We test as many as eight different vehicles each month, so rather than focusing on one, let's look at desirable features and flubs found in some we recently took for a spin.
2005 VOLKSWAGON GTI
Since 2002, all trunks must have a device to open them from inside. Before an interior release method became mandatory, no amount of pulling or tugging on the latch could spring a trunk.
I remember testing my first interior trunk release. At the time, I routinely videotaped my reviews. With an exterior camera running on a tripod, I climbed into the trunk and snapped the trunk lid shut. My pupils slowly widened until I could see a glow-in-the-dark pull handle with an icon of an open trunk on it. My shadowy hand reached up and pulled as the camera ran. The trunk lid popped up an inch or two and light washed over me. As I climbed out, I ad-libbed into a wireless microphone, "If Jimmy Hoffa had had this, he'd still be alive!"
Which brings us to the best system I've seen yet. The GTI is a hatchback with a covering over its spacious cargo area behind the second row of seats. On the driver's side of the cargo bay are two buttons. One will pop the hatch. A second is labeled "Sound." Press it and anyone nearby will be attracted to the noisy car.
The GTI, at an as-tested price of $23,120, is a safe starter car for young people. Its hatchback styling is appealing, and it's surprisingly roomy inside. The 1.8-liter turbocharged engine and outstanding suspension system combine to make it fun to drive on twisty roads. And its mileage figures of 22 city and 29 highway aren't bad either.
The GTI has front and side airbags, plus a full-length head curtain system. Can't get much safer than that. But next model year it will be completely redesigned, so fight for steep discounts if buying a 2005.
This pricy luxury sport utility model, costing $69,637, looks neither stylish nor new. And its mileage ratings of 13 city and 17 highway make it a gas-guzzler.
The tester had good and bad features. Best of all is a standard rear-view camera setup that's now found on many vehicles with navigation systems. When the gear selector is placed in reverse, the navigation screen mounted mid-dash shows a wide-angle view of what's behind the vehicle. This can save a child's life or the family pet sleeping in the driveway.
The Lexus LX470 also has a $2,200 option called Night Vision that was less useful. General Motors was first to market a night vision system several years ago on a Cadillac. That system beamed infrared light, which returned to create a black-and-white moving image on the windshield, showing what was ahead of the car at night. A problem with the GM system was its too-narrow field of view. The camera did not pick up pedestrians on the side of the road, for instance. Those within view were shown as ghost-like white silhouettes.
The Lexus system uses near-infrared from two lamps in the headlights. These beams bounce back to a camera mounted atop the windshield. It then displays a black-and-white TV-like image on the windshield just above the steering wheel.
The problem is that this method does not make warm bodies stand out the way the GM infrared system did. The Lexus system did not pick up people walking dogs, for instance. The "movie" is clearer, but no one can actually drive while looking at it, so clarity is not really important. I found it more a distraction than an aid to safe night driving. (Advice: If you frequently travel very dark, rural roads, go for a roof-mounted light system like the one available on the Jeep Liberty.)
The Lexus LX470 stumbled in two other ways. Most people are right-handed, which means they're likely to drive with their right hand gripping a 10 o'clock position across the steering wheel, while resting their left arm on the windowsill. In the Lexus, that arm placement blocks the driver's view of the speedometer, incorrectly positioned left of the tachometer. The tachometer, which uselessly measures rpm in a vehicle with an automatic transmission, should always be on the left. In most vehicles, it is.
A second problem, shared with several other SUVs because of their shape, is booming wind noise when a side window is open. Neither dogs nor people can stand the booming sound for more than a few seconds at any speed above 45 mph.
AUDI A4, A6 and A8
Audi embraces all-wheel drive, which it calls Quattro, and these cars do not seem to suffer a fuel efficiency penalty. Yet all-wheel drive makes them safer in all forms of bad weather. They will not slip or slide on our frequently wet streets.
The tested A4, at $36,570, was a wagon, the A6 ($47,870) and A8 ($76,970) were four-door sedans. All pleasant drivers, with all necessary safety features.
But the Audis had a feature not to like: flip-lid exterior door handles. Should a car be in a frontal accident, damage might extend back to the front doors, which could become difficult to open. Maximum leverage will be needed if a would-be rescuer attempts to pry open the door to free those inside what could be a burning car. How much leverage can be obtained from a flip-lid door handle? Almost none; only fingertips can be used.
Contrast that with the bar door handles now in wide use. A bar handle can provide grip for an entire hand, or both hands. A foot can be placed against the car body and maximum pull power exerted to pry open a stuck door.
Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]