Which optional car features and upgrades are worth it and which aren't
Car console being digitally updated

New cars offer more options than the menu at your local diner. Choosing which of those optional automotive upgrades are worth your money - and which ones aren’t - isn’t always easy. It can be unclear what all these extra features and gadgets actually do, and the cost of can add up quickly; it’s possible to add $20,000 or even $30,000 to the price of some vehicles simply by ticking every option box.

On the other hand, the opportunity to customize your new car - choosing everything from colours and wheels to ambient cabin lighting and massaging seats - can be fun. All of these options give drivers the chance to build their perfect car.

Here are the options we’d choose on our next new car, and the ones we’d skip: 

Must-have optional extras on new cars

Automatic safety: See our guide to the many advanced-driver-assistance-systems (ADAS) found on new cars these days. Automatic emergency-braking systems that include pedestrian and/or cyclist detection can help save a life, acting like a last-resort backup in the event a driver makes a mistake. Rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot warning systems are also great safety features to have.

More cameras: Backup cameras are mandatory on all new cars in Canada, but the more cameras your car has the better. Forward-facing cameras are extremely helpful when parallel parking. Some cars also offer 360-degree or “surround view” cameras that provide a rudimentary view all around the car, which helps drivers see obstacles they might otherwise miss.

Wireless Android Auto or Apple CarPlay: The ability to wirelessly connect Google Maps, Spotify and other smartphone apps through your car’s infotainment screen has quickly become a must-have feature for many drivers. In some cases, these apps are better than the ones built in to vehicles by default. Wireless connectivity means you can use your phone’s navigation app without even having to take it out of your pocket.

Individual, real-time tire-pressure monitor: Most drivers probably don’t check their tire pressures often enough. These systems take the pressure (pun intended) off by automatically alerting the driver if one or more tires is losing air. Keeping your tires properly inflated improves fuel economy, and keeps you safer on the road.

Nice-to-have luxury features

Heated steering wheel: It’s a luxury, yes, but it’s relatively affordable on most new cars these days. Even if you wear gloves, the warmth coming from a heated steering wheel can make those first moments in a freezing-cold car much more pleasant.

Upgraded stereo: Again, this is a luxury, not a must-have feature. That said, if you spend long stretches on the road, having a killer stereo with rich bass and lifelike sound can makes those long drives a lot more fun. Of course, not all car stereos are created equal, so be sure to have a test-listen at the dealership before putting your money down.

Panoramic roof: Another luxury, not a must-have, but an all-glass roof can make a car’s cabin feel much more airy and spacious. Rear-seat passengers will thank you. 

Upgraded cabin materials: If you spend a lot of time behind the wheel, you should consider upgrading the interior. Stitched leather trim on the seats and dashboard, real wood veneer, and knurled metal knobs are just some of the available options. Or, if leather isn’t your thing, more cars are offering stylish vegan alternatives, including high-quality fabrics and eco-friendly recycled materials.

Head-up display: These systems project key information, such as speed and navigation instructions, onto the windshield right in front of the driver. It’s similar to the technology jet pilots use, but you’ve really got to experience it for yourself to appreciate it. The key benefit for drivers is that head-up displays keeps your eyes focused on the road. There’s less need to glance down at the instrument panel.

Optional extras that aren’t worth the money

Sport suspension: Unless you’re a keen driver buying a high-performance car, upgrading to sport suspension is probably a bad idea. It may improve handling slightly, but you’ll pay the price in a much bumpier, less comfortable ride.

Larger wheels: Yes, we know, bigger 19- or 20-inch wheels look better than smaller 17-inch hoops. But, like sporty suspension, bigger wheels tend to make cars less comfortable on rough roads.

Glossy black trim: All that glossy “piano-black” trim — often found on the centre console or dashboard of new cars — may look luxurious in the dealership, but after a few days of use it’ll be covered in fingerprints and dust.

Massaging seats: This may sound like the ultimate in-car luxury, but even in high-end luxury cars, massaging seats usually offer little more than a gentle prodding sensation. Save the money for a real massage.

GPS: Many more-affordable cars don’t come with GPS navigation as standard, only offering it as an optional extra. It was useful in the pre-smartphone days, but not anymore. If you have an unlimited data plan on your phone, you’re better off using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to project your phone’s navigation app onto the in-car screen.

Keep your home and auto protected with the right insurance for your needs.