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Updating Your Ride

Perhaps you own either an older vehicle that you adore, but wish that it had a few more modern luxury conveniences, or perhaps you settled for the bargain-priced "base model" and now wish you had some common comfort features.

Are they worth adding, or will trying to add them cause more trouble than it's worth? We looked into six of the most common major-upgrade wishes. Read on, then make your own decision:

Air conditioning: In most cases, unless a car has special collectible or sentimental value, putting air conditioning into either a late-model used car or an older car just isn't practical, due to the tremendous cost of installing aftermarket air conditioning. Count on $1500 to $3000 for the entire job - even more for some vehicles.

To give you an idea why it's so pricey, the cost of a typical kit is $850 to $1200, but the installation involves cutting through the firewall, replacing the heater core and installing new underhood components, and modifying the dash and existing ventilation controls. "For A/C installation, you want someone with a high experience level in replacing heater cores," said Paul Salas of Vintage Air, a Texas company that manufactures specialized kits for older vehicles. Salas emphasized that conversion is not the type of job you'd delegate to the service-station mechanic around the block. He added, "Proper planning of the job before starting is a must, and many installers forget that bigger is better." Customers tend to want the minimum system for a given vehicle, but a larger evaporator and components actually means that the compressor won't have to work as hard.

On top of the installation, additional vehicle cooling-system upgrades are sometimes advised for vehicles that already tend to run hot, as they'll run about ten degrees hotter with the A/C compressor engaged. All said, a typical aftermarket air-conditioning install takes about 12 hours, up to 22 hours for a fine original-equipment-look install with some extra work needed for some vehicles. The good news is that aftermarket air conditioning systems are just as reliable - if not more so - than OEM units, meaning that once you get it installed it will likely serve you for several years without any other major bills.

Cruise control: Rostra, a leading maker of aftermarket cruise control units, says that fifteen percent of new cars are sold without cruise control - a figure that hasn't changed in the past decade. Even now, many automakers omit the feature on their base models. If you don't have 'cruise' on your vehicle, it's easy to add to most vehicles and aftermarket units are relatively inexpensive. They usually work well, though they may not quite have the nice control interface of original-equipment units.

Cruise control can be installed on virtually any vehicle with a mechanical throttle linkage, which only excludes some newer vehicles with electronic throttle systems (most of which already come with cruise control anyway). Most of these cruise control systems work in a similar way, with a speed sensor mounted on the transmission shaft, a "brain box," and a vacuum-operated device that moves your throttle linkage to keep the set speed. Aftermarket systems cost $150 to $300, and installation can be done in less than two hours by a normal mechanic with standard tools, bringing the total cost to less than $400 for most vehicles.

Sunroof/Moonroof: Sunroofs not only allow the sun in, but they also greatly improve ventilation inside, reducing the need to run the A/C. Installing a sunroof in your late-model vehicle isn't very expensive or complicated, but since installation requires permanently cutting part of your roof away, there are some important considerations. Poorly installed aftermarket sunroofs can be leak-prone and rattly, but those installed correctly will stay tight and weatherproof for many years.

According to Al Mizeur, owner of Mizeur Car Care, an accessory shop that frequently installs aftermarket sunroofs, there are definitely some things that can go wrong if the installation isn't done by a trained, seasoned expert. "Stay away from the backyard mechanics, and stick with a factory-certified installer," cautions Mizeur. If your dealership doesn't install them, ask for a referral to a local shop to avoid fly-by-night outfits. The age of the vehicle doesn't matter, either, he said, as long as the installer is familiar with the special procedures needed for each type of vehicle - like the use of spacers in vehicles that use double-layer sheetmetal in the roof.

When should you not install a sunroof? If the vehicle has a moderate or major accident in its history, don't do it; you may be opening up a can of worms, and a future of leaks and creaks. It's best to get a factory-installed sunroof when the vehicle is new, but aftermarket installation is worth considering. If you opt for the aftermarket, look for sunroofs with silicone seals and metal (not plastic) handles and hinges, and be sure the installation also comes with a lifetime warranty against leaks. Beware in advance of one other downside, too: Installing a sunroof will probably reduce the available headroom in your car by a few inches.

Seat heaters: Wish you had heated seats for those cold mornings? If your model vehicle originally did have the option of heated seats but yours doesn't have it, purchasing and installing new seats is a possibility, but this also requires laying the necessary wiring and installing the control switches. The end result will look like it was original, but the cost can be well into four digits, unless you can get the set of "used" components from a parts recycler (junkyard).

There are some less expensive - and less frustrating and time-consuming - aftermarket alternatives available, though. Several companies are selling systems that use thin carbon-fiber heating-element panels that slide inside the seats, just under the cover/upholstery material. Most of these are universal kits, but there are some specialized kits for popular models. Figure in the $500 to $700 range, including installation, for this type of seat heater. Otherwise, for less than $100 from just about any large automotive accessories store you can purchase a heating pad that rests on top of the seat and plugs into your DC "lighter" outlet. The nice thing about this solution is that it doesn't require any wiring modifications and you can carry it from vehicle to vehicle.

Power windows/central locking: By and large, aftermarket power window and lock conversion kits are disappointing. Installation takes hours. It's best to purchase the actual power-window mechanisms for your vehicle from the dealership rather than try to use a "universal" kit. And have either the dealership or a garage that is familiar with your type of vehicle install the system. Stay away from one-model-fits-all systems! In theory they work, but they're often difficult to install, unsightly, and unreliable. If you do have your mind set on power windows, look for either a dealer-supplied kit or one specifically designed for your vehicle. But even then, you may end up spending more money than you bargained for, and there could be potential issues with winter-weather reliability and also water drainage.

Airbags: No way! Installing airbags into an older car just isn't a viable option. There's more to them than just what's inside the steering wheel, dash, or door. They're designed as part of a system that will gauge the severity of a crash and deploy the bags during a collision over a particular threshold force. The location and type of crumple zones can vary so much between two models that might look similar on the outside. Even if you transfer all of the airbag system components from one vehicle to another, the system won't function properly, and it might be downright dangerous.

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