Chrysler 300 © 2006 Continental Automotive SystemsClick to enlarge picture

Traffic cones fly as a Chrysler 300 tries to maintain control while negotiating a turn on wet pavement. Most versions of the 300 come with standard electronic stability control.

I was behind the wheel of a new Chrysler 300 sedan and running late. Suddenly, the car's V8 power was slackening some, though my right foot remained where it was on the gas pedal, urging the car to accelerate.

It turned out that subtle braking was going on, too, to get the big, 4-door car stabilized and headed back in the direction that I had set with the steering wheel.

The actions, all done automatically by the 300's electronic stability control system (ESC), made a big impression once I realized what had occurred in those few seconds.

I had been traveling too fast for a poorly lit, damp, circular ramp that had slick and broken pavement, and one of the auto industry's best safety innovations had just intervened on its own to save me from a skid and likely, a crash.

Fortunately, I won't be the only one rescued by stability control.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it's requiring that all future passenger vehicles have standard stability control by 2012.

Better yet, several automakers already have made stability control standard on all their cars or are moving up their plans to do so.

Been Around Since the 1990s

Electronic stability control that seeks to automatically reduce speed and judiciously apply braking power to one or more wheels to avoid a skid and loss of driver control isn't exactly new, especially to buyers of luxury Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

The German automaker started installing electronic stability control in 1995 and made it standard on all models by 1999.

A study from Germany early this decade confirmed the benefits of stability control: Mercedes cars with this technology were involved in 15 percent fewer crashes than vehicles that didn't have stability control.

By 2006, at least nine other independent studies around the globe showed that stability control can help drivers maintain directional control and have fewer single-vehicle crashes, in particular.

NHTSA in Washington, D.C., took years, however, to draw its own conclusions and only in fall 2006 chose to give stability control the official thumbs up while giving automakers another half dozen years—to 2012—to make this important safety feature standard.

Finding Stability Control Now

Car shoppers don't need to wait, though.

Several car brands already have standard electronic stability control on many, if not all, models. Besides Mercedes, they include BMW, Cadillac and Audi. DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group saw fit to put standard stability control on its rear-wheel-drive cars, such as the Chrysler 300 that I was driving.

Meantime, Ford Motor Co. announced it will have stability control standard on all consumer-version Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars and trucks by the end of 2009.

And even when stability control isn't standard, shoppers today can sometimes find it by carefully culling vehicle option lists.

This is particularly true among minivans. For example, stability control isn't offered on the base, 2007 Nissan Quest. But stability control is part of a $3,000 extra package on the mid-line, 2007 Nissan Quest SL, and it's standard on the top-of-the-line Quest SE. Meanwhile, all 2007 Honda Odyssey minivans come with standard vehicle stability control. So, be sure to shop around.

Over the years, automakers have added stability control to sport-utility vehicles as a way of reducing the incidence of skids and rollovers involving these vehicles with higher ground clearance. Thus, every 2007 Toyota SUV, from the RAV4 to the Land Cruiser, comes with standard stability control, and even Jeep's lower-priced models—the 2007 Compass and Jeep Wrangler—now include standard stability control.

Be aware, though, that there will be situations where you won't find stability control, even as an option. This is particularly true among small, lower-priced cars, such as the Kia Rio, Ford Focus and Honda Fit. They just don't offer it yet.

Many Names, Same Function

Note that stability control has many commercial names. At Cadillac, it's called StabiliTrak, while its ESP—for Electronic Stability Program—at Mercedes. At Toyota, the names are VSC and VDIM—for Vehicle Skid Control and Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management.

There are no additional maintenance requirements for stability control, which basically piggybacks on sensors in a vehicle's four wheels that operate the anti-lock brake system and also can intervene on throttle control.

Be aware that stability control adds a minor complication to some activities.

If your vehicle becomes stuck in deep snow, for example, automakers generally advise that you turn off stability control—there's usually a deactivation button on the dashboard—in order to get the full power of the engine and wheel spin as you try to work your vehicle free.

Read your owner's manual for these and other details.

And remember that stability control cannot compensate if you're driving far beyond road and vehicle conditions. In other words, it's not a license to drive recklessly.

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