By Deb Acord
Auto manufacturers are working on ways to give a whole new meaning to the term "hot car." In the winter months, that means taking the chill off, both inside and out.
Seats, windshields, side mirrors and wipers can be warmed up now, and the amenity isn’t just available in the most expensive cars.
Heated seats, especially, "are much more common these days," says Doug Newcomb, senior editor of technology at Edmunds.com. “They're appearing in more vehicles and not just luxury cars, as in years past.”
In an annual J.D. Power and Associates poll on seat quality and satisfaction, 70 percent of vehicle owners said they want seat-related amenities, such as heated seats, in their next new vehicle.
Seat satisfaction translates directly into owners' overall satisfaction with their vehicle, the study has found. When owners rate their seats as “truly exceptional,” their overall vehicle satisfaction is 9.8, on average. When seat quality sags to merely “outstanding,” overall vehicle satisfaction drops to 7.7; vehicles with “unacceptable” seats register just 6.1 in overall satisfaction.
"The seats are one of the few components the owner interacts with each time they're in the vehicle," says Allan Dix, research director of automotive product quality. "If they’re happy with their seats, they’re likely to be happier with the rest of the vehicle."
Some 87 percent of 2011 cars were outfitted with heated seats. The feature hit an Edmunds.com list of top 10 features drivers are most thankful for, along with blind-spot detection, automatic headlights and blind spot detection.
Fans of leather upholstery – luxurious but chilling in the winter months – were the first fans of heated seats, which warm much quicker than the car’s interior does. A much newer technology, heated windshields, was installed on four percent of 2011 models. And a popular new feature, a heated steering wheel, is found on several models including the all-electric 2012 Nissan Leaf, which also features heated exterior mirror and heated front and rear seats.
Even the economy crowd can be toasty with the 2010 Ford Fiesta, which starts at $14,500 and can be equipped with heated seats and heated side mirrors.
As heated seats become more mainstream, luxury carmakers are working to make their version of comfort even cushier.
The 2011 Cadillac DTS features front heated and cooled seats with perforated leather that allows air to flow through to prevent heat overload. The 2011 Porsche Cayenne has a feature that allows the residual heat of the engine to be used to heat the interior for up to 20 minutes after the ignition is switched off.
And the contoured front seats of the Mercedes CL550 Coupe add movement to heating, with massage settings from gentle to vigorous.
Here's a quick guide to the best heating features on today’s cars:
Heated seats. They are usually offered in the front, but many models now have a rear-seat option, too. Some have several settings; others are just on/off.
Heated steering wheel. It eliminates the hazard of trying to drive with gloves on, and the discomfort of gripping a frigid wheel.
Heated side mirrors. These help control snow and ice buildup, and keep themselves clear of fogging.
Heated windshield. Some are coated with a thin film or wire grid that heats the glass and melts ice or snow.
Windshield wiper park. This prevents blades from freeing to the glass, and keeps them pliable so they can have better contact with the glass.
Remote start. Some systems turn on the heat, defroster and seats; others just turn over the engine.