Connect with your car

How to plug in your music, apps, and lifestyle

Consumer Reports magazine: April 2013

Many cars now let you play Internet radio stations through your phone.
Photo: Buick

If you haven’t ventured into a car showroom in a few years, get ready to be wowed. The days of being limited to AM, FM, and CDs are far behind us. Today’s vehicles offer a dazzling range of electronic entertainment possibilities.

Forget what a DJ wants to play; there are now multiple ways to connect a portable music player or smart phone to your car and listen to your favorite tunes. Or by linking a smart phone to a modern infotainment system, you can stream Internet radio stations, perform Web searches, and check local gas prices, weather forecasts, and more, right from your driver’s seat.

You can have the car read text messages to you. With an integrated navigation system, you can even look up local restaurants, make an online reservation, and get turn-by-turn directions on how to get there. And many of those functions can often be controlled simply by speaking commands, which lets you keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

In-car electronics is the fastest-growing area of auto technology, as automakers scramble to one-up one another. Demand in the showroom has exploded, and savvy dealerships are training staffers to be electronics experts who can guide you through their systems. “Electronic features, such as streaming music and Bluetooth for hands-free calls, are the most popular options that people are asking for,” says Robert Lysiak, a sales consultant at Grand Prize Chevrolet Cadillac Buick GMC in Nanuet, N.Y. “They have taken the place of GPS.”

Yes, the controls for many of these advanced systems are complicated and distracting to use. And you don’t want to be fiddling with them while driving. But the best designs offer an unprecedented level of versatility and convenience that is changing how we live with our cars.

Many paths for music

The Tesla Model S includes a 17-inch in-dash touch screen.

Most new cars come with one or more ways to link a portable music device, so you can listen to your selections through the car’s audio system. Mini-jack and USB ports can be found in even budget models; just plug in, select “Aux” in the audio controls, and you’re in business. With a USB port, you can often operate your device with the car’s radio controls and see the song, album, and artist information in its display. You can also play music stored on a flash drive.

When comparing cars, check that the location of the inputs works for you. They’re typically found in the dash, center console, or glove box. The latter two let you keep your device out of sight but may not work as well if you mount your phone in a windshield or dash mount for navigation or hands-free phone calls.

Most new cars also come with a Bluetooth system that allows you to wirelessly connect a phone. It lets you not only dial by voice and talk hands-free but also stream music stored on the phone or received through a data connection (think Aha or Pandora).

With the ability to stream Internet audio, which is often free, think twice before paying for a satellite-radio receiver and subscription, unless there’s specific Sirius XM content you want and/or you live where data reception is spotty. HD radio programming is free but can suffer from annoying echoes and stutters in reception.

There’s an app for that

The next step up is a full infotainment system that typically integrates a car’s audio, navigation, communication, and climate systems. It usually includes an in-dash display and is controlled through a touch screen or a multifunction controller (or both), hard keys, and/or voice commands.

The latest trend is for automakers to integrate apps into these systems that let you access various content from your smart phone. Toyota’s Entune system, for example, lets you stream Pandora and iHeartRadio stations, perform Bing destination searches, make restaurant reservations through OpenTable, search for and buy movie tickets, and check traffic, weather, fuel prices, stocks, and sports scores. To do that, you need to load the appropriate apps on your phone, connect it to the car’s system through Bluetooth or a USB cable, and then operate the apps through the car’s in-dash display or with voice commands. Just remember to keep an eye on your data-plan limits.

To reduce driver distraction, some functions are usually deactivated while the vehicle is moving. And though there can still be features that take your eyes off the road, using an in-car system is easier than trying to operate the small buttons of a portable device while you drive.

That said, some systems are easier to use than others. We’ve found Cadillac’s CUE and the MyFord/MyLincoln Touch systems to be particularly frustrating. Common gripes are complicated menus, touch screens that are slow to respond, touch-sensitive buttons that are fussy and imprecise, and small display fonts and buttons that are hard to quickly read and access.

On the plus side, Chrysler’s Uconnect Touch system provides simple, clear menus while retaining easy-to-use push buttons and knobs for frequent tasks. The 17-inch touch screen in the Tesla Model S has large onscreen buttons and is super responsive.

We’ve also found that voice-recognition systems can be handy for common functions and for controlling a music player. CUE and MyFord/MyLincoln Touch may be frustrating, but at least they have class-leading comprehensive voice commands.

When sizing up an infotainment system, run through common functions, like setting up a Bluetooth connection, tuning in a radio station, setting and accessing presets, adjusting the cabin temperature, and operating apps, if available.

Navigating the GPS maze

Should you get a built-in navigation system? Automaker systems have larger screens and often allow programming by voice. But they can be pricey. Some start at about $650, but others may only come in an options package costing $2,000 or more. You can also get a good portable GPS device with the same basic functionality for about $100. And many people now use smart phones for navigation. Google Maps is a well-developed app that’s free on Android and iPhone models. Apps from Garmin and TomTom start at around $50 and have also done well in our tests.

