NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Air conditioning isn't just a feature in your car around this time of year: It's often the only thing making a sweltering commute bearable.
Once just a fairly standardized option, the vehicle air conditioner has made huge advances over the years. Drivers who once had to fiddle with cooling and fan dials can now set their car's temperature, while passengers in the front and rear seats no longer have to freeze or fry at the driver's whim.
The folks at auto pricing site Edmunds.com found that automatic air conditioning available in 67% of vehicle models just 10 years ago can be found in 87% of new vehicles today. Meanwhile, manual A/C has plummeted from 64% of new vehicles in 2005 to just 36% this year — with manual and automatic overlapping based on vehicle options packages.
Meanwhile, the days of single-zone, driver-dictated A/C are coming to a close as well. While 63% of vehicles had single-zone climate control a decade ago, just 43% fall under that category today. Dual-zone climate control went from an available feature in 59% of all 2005 vehicles to either an option or standard feature in 87% of vehicles on lots today. Even better, those air conditioners aren't the huge drain on mileage they once were.
“Running the air conditioning is no longer the drain on engine efficiency that it used to be, accounting for maybe one or two miles per gallon on the hottest of days,” says Brandy Schaffels, contributor for auto pricing site TrueCar and editor at AskPatty.com. “Experts say (and I believe it's even been tested on MythBusters) that it's more efficient to run the air conditioning on hot days than it is to drive with the windows down.”
They're no trivial feature. Edmunds.com editor Ed Hewitt and his crew spend a fair amount of time in the vehicles they use as a long-term test fleet. As a result, he says, the climate control systems in each car become a frequent topic of conversation around the office.
“It can be about which ones are too complicated or something as simple as noticing which systems have a lowest fan speed that's incredibly low or which have a lowest fan speed that's annoyingly high,” he says. “People notice these things more so than they let on because they're in the car so much and it's a factor of just being comfortable. That's something people base their whole decision to buy a car upon: How comfortable they are just sitting in traffic.”
To see just how far air conditioning technology has advanced, we consulted with Schaffels and Edmunds.com to see which cars were offering the coolest options for the cost. Here are just some of the vehicles we came up with.