getting a bed liner for a pickup — I'm only willing to pay roughly what it would cost from an aftermarket store.

Premium paint. I love the yellow paint offered on the Nissan 370Z, but it's an extra $500, when every other color is included in the base price. Do I love it $500 worth? No.

Bigger engines. I enjoy horsepower, but virtually every vehicle offered today makes all the power you need with the smallest, least-expensive engine available. I can't recall the last time I had trouble merging onto the expressway. This does not apply to truck or SUV customers who need to tow, or to fans of diesel engines.

Steven Cole Smith is automotive editor of the Orlando Sentinel.

Weigh the options before deciding which features to spring for on a new car 03/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009 8:06am]
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