Australia's Best Cars

More bling for your buck

The features list offered on a new vehicle can, on the surface, be quite impressive. When you get the brochure and see all the boxes that are ticked, you probably think you’re getting a lot of gear.

And given how much money you’re forking out, so it should be.

But while manufacturers load as many features into the vehicle as possible while maintaining the ‘price point’ that the market will bear, many have to be there as a matter of course, especially some mandatory safety systems.

It’s also surprising to find some items that were once standard features on every vehicle are no longer there – a full-size spare wheel, for instance, or even a spare wheel, period.

And with the amazing advances being made almost weekly in mobile entertainment and communications systems, even the car makers will be struggling to keep up.

We did a survey of the standard features lists of the 15 category winners in Australia’s Best Cars 2016/17 as a guide to what you should be able to find in a vehicle before having to resort to the options list.

And we’ve also compared them with features lists on popular cars over the past 15 years – since the national Australia’s Best Cars program was launched – to see just how much more you’re now getting, using the dozens of vehicles tested each year by RACV’s monthly magazine RoyalAuto (RA) as the guide.

Safety

The one area where you want to see a big suite of features is safety. Yet it has only been in the past 15 years or so that car companies would have bothered listing them. But once they realised, due in no small part to urging from government, other regulatory bodies and the state-based auto clubs, that safety sells, then brochures began being littered with acronyms such as ABS, ESC, SRS and more.

These are the safety systems you should expect in any new vehicle you find for sale.

ESC: Electronic stability control has been mandatory on any new passenger vehicle and SUV sold in Australia since November 2011, spreading to all vehicles in November 2013. It will usually be the first item listed under safety because it has to be there. It may be given as another acronym, e.g. VSC (vehicle stability control). And even though ABS (anti-lock braking system) may be listed separately, all ESC systems use ABS.

Even though ESC has been available on vehicles in Australia since the late 1990s, none of the 20 vehicles tested by RA in 2002 had it, even as an option.

Five years later, it was standard on 24 of the 35 RA-tested vehicles, including mass-appeal vehicles such as Holden Commodore SV6 (it was an option on the equivalent Ford Falcon), Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Tarago, but not on Australia’s best-selling car, Toyota Corolla.

Airbags: Pre-dating even ESC as a life-saving technology, airbags to protect anyone other than the driver were a rarity on cars in Australia until the turn of the century. By 2002 the addition of a front passenger airbag was found on most mainstream models – Commodore, Falcon, Camry and Magna, and on Corolla as an option – and mainly imported models provided side airbags. The only car with head-protecting curtain airbags tested by RA was Volvo S60.

By 2007, all but two of the 37 tested vehicles (entry-level Corollas and the Ssangyong Actyon) had side airbags at least as an option, and 20 offered curtain airbags. Five years later curtains were on every vehicle tested by RA, and the latest advance – a driver knee airbag – was starting to appear, even on budget models such as the Toyota pair Yaris and Prius c.

In this year’s Australia’s Best Cars awards, every winner has the almost universal suite of front, side and curtain airbags, and four include a knee airbag.

Seatbelts: Mandatory seatbelts was the first major breakthrough in government-regulated vehicle safety, in the 1970s. Three-point lap/sash belts have been a requirement for a five-star safety rating from ANCAP since 2011, and happily these are standard on all ABC winners this year.

Other safety systems: Autonomous emergency braking, which detects an imminent low-speed collision and applies the brakes independently of the driver, is the latest system that vehicle authorities want to see on as many cars as possible. A rarity on vehicles only five years ago – none of the RA-tested cars had it in 2012 – it features on eight of this year’s 15 ABC winners (including the volume-selling Mazda6 Touring) and is an option on a ninth.

Other modern systems such as lane-departure and attention-assisting warnings and blind-spot information, only appeared on a handful of cars in 2012. Now 11 ABC winners have some combination of these safety extras, either as standard, an option or in higher-spec models.

But what of the other desirable features? Here’s a rundown of how things have changed – usually for the better – in the past 15 years..

Air-conditioning

Even in Australia not that long ago, air-conditioning was deemed an optional luxury. In 2002 it was still a $2100 option on a Toyota RAV4 for instance. Today no car – or its occupants – would survive without it, and all but the three low-end hatches (Kia Picanto, Suzuki Baleno and Kia Cerato, with manual systems) have automatic climate-control air-conditioning.

Windows and mirrors

Gone are the days when you had to stick your arm out the window to adjust the mirrors or get an aerobic workout winding the windows up and down. Every current Australia’s Best Cars winner does these tasks electrically.

