Feature Friday: Adaptive Cruise Control

Feature Friday: Adaptive Cruise Control
Note the adaptive cruise control "ladder" buttons on the right side of the Subaru Outback steering wheel, which adjust following distance.

Adaptive cruise control is another one of those wily features that often gets called different things depending on the automaker. I've heard it called dynamic cruise control, radar cruise control and intelligent cruise control -- among other things. In fact, if there's anything in front of "cruise control," it's likely some variation of adaptive cruise.

In its most basic sense this feature operates similar to regular cruise control because it allows you to set your preferred speed, but the adaptive part takes it a step further because it will slow down if the vehicle in front of you slows down. It will also slow down if someone cuts in front of you to adjust the following distance.

How does it do this? Through the use of radar.

One of the big tells as to whether the vehicle you're driving has regular or adaptive cruise control is a button on the steering wheel that looks (to me) like a ladder. This will adjust your following distance tolerance -- the least distance is usually around one car length and the most is around three or four.

While this is great for a long highway trek, it can be a bit frustrating in traffic, because the space the vehicle leaves is usually bigger than what you'd leave if you were modulating the speed, and people will continually cut in on you. If you are ok with that, it's actually a nice relief to let the car do the heavy lifting.

The functionality of adaptive cruise control systems vary between vehicles and automakers. Some only operate in speeds more than 30 mph, some will operate in stop-and-go traffic taking you all the way to a stop. Some, once stopped, will automatically start you up again when the car in front moves, and others will require you to tap a button on the wheel or the gas pedal to get going.

There's also a huge variation in the quality of adaptive cruise control from automaker to automaker. Some systems operate smoothly, others are a bit abrupt -- alternately slamming on the brakes and flooring it depending on traffic flow.

So, if this is a feature you want and think you'll use (Hint: If you drive on the highway a lot, you will use it), make testing adaptive cruise control a part of your test drive during rush hour.

Other items in the Feature Friday series:

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