Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Keys ARE The Kingdom

When it was time to pick up the new car, I thought I had all the details covered. The check from the bank was in my hand. The insurance card had been faxed to the dealer the day before. I had cleaned out the garage. I had a set of jumper cables, a litter bag and had even bought myself a new traveling coffee mug.

But I hadn't factored in the keys.

You know, keys. Those things that you stick in the door and turn to open the lock. Small pieces of metal carried by maintenance guys on huge rings. Generally silver or gold colored, usually flat, but occasionally round or stubby if they're meant for a bike or a padlock. And available from any hardware store for a buck or so, a little more if you select the ones with the color coded tops.

Ah, but not so fast. Cars today... excuse me, vehicles today... have gone upscale with their keys the same way as everything else. Just as radios have morphed into entertainment centers and seats into driver support systems, so too has the lowly key. No longer simple slot and tumbler affairs, they are "secure vehicular access systems," loaded with the same kind of hi-tech accessories as a cell phone.

In fact, it's hard to find a car today that doesn't have a complete entry package. At the low end, this might mean a remote that locks and unlocks the car, as well a panic button to set off the alarm if you feel threatened. Move up the ladder, and the remote might also be capable of opening the windows or even adjusting the driver's seat and mirrors to your preferred driving position. At the top of the scale, you get all this and you don't even have to take it out of your pocket or purse to use it: the car senses the remote's approach and springs into action. All you need to do is slide into the seat, press a button on the dash, and roar off like James Bond.

Aside from convenience, these systems also offer another added benefit: security. Many now contain a microchip in the key that has to mate with a receiver in the dash. Without that electronic handshake, the car won't start, even if the key fits. While it's hardly the only factor, it's one that has appears to have had a positive effect: based on preliminary FBI data, auto thefts were trending downward nationally for the third year in a row.

Of course, advancements like this don't come cheap. While the cost of the original factory installation is one aspect, it doesn't stop there. Whereas in the past you could get a spare copy of a vehicle key made at hundreds of outlets, it now has to be specially ordered from the dealer, and then programmed for your car. Honda charges $69 for a replacement, Mercedes $140. And if you lose your Toyota Prius key, you'll not only be greening the environment but your dealer's pockets as well: a replacement there goes for $210.

On top of that, these things have morphed from petite slivers of metal to Swiss army knife-esque proportions. And I'm not talking about the little one with a toothpick, a tweezers and a blade good for opening an envelope. Rather, they have grown to resemble those contraptions that include a corkscrew, a serrated blade for cutting down trees and a scuba mask. In fact, Volkswagen has done away with the key entirely. They have a version where once you open the car you stuff the entire remote into a slot on the dash to start it. And like one of those Russian dolls, the fob actually contains a plastic key that won't turn over the engine but gives you access, so you can lock the fob inside and "go surfing."

All of which brings me back to my problem. The key for the new car included one with a remote built in. All well and good. But I also had a similar device for my wife's car. Add to that the keys to our other vehicles, the house key, and a few others, and my key ring had increased to roughly the size of a baseball. Putting it in my pocket risked torn pants, not to mention emasculation in the most literal sense. Thank God I already had kids.

Sure, I could pare down my collection, but then I wouldn't have what I needed when I needed it. And forget the idea of carrying an extra. Even if I was willing to fork over the $100 or so it would likely cost, my wallet would swell like it had a goiter problem. To paraphrase Mae West, is that a spare key in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

I tried several arrangements, different key rings, different pockets. Nothing worked. And so after much soul searching, I decided to skinny things down and carry just the key for the car I was driving, with the others left on a hook in my backpack. Additionally, there's no spare in my wallet to back me up. It may be a normal approach for others, but I feel like I'm on a trapeze without a net.

Now every time I get out of the car or leave a restaurant or move from any one place to another, I pat myself down like I'm being frisked. I live in fear that I'll leave the key somewhere and be stranded. I'm thinking of clipping them to my belt like I did in college, much to the chagrin of my wife. These new fangled gadgets are supposed to make life easier. Instead, it has me only thinking about one thing: where my key is, lock, stock and barrel.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes his new Wrangler, in spite of his entry and exit issues. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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