Soup Up Your Car With Cheaper Add-Ons


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Are you happy with your 10-year-old computer? How about your vintage 90s cell phone with the monochrome four-line screen?

Nobody but a collector would keep such antiques, and even collectors wouldn’t rely on them for day-to-day use. But millions of car buyers condemn themselves to years of electronic obsolescence by loading up on navigation systems and other options that will be out of date long before their vehicles are ready for the scrap heap.

With so many options out there, from heated steering wheels to satellite radio and MP3 inputs, it pays for car buyers ask if there’s a better (and cheaper) alternative that will be easier to upgrade down the road.

Both cars and electronics are getting better, but at their own pace. Cars are last longer than they used to, while electronic gadgets’ useful life gets shorter and shorter; many are out of date almost as soon as you get them.

In all fairness, the hottest vehicle electronics - navigation systems - can generally be upgraded. In many systems, for example, the user can purchase a DVD with the latest maps, then follow a series of steps to get the data into the device. But other features may not change with these data updates; a few months after you buy your car, newer navigation systems may offer touch screens or voice commands, and they’re sure to be better at finding the nearest gas station, motel or Vietnamese restaurant.

The best route is to forgo the expensive nav system and get a smartphone, like an iPhone or BlackBerry, with a dashboard mount. The latest smartphones, like those that use Google's Android software, provide free, voice-activated navigation. The maps are constantly and automatically updated, so when your phone becomes obsolete in a couple years, you can upgrade to the latest and greatest for far less than you’d spend replacing a built-in navigation system.

The same strategy works for other in-car gadgets, too.

Video screens installed in the front seat headrests are expensive to buy and replace, so if your passengers must look at video, it’s just as easy to use a laptop or tablet computer, or portable DVD player, which will probably have a bigger screen than the built-in versions anyway.

For most portable electronics, you can charge them in your vehicle with a cigarette-lighter adapter, plus you can avoid accumulating a tangle of car chargers by getting an inverter, which plugs into the car’s power outlet and provides a standard three-prong plug that will power any portable device with light power demands.

For tunes, satellite radio is great if you want commercial-free entertainment, especially if there aren’t many good radio stations where you drive. But a built-in satellite system can make you a slave to one provider, which could go out of business, raise rates or let program quality deteriorate.

A good alternative is a sound system with an input for plugging in a phone, music player or portable satellite radio. The sound will be just as good if not better, and you’ll be able to replace the device cheaply when better ones come along.

Of course, car makers offer lots of bells and whistles beyond electronics.

Electronic control of outside mirrors may really be worth having, but do you really need a massager built into the seat, or a heated steering wheel? Besides the cost of adding these options when you buy, these and other devices can be expensive to repair. You might not care enough to bother, but someday a prospective buyer may see any broken device as an indication of poor maintenance.

The bottom line is this: When considering your vehicle options and add-ons, think about how long you’ll likely have the vehicle and whether the benefits you get in the short-term will be important enough to offset the headaches and expenses you may encounter because of them later on.

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