Communication/entertainment

In a way, in-car entertainment has gone full circle. In the 1970s a radio (AM only) in a car was often an after-market add-on. Then came FM radio, followed by cassette players. And once car-makers started putting in CD systems, the glovebox was full of plastic cases. In 2002 every RA-tested car had at least the option of a CD player; besides its awesome power output, the Holden Clubsport R8 also packed a 10-CD sound system.

Nothing much had changed five years later, but then another acronym – USB – started appearing in the features list and soon you weren’t loading your mobile listening for the week in the carport but in front of your computer.

Only a quarter of 2012’s cars had USB slots, but now they’re inevitable in every ABC winner. Ditto Bluetooth, which was rarely anything other than an option in 2007 but almost standard in every tested car five years later.

And how long will it be before CD functionality disappears from cars altogether? Jaguar did away with it on its XF in 2012, replacing it with a hard disc-drive that could store probably more CDs than would have fitted in the car’s boot. While it’s no surprise that this year’s three winning BMWs plus Hyundai Genesis have the HDD system, there’s also no CD player in the light Suzuki Baleno – it’s a USB slot and streaming via Bluetooth only, but it’s also one of only five winners with digital radio as standard.

Parking sensors

Once parking was performed with a fair bit of guesswork and, on unfortunate occasions, a bit of hit-and-miss.

In 2002 reversing sensors weren’t sighted in RA road tests, and five years later they were only found on luxury European models, with or without that extra pair of eyes, the reversing camera. In 2012 70% of the vehicles tested had one or both, with some including front sensors as well.
Today 12 of the 15 ABC winners have a reversing camera as standard, including Suzuki Baleno which oddly is the only one without sensors front or rear.

Adjustable steering wheels

The one-size-fits-all theory has never applied to vehicles, and everyone is different in how they like to sit at the wheel. Most of the ABC winners have height-adjustable steering wheels but some – the micro Picanto and light Baleno – still don’t provide reach adjustment for those drivers with shorter arms.

Auto lights and wipers

When provided in a vehicle, these two are usually listed as convenience items, but because they automatically allow you not only to see better but be seen, they’re safety features too. In ANCAP assessments, dusk-sensing headlights are regarded as a safety assist technology as they also work when you enter carparks, tunnels etc.

Both are missing only from our micro winner Kia Picanto but you get at least one of them with all other winners.

Alloy wheels

It’s taken quite a while for the market to totally embrace alloy wheels, which are stronger and lighter than steel wheels. In 2002, RA found them on three European cars only. Five years later, 50% of tested models sported alloys, and in 2012 it was hard to find a model without them.
Picanto, Baleno and Cerato make do with steel in their entry-level versions.

Spare wheels

The weight/cost equation has had even more impact on the wheel that barely sees the light of day, the spare.

By providing a smaller, narrower and lighter spare compared with the road wheels, manufacturers save space in the boot, but importantly a lighter vehicle does better in standard fuel economy testing. That’s why some makers provided a space-saver even though the car’s wheel well has room for a full-size road version. There are also strict speed and distance limitations on running on a space-saver, given they compromise a vehicle’s handling and can affect its ESC performance.

Space-savers – i.e., any wheel other than an exact match for the four road wheels – began appearing on vehicles in Australia about 15 years ago, and by 2007 they were a standard item on half the vehicles tested by RA.

Five years later, this figure had grown to 70% and included another alternative: run-flat tyres, which are designed to be driven on – even though they are punctured – so you can get to somewhere to have the tyre replaced or repaired. Some cars even have inflation kits to help with this.
And these temporary-use wheels are not going away – 11 of the 15 ABC winners don’t provide a full-size spare.

Sat-nav

Satellite navigation started out as a bit of a gimmick for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t use a street directory, let’s say taxi drivers and couriers. In 2002, RA found it on only two vehicles tested, and then as a $2400-$3800 option.

Fast-forward to 2017 and 12 of our winners have it as standard, plus one as an option and another on a higher-spec version.

But with the mapping apps on phones and tablets getting more sophisticated in the way they can talk to the car, soon even sat-nav may go the ways of CD players and full-size spares.

Stop/start

As it gets harder to find incremental savings in the highly competitive area of fuel economy – every new car in the showroom must display a government fuel economy label – a stop/start system is a way to get an advantage. They shut down the engine when the vehicle is idling at rest, say at traffic lights, and restart when the driver’s foot is lifted off the brake pedal.

RA saw it on only two vehicles in 2012, and because it takes a little getting used to, it’s been slow to catch on, as only three ABC winners have the system this year.

Written by Jeremy Bourke
February 21, 2017