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Test drive with Siri Eyes Free reveals connected car system needs more focus

Smart-phone integration puts iPhone control just a button away

Published: March 17, 2014 03:00 PM
Photo: Honda

Soon, in-car communications will link seamlessly with the Internet, allowing all sorts of Web-enabled tasks with minimal driving distraction. For now, the key to this connected world is through smart-phone integration, such as the Siri Eyes Free system that came with our 2014 Honda Civic. With the press of a button, the driver can access Apple’s nifty spoken-word factotum, Siri, through the car’s own communications hub.

It’s like using a hands-free phone but with Siri’s charming voice at the other end. Although it is a clever concept, our experience with our purchased Civic has shown this to be more of a baby step than the leap it purports.

For instance, when summoning navigation help, Eyes Free won’t throw up a map on the car’s central display screen and direct you to a destination Siri has found. Your phone will show the map, but the car does not. Kinda defeats the purpose.

For on-screen navigation help in our Civic, which lacks a dedicated nav system, the Civic’s “Next Generation” version of HondaLink can use a navigation app from Honda. You buy the app ($60) and a cord to plug your iPhone into the car ($100 more) and get a virtual navigation system, with maps downloaded to the car’s display screen using your phone as the bridge. That’s a pretty expensive app, and an extortionate price for a short length of wire cable. For that money, you could buy a nice dedicated dash-top navigator.

Photo: Honda

The $160 phone-based nav work-around functions fine, but it’s no ace. For one thing it doesn’t respond to voice commands. With Siri on hand, you’d think the voice controls and map functions would be married by now but so far they’re not on speaking terms. Another problem is that the maps arrive by cellular service, rather than satellite; if you go out of cell-tower range, you can wind up lost. And if someone calls you, the choices are to either take the call or keep the map displayed, but not both. Finally, the maps are just OK, and not as nice to look at as Google or Apple maps.

Help is on the way. Shortly after we purchased the HondaLink Navigation app and the cables, Apple announced a product called CarPlay that will essentially displace whatever system the carmakers offer. Apple claims CarPlay will integrate your music, Apple Maps, podcasts, and a host of other apps that you use on your phone, right onto the car’s display screen. Honda will be receiving CarPlay, but probably not before 2015 at the earliest. CarPlay will first appear in the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Along with Honda, Apple says it is also working with BMW, Ford, General Motors, Hyundai, Jaguar, Land Rover, Kia, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota for future systems.

For now, the HondaLink navigation app looks like a decent effort but not good enough. Since better smart phone navigation apps are available free, we’d rather invest in a good dash-top phone mount, and use the phone maps and voice guidance.

Mike Leung

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