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Get to know your scary new car

Posted at 4:28 PM, Feb 06, 2020

My sister excitedly told me her new SUV has a cool feature where you just kick your foot under the rear bumper and the tailgate opens up. But when I asked how often she used it, she admitted she hadn’t yet learned how to make it work.

Welcome to the new world of automotive technology.

Many people eager to try out a new car’s bells and whistles find themselves driving a giant, confusing computer that makes even turning on the radio a chore. Yet they’ve paid a lot of money to do more than just get from Point A to Point B.

Taking time to learn what your new car offers unlocks a new level of convenience, enjoyment and comfort, says Josh Sadlier, director of content strategy for car information company For example, he says you may be able to run important controls like heating and air conditioning and the sound system with voice commands. And, once your phone is connected to the car via Bluetooth, hands-free phone calls and texting via dictation are a few of the many features now available.

Here is how to learn the basics and then delve deeper into the power of your magical new machine.

Keep an open mind

Sadlier says he often gets calls from his parents asking him to explain how to operate basic features on their new Honda HR-V. In his job at Edmunds, he constantly transitions from one test car to another, which exposes him to many different ways carmakers implement cutting-edge advancements. He’s found it’s important to avoid becoming intimidated by automotive technology or you’ll miss the benefits the car offers. With time, the right information and an open mind, you can maximize the car’s features and move into a new frontier, he says.

Even a car radio was a scary new feature, once.

Start with the phone

Pairing your phone via the Bluetooth connection with your car’s audio system will open up other features, such as downloading your contacts’ phone numbers or allowing you to play music and podcasts from your phone. Toyota has phone-pairing tutorials online, according to Brian Lyons, Toyota’s senior manager of advanced technical communications.

Don’t try to learn in a hurry

Ever been in a rush to get information from your computer only to be asked for a long-forgotten password? Learning automotive features can produce a similar type of frustration. “If you feel you are getting frustrated, call time out and come back later,” says Sadlier. “Or, watch a quick YouTube tutorial.”

Read the owner’s manual

As obvious as it might seem, the car’s manual is the ultimate source of information with an exhaustive index to help you locate the right section, says Sadlier. To make manuals less overwhelming, many manufacturers break them into separate booklets.

Almost every car comes with a “Getting Started” guide. One automotive expert suggests finding a spare hour and sitting in your car with the guide in hand. This allows you to practice using the controls so it becomes automatic when you’re on the road.

Additionally, many owner’s manuals are now online and can be accessed by putting in your vehicle identification number.

Find a friendly source of information

If you’re planning to buy a new car , ask the salesperson to help you pair your phone. If you’ve already bought your car, you can call the dealership to ask for assistance.

In addition, here are several other sources of information:

  • Manufacturers’ websites provide tutorials, glossaries and FAQ that are geared to the specific make and model.
  • Technical support from experts by phone or hands-on with “delivery specialists” at some dealerships.
  • YouTube videos from car enthusiasts and current owners might explain features in more relatable language.
  • Vehicle user forums are devoted to nearly every make and model with common questions and solutions. To locate such a site, try typing your car’s year, make and model into a search box followed by “user forums.”

It’s about safety, too

Getting to know your new car’s features isn’t just about convenience and comfort. Dealing with the unknown while you’re in traffic can be unsafe.

As roads become more congested and the pace of traffic seems to increase, new vehicle safety features provide a new level of security and safety. But Sadlier says the feedback he’s gotten from many new car owners is that the warning beeps and lights are distracting. In some cases, they simply turn off the warning systems — and deprive themselves of possibly lifesaving features.

The best sources of information for these features are owner’s manuals as well as videos that demonstrate how they work and what they are telling you. Once you understand the general concept, experiment — safely — in real time. And remember that indicators, such as blind-spot warning lights, are designed as supplemental information, not to replace looking at traffic with your own two eyes.

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Philip Reed is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @AutoReed.