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Hands-free phone connection

A Bluetooth hands-free connection is convenient. And it’s a real boon where driving while yammering with a phone pressed to your ear is illegal. But in a few cars we encountered setups that we couldn’t crack.

Case in point: the Audi A6. After repeated tries, and studying the owner’s manual, we still couldn’t figure out how to hook up our phone (we even followed the puzzling instruction to complete the procedure within five minutes of starting the car). But Toyota makes the process intuitive. On the Highlander, you push a few buttons on the touch screen and you’re connected. Bottom line: Check the phone connection on your test drive.

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Navigation systems

Nav systems are a godsend for the directionally challenged and those who stray from their home turf. Problem: You pay $1,500 to $2,000 for the option, and in some vehicles you have to pay for other add-ons as part of a package. Plus, if you want updates, you have to pony up an extra $200 or so. Another problem: Systems that don’t use touch screens can be difficult to, uh, navigate. Solution: portable GPS units. For far less than a built-in nav system you can get an easy-to-use device that you can take with you, such as the Magellan Maestro 4250 ($500). Or pay for the GPS service from your cell-phone provider (about $10 a month).

Run-flat tires

No one likes the idea of bolting on a spare by the side of the road. Enter run-flats, which have stiff sidewalls that let you keep driving for up to 50 miles without pulling over. Consumers like the safety of staying inside their car, and carmakers don’t have to carve out space in the trunk for a spare. But some drivers grouse about run-flats because they provide a less-than-forgiving ride and are costly. The Michelin PAX tire, for example, is about $240 to replace, in part because a dealer needs special equipment to mount it. And according to some reports, run-flats last just half as long as conventional tires.

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iPod interfaces

MP3 player connections are still MIA in a number of vehicles. Systems that let you control the player through the audio system are showing up in some new models, but they’re pricey. The Infiniti G37’s iPod interface works with the touch-screen navigation system, but the iPod feature is part of the premium package, which runs $3,200 in addition to the $2,200 nav option. And some interfaces just don’t work so well. For example, some Volkswagen models feature an optional DVD nav system with iPod adapter for $1,800, but the screen displays only playlists, not songs, and assigns them a number instead of their name.

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