Automotive Accessories

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

January 21, 2011 5 min read

You don't need a fairy godmother to transform that four-wheel pumpkin you drive into the car of your dreams.

For a fraction of the price of a new car, you can update your existing vehicle with high-tech products, such as OnStar, back-seat DVD screens, satellite radio and a GPS system that provides up-to-date traffic and weather conditions. A much smaller investment can translate into stylish covers for seats, headrests and steering wheels, or for a few dollars, you can pick from a treasure chest of low-cost upgrades, such as holders for CDs and cups, car cabin and trunk space organizers, and toll-pass mounts.

Starting this year, for about $300, owners of non-General Motors cars and older GM vehicles will be able to sign up for OnStar. Since its introduction in 1996, the popular subscription-based in-vehicle safety, security and communication service was available only to buyers of factory-equipped GM vehicles. OnStar has more than 6 million subscribers in the United States, Canada and China.

With its electronic components packed into a replacement rearview mirror, OnStar service, once installed, provides subscribers with automatic crash response, emergency services, stolen vehicle tracking assistance, roadside and door unlock assistance, voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation, hands-free calling and Bluetooth technology. Available only through Best Buy, eventually it will be sold by other consumer electronics retailers. Installation is expected to cost $75-$100 and should take less than an hour, GM says. OnStar service plans will start at $18.99 per month.

Making that on-the-road connection to other tech devices -- such as GPS units, DVD players, cell phones, iPads, MP3 players, laptops and CB radios -- is a cinch if you have the right interface between the devices and your vehicle's cigarette lighter.

Bell Automotive Products -- a supplier of aftermarket automotive accessories to nearly two dozen major retailers, including Walmart, Target, AutoZone, Pep Boys, Ace Hardware and Kmart -- offers several types of splitters. One lets you convert your cigarette lighter into a three-way power source with a USB power port and two 12-volt sockets for less than $14. A single USB power port converter is less than $12.

For a quick beauty makeover, nothing is faster than new seat, headrest and steering wheel covers, says Ken Krankkala, product development manager for Bell. The company's seat and wheel covers and license plate lines were featured recently on "Designing Spaces," the popular WE tv series, in a do-it-yourself segment on personalizing car space. "It's an indication of the interest that people have in rejuvenating the interior of their vehicles," Krankkala says, something that has propelled the growth of Bell's line of seating and steering wheel covers, as well as other easy-to-install products.

Materials for the company's extensive line of seat and steering covers include luxury leatherlike fabrics, rugged water-resistant nylon for all-terrain/all-purpose vehicles, and fashionable designs ranging from florals and prints to its new vibrant pink, lime green or black "Shaggy," made of a microfiber never before used on seat or steering wheel covers.

"It resembles high-quality shag carpet material, but one touch reveals that this is not your father's steering wheel cover," says Michelle Wood, Bell's vice president of sales. The "Shaggy" universal seat covers retail for less than $26.

There's no longer a need to go without back-seat DVD screens for that long trip with the kids or ante up big bucks for an aftermarket roof-mounted system. Retail and online discounts are common for most new portable automotive DVD systems, such as Philips' 7-inch LCD dual-screen portable DVD player, which includes built-in stereo speakers, headphone jacks, a car adapter and mounting straps.

You can skip the mounting straps by switching out your car's regular headrests with any of a number of brands that offer DVD players built right into a replacement headrest. Available in a few basic colors, they are relatively easy to install. Some higher-end players, such as the dual-headrest DVD players, have zippered covers that hide the 7-inch monitors when they are not in use. The monitors can be connected to each other to view the same movie or used individually.

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