Nifty Touches That Spice Up Today's Cars

One of the pleasures of owning a new automobile--surpassing even the clean floor mats and new-car smell--is discovering the ingenious gadgets that erase your pet driving peeves, help you avoid mishaps, and impress your friends. The best make us wonder: Why didn't someone think of this before? The worst--well, just think of them as parlor tricks for the 1990s. In that spirit, we offer a grab bag of recent innovations.

The big sliding door on a minivan provides easy access--once you get it open. But that's not easy when you're laden with packages or toting small kids. And closing it securely can be a chore if you can't get good leverage on the handle. Now, for $295, General Motors offers power sliding side doors activated by switches near the driver, the door, and on the key fob. Chimes signal that the door is closing, and a sensor causes it to reverse if anything is in its path.

Getting in and out can also be a challenge in sport-utility vehicles. The big step up poses problems for the short, the straight- skirted, and the less agile. Range Rover has the highest-tech solution to this humble problem. Electronic air suspension drops the County 2.4 inches at the push of a button to make it easier to clamber in and out or load cargo. The special suspension is part of a $1,700 option package on the regular County; it's standard on long-wheelbase versions.

Recent German innovations help drivers as well. On some BMWs, when you shift into reverse, the passenger-side mirror tilts down so you can see the curb. On the S-class Mercedes, standard side mirrors fold in so the car can fit into tight parking spaces. And you can automatically fold down rear headrests on the Mercedes S-class 300 series to get an unobstructed view.

RIGHT TURN. Cadillac has some new ways to avert trouble. Some 1993s are equipped with a "limp home" feature: If the car loses its coolant, the engine will fire on only half its cylinders so that it can be driven slowly to a mechanic without overheating. If you leave your turn signal on for more than a half-mile, the Eldorado's warning message lights up, and the Fleetwood's turn-signal chime gets louder.

Some gadgets help you deal with minor annoyances, such as interiors that superheat to blast-furnace levels when the car is parked in the sun. The sunroof on Mazda's 929 uses solar panels to power a fan that circulates air from outside to cool the interior. In winter, the panel recharges the battery. And Ford makes sure that when you start the ignition, you'll never have to worry about having your eardrums blasted by a radio left turned up to the max. Many models return the radio to a medium setting when the engine is off.