Smart Key / Old School Car Key Smackdown: What’s Your Poison?

Smart Key
The Ford Mustang smart key opens the car and the trunk for you. But don't think of putting the key into the ignition; the Mustang has push button start

Are $300 smart keys really worth it?

Without reinventing the wheel, most car makers try to set their vehicles apart with new technologies and features. One item that has undergone an unlikely makeover is the car key.

Used to be, you had a key to unlike and start your car. But keys gave way to key fobs, which begat smart keys, and this confuses a lot of veteran drivers. What was wrong with my old key?

And when you lose a smart key – the cost can amaze you. $300 or more, for a key?

Smart Key

The Mazda key fob with the key popped out. Credit: Judy Antell for AGirlsGuidetoCars

Key fobs and smart keys – why?

Key fobs are the bridge between a regular car key and the smart keys that let you start your car remotely. With a key fob, you can unlock all the door of your car at once, handy if you have a group entering a car, and you can usually pop the trunk.

But the main advantage of a key fob is it makes stealing your car more difficult. It is nearly impossible to unlock the car without one, and you can’t drive away without the fob present in the car.

Replacement key fobs generally run about $50-$100, and you may have to pay extra to get the key programmed.

Let’s dwell on  that loss

Smart Key

A 10 year old Toyota key was the start of smart: a chip in the key allows the car to start (or not if the chip is missing) and the remote allows you to lock and unlock the car from a distance.

But smart keys and key fobs have a distinct advantage over regular old keys. Let’s say you are the type to lose keys. A lot.

This used to happen to, let’s say, a friend of mine. She had a terrible habit of driving to a remote mall and somehow losing her keys while shopping. The remedy here was a rescue drive by her boyfriend, with the spare sets of keys.

But with a smart key, unless you are prone to losing your entire pocketbook, you can get into your car, and start it, without needing a locksmith or your boyfriend. The key just sits there, all superior and never getting lost.

And some of the more advanced smart keys actually detect when you approach and unlock your car for you. No rooting around in your handbag for your keys.

Remote start

A huge advantage of a smart key is the remote start, which many cars offer as an added feature. Even in cities like New York, where you might think starting a car without the owner present would be an open invitation to a car thief, you can because the car has to be locked for the remote start to work and then the key needs to be in the car in order to put the car into gear; in fact, you have to push the start button even after you’ve remote started a car in order to drive it. I used this feature in Dallas, when the mercury hit 104 on our visit. We started the car from inside our air conditioned hotel lobby, and the AC started up too, so we got into the steaming car without burning our butts.

We also used the remote start in Utica in winter when it was below zero. A couple of minutes before we were ready to go I started the car, and it was warm and toasty when we got in.

And if you are wearing bulky gloves, you can start the car without fumbling to stick the key in the ignition.

Easy lift gate access

Smart Key

The Lexus NX200t smart key. This key unlocks the driver’s door and turns on the lights when you’re a few feet away and the third button from the top opens the liftgate for you

Once of the best functions of a smart key is the ability, in some vehicles, to open the liftgate without raising a finger.

Hyundai, for example, has what it calls a ‘smart’ liftgate, in its crossovers. When the doors are locked, you can approach the vehicle form behind, with the fob in your pocket, and the liftgate automatically rises.

Even better, the new Tucson allows you to program the height of the opening. Say you have a low garage roof, or are short, You can program the liftgate, using your key fob, to only open to a certain point. Genius.

Welcoming you to your car

The Black Label Lincoln MKC literally welcomes you to your car, with Approach Detection programmed into your smart key. As you near the vehicle, exterior lighting brightens, the door-handle pockets glow and a Lincoln logo welcome mat illuminates the area in front of both the driver and passenger doors.

This functionality comes at a price. Replacement smart keys can cost $300 – or more. So be proactive- keep track of your smart key.

Judy Antell, who is's Free in 50 States editor, lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and... More about Judy Antell