Tell me about the last time you bought a new car and sat down to read the entire owner’s manual. Go ahead — I’ll wait.
Reading an owner’s manual cover to cover would be no small commitment. The book for the 2020 BMW X5, for instance, is 404 pages. The guides for the new Cadillac XT6 and Volvo XC90 are only slightly slimmer, at 384 and 208 pages, respectively. A Mercedes-Benz GLC 300 coupe’s plush manual lays out instructions over 607 pages, including a 39-page index.
Instead of nudging you into reading the whole thing or trying to remember the dealer’s new car walk-through of features, let’s instead do the CliffsNotes version and concentrate on the personalization settings. Much like choosing the display in a new TV and the ringtones and notifications you prefer in a new cellphone, automakers allow you to personalize a car too. And you’ll enjoy the ride a lot more if you do.
Put the paper owner’s manual back and open the electronic version that’s available in many cars. The driver’s seat is a comfortable spot, and you have a cup holder for your coffee, so let’s settle in and set up your new baby. And if you’ve owned the car for several years and haven’t done this, you are in for a nice surprise.
Here are a few of the basic features that you can manipulate from the settings menu: having the mirrors automatically fold when you park; whether the rear wiper makes a sweep when you shift into reverse; and turning on a “welcome light” display of the car’s logo that’s beamed on the ground when you unlock the car. And you’ll be able to mute functions that could be annoying, like a cruise control that adjusts based on reading speed limit signs.
Automakers have also added electronic choices to once-analog features that had been simple to understand. In earlier times, when you wanted to signal a turn, you tugged at the blinker stalk and then returned it to the center position once the turn was completed. For example, BMW offers the option of a lane-change setting, which gives three blinks at a tap of the stalk. You can choose to make this convenience active through a menu on the center dashboard display. It’s a handy function.
A choice that’s nearly universal in newer vehicles is drive modes, typically some variation of Sport, Comfort and Economy, often selected with a switch on the center console. This is a global setting, changing several parameters through electronic wizardry. Ride stiffness is the most apparent, as the reactions of shock absorbers (or more precisely, dampers) are adjusted to suit road surfaces. Transmission shift-point adjustments — revving the engine higher for Sport performance or shifting sooner for better mileage in Eco mode — are usually part of the package. As you move up the sticker price scale, this setting may also bring a change in the dashboard display or the gas pedal sensitivity. It’s easy enough to experiment with on the fly.
The settings buried deeper in menus offer a greater degree of personalization, and an owner should be familiar with what they do and why they are important. It can be a practical necessity: As a safety measure, some new models, like the XC90, will automatically shift the transmission to Park when the engine is off.
But of course it has to be in Neutral to go through an automated carwash. The Cadillac manual walks through the steps to make that possible, as well as how to invoke the Teen Driver function, which can limit the top speed and radio volume. Similarly, there’s a Valet Mode you’ll want to know about. It locks the infotainment system and steering wheel controls to keep the parking attendant from rocking out while you have dinner.
In the setup process, you can also check a menu item for whether you want the Cadillac’s tailgate to open with a proper wag of your foot under the rear bumper; in the Climate and Air Quality menu, select whether you want the ionizer to remove pollen, odors and dust.
So many choices. Cadillac also lets you set the alert for the Adaptive Cruise Go Notifier, which lets a driver using the adaptive cruise to creep through stop-and-go traffic know when the vehicle ahead starts moving again. It could prevent an impatient honk from the car behind, but it’s also one of those actions that may cause an owner to wonder, Why did the car do that? Likewise, the Pedestrian Detection feature lets you select among Off, Alert or Alert and Brake.
In a vehicle like the BMW X6 M50i — an M-enhanced version of the X6 but not as tech-intensive as the X6 M — you can choose among Driver Experience Settings, though the selections are not permanent. Instead, the system defaults to the Comfort setting each time the vehicle is started, according to Jay Hanson of BMW’s North American communication team.
Almost every relevant bit of information on the car’s functions can be accessed through the center dashboard display, and many selection screens — exterior lighting, for instance, where you can decide whether you want the Iconic Glow of the kidney grille to illuminate — provide graphics or animations to illustrate the choices. That’s huge progress from a printed owner’s manual.
The first-level of mode settings offers the choice of Sport, Comfort, Eco Pro and Adaptive, which makes predictive adjustments based on how you are driving. Naturally, there are submenus, which take you to Sport, Sport Plus and Sport Individual. The differences delve into the level of exhaust sounds and chassis tuning, varying qualities like steering feel (stiff or light touch). In some BMW models, even the brake pedal feel can be set to personal preferences.
All of which leads to the question: Why?
In some cases, the settings can improve safety, helping to match your on-the-road practices with the car’s electronic capabilities. Do you want the Frontal Collision Mitigation system to intervene at early, medium or late detection? (The accompanying graphics are particularly helpful here.) The Lane Departure Warning also offers the choice of early, medium, reduced or no alert, with the option of steering wheel vibration and a dashboard signal as well as active steering intervention. The Driver Attention Camera in the instrument panel can also be controlled in the menus.
If all this sounds daunting, it’s not really; the menus are generally easy to decipher. For owners who are flummoxed even after spending time with their new purchase, there are follow-up sessions available, formalized in the BMW world as the Encore Program.
Keep in mind that the greatest variety of settings choices are found in luxury and sport models at the top of the price ladder. But some degree of set up is available on most new cars, even down to the level of whether you want the horn to chirp when the car is locked with the remote fob.
Set the safety system preferences first, then the comfort and driving features, and don’t be wary of testing the variations to see which feels most natural.