Monday, July 31, 2017

New Car Features

A couple of months ago, we bought a new car, a Mazda CX-9.  It's Mazda's large, 3-row SUV.  After living with it for a bit, I wanted to share some thoughts on this car in particular and new cars in general.

To set the stage, we had two cars, a 2005 Volvo V70 (the station wagon) and a 2008 Nissan Frontier.  The Volvo got walloped in the back a few years ago by a 91-year-old guy in a Cadillac.  We had it straightened out and it looks and drives great, but with 130K+ on the odometer and an accident on the CarFax, the resale value is about equal to a Big Mac with an order of fries.  So we're keeping it until it dies.  The Nissan was a good truck, but we didn't really need a truck anymore.  It was going to need a new set of tires and a new battery before winter, and if we did that, then we may as well keep it a few more years, and by then the resale value would be many thousands less.  So we decided to sell the truck and get something new, on the order of an SUV.

Long story short, we sold the Nissan almost immediately and bought the Mazda.  The CX-9 was at the top of my short list because all the comparison tests from places I trust (Car and Driver, for example) hailed it as responsive, fun to drive, high quality, reliable, and fun to drive.  Did I say I like a car that's fun to drive?  Yeah.  The Nissan wasn't.


So we've had it for a few months and yes, it's fun to drive.  Quiet, too.  And comfortable.  Feels like a much higher-end nameplate (think Audi, Land Rover, or Infinity) due to the high-quality materials in the interior.  And the engine is unbelievably powerful, especially when you consider it's a dinky 2.5 liter 4-banger, but the turbo gives it more torque than any of the V6's its competitors have, and it's as smooth as a sewing machine.  All in all, Mazda did a helluva good job.

But I'm not here to brag on a new car.  I wanted to talk about one major item that is significantly different from all my previous vehicles, something that is (I think) common to almost every vehicle made today.  And that is the onboard electronics.  I'm really stunned at how fundamentally different the electronics have made the entire vehicle.

To go back to the Volvo a second, I learned a few years ago, when I installed a new radio/CD/bluetooth unit, that computers controlled the whole car.  Turning the light switch didn't turn on the lights, it sent a signal to the computer, and the computer turned on the lights.  And it's that way with everything.  But it was all invisible to the driver, because the switches and gauges all looked and operated just like they did in most all other vehicles.  You can hop into our Volvo, instinctively adjust the seat and mirrors, throw a CD in the stereo, and be off, without any issues.  It's as easy as a flip-phone.

The Mazda is a different story.  If the Volvo is a flip phone, the Mazda is an iPhone 7.  Not only is everything controlled by computers (note: plural), but those computer capabilities have exploded.  Some switches are done by touch screen rather than a knob or button.  You can choose what your gauges show you.  It has capabilities that you can only learn by going through the manual.  It probably has capabilities that aren't in the manual.  Here are some of its features:
   - Lane guides.  It has a camera that watches for lane lines and if you start to stray, it'll gently tug you back or give you a warning.  Not only that, but it has different warnings for drifting to the right or left.  It was cool for a bit, but then it got annoying, so I turned it off.  Took me a while to find the instructions on how to do that.
   - Blind spot monitoring.  It has two side-looking radars in the rear bumper.  If somebody gets into your blind spot, you hear beeps and see flashing lights on the side mirror.  It beeps at me when I'm backing out of the garage because it doesn't like the door edge.
   - Adaptive cruise control.  Set the cruise control and it'll hold it within a mile an hour.  Come up behind somebody, though, and it'll slow down to match their speed.  Pull out to the next lane and it'll speed right back up again.  All this courtesy of a forward-looking radar.  Not only do you choose the speed you want, but you can choose the distance to follow the car in front.  I haven't figured that part out yet.
   -Remember when all you had to do to change stations was to punch a button?  Not anymore.  Now you have to choose which menu to use and then scroll through options that include AM, FM, Sirius, BlueTooth, Pandora, CD, and some other things I've never heard of.
   - Integrated navigation system.  Supposedly you can enter an address or pick a point of interest and it'll give you turn-by-turn directions on a screen and through audio.  I haven't figured it out yet.  I do know that you can have at least two different views on the nav screen and that it's very accurate.  When you're on an interstate or major highway, it'll show you the speed limit for your stretch of road.  If you're at or below, it's in green; go above the speed limit, and it's in red.  I don't see green that much.
   - Heads-Up Display.  This gives you your speed, the speed limit, and maybe a few other bits of information projected up onto the windshield in front of you.  It's pretty cool.  If you wear polarized sunglasses, though, the information disappears.  But if you turn your head sideways, it comes back.  So you look a bit like a goofus, turning your head sideways periodically.
   - The A/C system (sorry: climate control system) has three zones: front, middle, and rear.  I remember when "climate control" was how far you rolled down the windows.
   - Pull into the garage at night and shut the car off and the lights stay on for a while so you can get out and into the house.  You can adjust the time they're on.  I don't know how to do that.
   - USB ports everywhere.  I had to buy a USB plug for the cigarette lighter (er, 12V Auxiliary) for the Volvo and Nissan, but now the ports are apparently a Must Have for any vehicle that will transport kids.
   - Headlights that turn with the steering wheel.  Seriously.

That's a sample of this car's features.  The thing is, so many cars these days have them, and if you read the car reviews, everybody seems to expect this level of features.  Even Toyota Corollas have things like voice recognition, touch screens, and computer-assisted driving to maximize gas mileage.  I get the feeling that I've been asleep since 2005 and am going through future shock at seeing how far automotive technology has come since then.

The logical extension of all this technology is, of course, self-driving cars.  I can see a day in the near future when everybody is sitting in little pods, entertaining themselves watching YouTube videos, while the car does all the work.  Not for me, though.  I think my next car is going to be something made years ago, something with a manual transmission, a carburetor, and NO COMPUTERS at all.  Yes, I love the Mazda and we'll keep it until the wheels fall off.  But I'm old school and I also like things that are simple and uncomplicated.  And "uncomplicated" is NOT a word that describes the Mazda or any other car made these days.

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