If you use your phone, you’ll need a way to charge it because navigation can quickly run down the battery, and a windshield or dash mount to hold the phone in place. One drawback: If you’re in a rural area with poor data reception, you may not be able to use your phone for navigation.

Overall, we’ve been impressed with the convenience of today’s systems, but we would like to see automakers make them more intuitive to use, with simpler interfaces and greater use of voice controls. And keep in mind that this technology is evolving rapidly, so check the automakers’ websites to see what’s available on any car that sparks your interest.

The trouble with MyFord Touch

Regular readers know that we aren’t fans of Ford’s MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment systems. The controls are overly complicated, cumbersome to use, and potentially distracting. But aside from the usability problems, we’ve had numerous electronic glitches and system crashes in our test vehicles’ systems. As it turns out, we’re not the only ones.

In our 2012 Annual Auto Survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, a relatively high percentage of Ford and Lincoln owners reported having problems with the audio system in their vehicles. To drill deeper into these problems, we conducted a follow-up survey this past December with owners of 2011 and 2012 Ford Edge, Ford Explorer, and Lincoln MKX vehicles that were equipped with the Touch systems. We asked them about their specific problems and their satisfaction with the systems.

Thirty percent of survey respondents said the Touch system was highly influential in their purchase decision. And while almost two-thirds found it complicated to use during the first few weeks of ownership, most of those owners felt it got easier as they got used to it. Still, it was plagued by problems.

About half of the respondents had trouble with their vehicle’s entertainment, navigation, or communication systems. And two-thirds of them said they had problems with MyFord or MyLincoln Touch. The most common problem, reported by almost 75 percent of this group, was that the system locked up. More than half said that it was slow to respond or had a blank screen, or that voice commands didn’t work properly. Forty-five percent said the touch buttons didn’t respond as expected. Almost 70 percent said the system required repair, but only three-quarters of them said the fix worked. Only half of all owners said they were highly satisfied with the Touch systems.

In our tests of 2013 Ford and Lincoln models, we are still finding the systems to be buggy. In response to continued complaints, Ford is pushing out further updates and increasing warranty coverage. We’ll let you know whether things improve in future tests.

Can your old car do new tricks?

Aftermarket setups, such as this Pioneer system, provide many of the features of new cars.
Photo: Pioneer

Is your car in the dark ages when it comes to modern in-car electronics? Take heart. Plenty of aftermarket options are available to bring your ride up to speed. “Today, with a five-year-old car you can add as many or more modern conveniences than you can find in many of the brand-new cars,” says Jeffery Fay, director of mobile electronics at Crutchfield, an online electronics retailer based in Charlottesville, Va.

“The three things that people are wanting are navigation, iPod or iPhone integration, and Bluetooth,” says John Haynes, product development manager at Al & Ed’s Autosound, a chain of mobile-electronics retail and installation shops headquartered in Van Nuys, Calif. To get those, you can go with a stand-alone kit, a plug-and-play system using the car’s radio, or a new radio head unit and display.

With growing concern about distracted driving and bans in several states on using handheld cell phones, a Bluetooth add-on to allow hands-free calling is a common upgrade. Stand-alone Bluetooth kits typically start around $40. Most are easy to set up, have long battery life, and can shut themselves off automatically. You’ll get better sound with one that plugs into a car’s auxiliary audio input, if available, than by listening through an FM modulator.

For about $120, you can link a Bluetooth device to the car’s radio. Add another $50 and you get an LCD screen to display the caller ID and phone book.

To connect a music player to your existing factory radio, you can have a $100-to-$150 module installed that lets you plug in through a USB or iPod jack.

To go further, you can swap out your existing radio for an aftermarket system. A new head unit with Bluetooth capability and the ability to control a music player starts around $100. Getting one with a larger screen to show the name of the song and artist will cost about $400. And adding built-in GPS navigation and a touch screen will set you back at least $600.

But there are downsides. Aftermarket radios often have smaller displays, buttons, and knobs. Replacing a basic radio isn’t difficult, but the job becomes complex with modern integrated radios, especially those that include climate controls. You also want to make sure remote displays and steering-wheel controls will still work.

For most people, having work performed by an audio installation shop is the best route. For the do-it-yourselfer, companies like Crutchfield help you find the radio or upgrade kit that works with your car.

The sky’s the limit with aftermarket radios. A new car radio from Kenwood, coming this spring and retailing for about $1,700, will have built-in Wi-Fi and cloud-based content sharing. It will allow you to send movies and music to a passenger’s iPod or iPad. And plenty of other bells and whistles will put you a step ahead of the latest new-car systems. Then, who will be in the dark ages?

Did you know?

Not every smart phone is compatible with every car. You'll probably be able to make basic calls, but some advanced features, like Bluetooth streaming or spoken text message capability, might not work. So check how well your phone interacts with any car you're considering. You can often find information on the automaker's website.

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