Top 10 Features for the Long Haul

Free-spirited college kids aren't the only ones planning road trips. Last Thanksgiving, AAA estimated some 32 million Americans would travel by car at least 50 miles from home — many sharing the space with siblings, parents and in-laws. Having the right features can mean the difference between arriving at your destination refreshed, and longing for home before you reach the freeway. Here are our 10 favorites:

1. Navigation system and trip computer

Nav systems can make child's play out of the most convoluted trips. Many of the latest systems offer real-time traffic reporting, and nearly all have voice-guided directions that can route you back to the main road should your sister-in-law insist on a tchotchke detour. Virtually every nav system includes some kind of trip computer that keeps tabs on gas mileage, miles until your tank is empty and more. Road atlas — your days are numbered.

2. Music flexibility

Sun-visor CD jackets hold maybe a dozen albums — which means you're out of tunes once you've crossed three states — and those 10-pound CD booklets put nearby drivers at risk when you thumb through them at highway speeds. Advanced stereo systems to the rescue; the vast majority include auxiliary hookups for MP3 players, and some take integration a step further, allowing you to see your iPod's playlists and choose tracks with the stereo controls. Want more? Satellite radio broadcasts commercial-free music, and onboard hard drives can rip and store songs from CDs. Load up your collection, and you can listen to John Denver all the way to Denver.

3. Cruise control

Consider cruise control your right foot's savior. It's an old dog, but it can do some new tricks. Many luxury cars now offer advanced cruise control systems that can accelerate and brake — within reason — to maintain a comfortable, safe distance behind the car you're following. Even if you have a more basic version of cruise control, your feet will still thank you at the end of the day.

4. Multi-zone climate control

Separate climate settings for different passengers often go unused in daily driving, but they can really come in handy during long drives. Front, and sometimes even rear, passengers can set their own temperature independent of the driver, staving off complaints of being too hot or cold. Available a decade ago only in luxury cars, dual-zone controls now come in everyday cars like the Honda Accord and Ford Escape.

5. DVD entertainment systems

DVD players are the holy grail of minivans and SUVs, affording parents hours of peace while the kids watch cartoons — in silence, too, thanks to wireless headsets. Models like the Nissan Quest offer two drop-down screens, one for each row in back. Chrysler's latest minivans offer two screens with satellite TV and dual programming, so one row can play video games while another watches Nickelodeon. Kids and parents have never had it so easy. Or so quiet.

6. Smart cupholders

If your cupholder was designed to accommodate a 44-ounce Slurpee, plugging in a 20-ounce Evian could make for quite the spill when you hit the off-ramp. Smaller cupholders, meanwhile, leave the soda chuggers among us high and dry. Smart cupholders are an effective solution: They're big, but they have padding inside that clamps skinnier cups or gives way to accommodate the larger stuff. Buy whatever you want at the rest stop — it's bound to fit.

7. Heated and cooled storage units

Once exclusively found in expensive luxury cars, climate-controlled storage has finally made its way down the affordability ladder. A number of Dodge and Volkswagen models have cooled glove compartments, and the Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring sport heated and cooled cupholders. These features won't turn lukewarm soda ice-cold, but they can help frosty beverages stay chilled for a few hours or keep the java hot a little longer. Warning: Cans left in hot cars may explode — these are not refrigerators.

8. Lane-departure warning systems

Lane-departure warnings technically go in the safety column, but we included them because when you're on the highway, few features are handier. Infiniti was an early pioneer of the system, and now Cadillac offers one on the STS. Lane-departure warning systems use cameras to scan the road for lane markings and chime an alert when you drift too close to the next lane without signaling. The system is no substitute for drivers who pay attention, but it's nice to have as a second line of defense.

9. Household power outlets

Anyone who's ever had portable electronics run out of juice on the road will appreciate the in-car two-pronged household power outlet. With voltage typically running between 110 and 120V, household outlets accommodate most devices that plug into a two-pronged socket. Most cars with a utilitarian bent should have one — that means everything from a Toyota Matrix to a Volkswagen Touareg. Remind everyone to pack their household chargers, and complaints about drained batteries will become a thing of the past.

10. Reclining rear seats

Here's betting no one really gets any sleep using a U-shaped neck pillow. With reclining rear seats, you can leave those at home. Backseat passengers will be snoozing in no time, though drivers will want to keep them from reclining too far, as that can pose a safety hazard. A few models are still holding out, but most SUVs and minivans have them in the second row, if not the third as well.

© 4/30/13