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E veryone's different! That's why there are two-door and four-door cars, convertibles and sedans, sport utilities and station wagons, and two-seaters and six-seaters. Differences among vehicles, though, go much deeper than these examples.
       Standard and optional features allow a vehicle to meet your needs and desires--for comfort, convenience, safety, security. Car makers, however, usually introduce neat features on luxury cars first. Remember antilock brakes, air bags, even power seats? Luxury buyers more willingly accept a higher price for amenities their friends' cars don't have. Lower luxury-sales volumes allow manufacturers to gauge real-world reactions without committing to high-volume production.

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So here's a look at new amenities car manufacturers are looking at now:

Security in the car
What happens if your car breaks down on the side of the road, at night, in the rain? Cadillac offers its OnStar communication system optional on all front-drive models. The system uses satellites (yes, way up there!) and cellular phone communications to reassure, protect, and help drivers.
       Roadside aid is available at the touch of a button, with a service vehicle dispatched to the vehicle's location without the occupants having to leave the vehicle or know their exact location. Emergency communications with fire and police departments, stolen vehicle tracking, automatic notification of air bag deployment, and remote door unlocking when an owner locks the keys inside address other problems owners encounter.

One tire pressure warning system constantly checks pressure on all four wheels.        Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln Continental has a similar satellite communications system, called RESCU (Remote Emergency Satellite Communications Unit), with fewer automatic features. Instead, there's also a Personal Security package including special tires that can be driven safely without air pressure for 50 miles, if needed. A tire pressure warning system constantly checks pressure on all four wheels to avert breakdown. Other cars offer similar tires as run-flat or extended mobility. A few other vehicles have low-pressure warning systems only.
       Science fiction? Science fact! Writers described car stuff like this for the turn of the century in science magazines 40 years ago, but we all laughed. The engineers aren't resting, though. In another 40 years, drivers will be laughing at the primitive features we suffered with in 1997.

Dream cars
Not all the slick stuff is in production yet. Automotive designers act a lot like kids at Christmas--they have a long wish list. Every year the newest idea, or concept, cars appear at the biggest American automobile shows--Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York--and then circulate to other automobile shows around the country. Years ago we called concept cars the "cars of the future."
       This year Ford is showing the Mercury MC4, a four-door pillarless sport coupe, as a look down the road. MC4's rear doors work like the third doors on extended cab pickups: You can open these doors only after opening the front doors. Hinged at the rear, they allow good access to the backseats despite their short length for easy opening in tight spaces. Parents and grandparents of small children will be reassured that children, riding in safety in the rear seat, can't exit on their own, unconcerned about dangers close by.

       Instead of conventional rearview and side-view mirrors, the MC4 uses miniature video cameras. The side cameras are in the usual locations at the lower front corner of the side windows. Color LCD display screens for them are at each end of the dashboard. The third rearview is under the trunk-lid spoiler with its screen in the usual center mirror location.
       Cars like the MC4 and the Ford Tremor--a high-performance sport utility vehicle, help manufacturers "gauge public reaction to the possibility of building a production version," according to Dave Velliky, director of Ford's New Concepts Organization.

Comfort at the wheel
Car makers continue to improve air conditioning systems. Popular in Europe for several years, cabin air filters are gaining favor here, too. The filters stop pollen and dust coming through the fresh-air intake. Not enough protection? You also can find cars with a carbon monoxide (CO) sensor in the air conditioning air intake. When the CO level is too high outside the car--say, in heavy traffic--the system switches to recirculation mode. That uses only the air already inside the vehicle until the risk passes.
       On hot days, you can program some systems to exhaust superheated air trapped in the fully closed car while it's parked. Once inside, do the driver and front seat passenger disagree about the temperature setting? Dual temperature controls keep both of them happy.
       Some drivers suffer a long arms-short legs problem that prevents full comfort behind the wheel. An adjustable seat alone puts them too close to the steering wheel or too far from the pedals. A telescoping steering wheel that changes its position solves the problem on 21 models for 1997, only one of them a domestic nameplate.

Cabin air filters stop pollen and dust coming through the fresh-air intake.        Multiple drivers of the same car can save many comfort adjustments into memory for recall at the touch of a button. In some cases, two individually coded keys identify which driver is unlocking the car. Stored preferences include steering effort, favorite radio stations, and seat and mirror positions, including seat position for entry and exit.
       Heated front seats make winter driving comfortable when the driver wears light clothing. If you want to drive without gloves, look for a heated steering wheel, too. Heated door locks prevent them from freezing you out of your car.
       When you're on the road far from home and the weather suddenly changes, worry sets in easily. What radio station should you tune to for a weather report? Instant weather updates are at your fingertips when your in-car stereo has the NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) weather band as well as the usual AM and FM ones.

Safety Improvements
Getting comfortable is only part of winter driving. Keeping the car under control can be a bigger worry. Many new features give passengers almost four-wheel-drive capability without the cost, maintenance, noise, and fuel-economy penalties. Traction control systems either apply the brakes or reduce engine power to a spinning drive wheel. Automatic transmissions with a third-gear start capability desensitize accelerator movements to make the wheels less likely to spin on a slick surface. Dual reverse gears in the transmission add better pedal control when backing up.
       Stability control, though, is the biggest news in automatic driving aids. The system compares what the driver is asking through the steering wheel with how the vehicle is responding. It applies the brake on only one wheel to help prevent a skid. Like antilock brakes, stability control doesn't change the laws of physics and prevent total loss of control. However, these automatic stability systems control a car beyond what the driver alone can do.
Stability control is big news, but it doesn't change the laws of physics and prevent total loss of control.
       Air bag safety continues to improve with the first generation of occupant sensors beginning to appear. One two-seater with a special child safety seat recognizes when the seat is installed and disables the passenger side air bag. Some sedans have a front passenger detector that disables that air bag unless the occupant is more than a specified weight. Future sensors will be able to vary the speed at which an air bag deploys, depending on crash severity and occupant size.

High-tech mirages
While there are high-tech features, car buyers also will find "no-tech" features. Some car companies strive to create the illusion of keeping up with the competition when they lack the latest features. If you see "trip meter" in a sales brochure, you may think of a trip computer, giving such information as miles to empty, average miles per gallon, or average driving speed. In this case, trip meter is just another name for the trip odometer near the speedometer.
       Other false friends to watch out for: argent wheels--silver-painted steel wheels, instead of aluminum (Ford pickups); monoframe construction--unibody construction without a frame, instead of separate body and frame construction (Nissan Pathfinder); and effort-sensitive, variable-assist power steering--just regular power steering, not the more desirable speed-sensitive, variable-assist power steering (Honda Accord).

       Some new features fall flat with buyers the first time around but could resurface with better technology. Remember four-wheel steering on the Mazda 626 and Honda Prelude? Most people don't. Or, head-up displays that project speed and other info ahead of the windshield? Some variations of this still survive as engineers try to translate its merits into something meaningful to buyers.
       If these descriptions have surprised you, reflect on Pontiac's name for its latest concept car. Rageous--as in "out"--reminds everyone who sees it that what appears extreme today in automobiles could easily be commonplace in a few years.

John Fobian is an automotive writer and a former director of automotive engineering for the American Automobile Association.

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