Surprisingly big car audio systems are offered on several reasonably priced cars, including a cutting-edge smartphone app and Bluetooth streaming. Just because a $50,000 ride is out of reach doesn't mean your love of music should take a back seat to the realities of your budget.
Ford Focus/Focus ST
Ford led the audio systems infotainment revolution when it introduced its voice-activated SYNC audio system to the masses. Since then, Ford and its partner Microsoft have continued to improve on the SYNC system, adding the configurable screens of MyFord Touch as well as a thumping 355-watt Sony audio system with nine speakers and separate subwoofer. Sony's audio expertise is on full display in the Focus, delivering excellent mid-range and deep, rich bass without drowning out the more subtle frequencies.
The basic SYNC system, standard on all but the base Focus S trim, allows voice control of a cell phone's incoming and outgoing calls or an iPod's music list. It can even read aloud incoming text messages. If your phone has Bluetooth streaming, you can access and play any app on your phone, such as Pandora or Stitcher radio. The Sony audio package includes HD and XM Satellite radio, as well as navigation.
Mazda3 Grand Touring
The Mazda3's Bose Centerpoint audio system may not be the most powerful unit on the market, and it doesn't offer anything to rival Ford's SYNC or GM's MyLink, but it is one great sounding system. Standard on the GT trim, the Bose system with AudioPilot is powered by a 265-watt amp driving 10 speakers, including a cargo-mounted subwoofer fitted conveniently inside the spare tire rim. The system's dash-mounted center speaker creates a more studio-like sound, while AudioPilot helps to cancel out cabin noise. The system gets mixed reviews from owners posting about it on various Mazda sites -- mainly because everyone has different audio likes and dislikes. Thankfully, the Mazda3's Bose system offers a choice to have the Centerpoint and AudioPilot features turned on or off. Given this option, most owners posted they found a setting that made them happy.
Along with the Bose system comes Mazda's voice-activated navigation system designed by TomTom. This setup uses Bluetooth to stream audio apps from a smartphone to the Bose system. The Mazda navigation and infotainment interface is not as robust or feature-filled as the systems from Ford, GM, Hyundai and Toyota, but it gets the job done in a car that is a blast to drive, offers great features for the money and manages to pull off a 40 miles per gallon fuel economy rating.
VW Jetta, Passat and Beetle
Legendary guitar manufacturer Fender has teamed up with Volkswagen and Panasonic to create an audio system that truly could have come from a $100,000 luxury brand. Available in the Jetta GLI, Passat and Beetle, the Fender audio upgrade consists of a 400-watt amp and nine speakers, including separate woofer and tweeter units in each door and an 8-inch subwoofer mounted on the rear deck. No matter your taste in music -- whether it be soft passages of classical strings or the window-rattling bass beats of the best rock and rap groups -- the Fender system delivers crystal clear highs, rich bass and excellent separation (meaning vocals won't get buried by bass or mid range). And because VW has done such a good job buttoning down the interior build quality of its cars, you won't hear trim pieces and door panels rattling from vibration overload even when the volume is near max.
A USB iPod interface allows control of an iPod or similar digital music device via the touchscreen radio, and the system accommodates streaming Bluetooth from a smartphone, so you can listen to your favorite podcasts or songs from sites such as Pandora and Spotify.
The Dart may be billed as a sporty economy car, but its car audio systems options are anything but bargain basement. The optional 8-speaker Alpine audio system includes a separate 8-in subwoofer and, just in case you're hearing isn't what it used to be, a 506-watt amplifier. Another bonus is the radio's huge 8.4-in touchscreen -- one of the best in the industry, in our opinion. User-friendly icons make it easy to pick your music source, whether it be CD, iPod, XM or Bluetooth streaming from your smartphone. The system also includes voice activation for navigation, phone book and music, as well as some of the SiriusXM real-time Travel Link functions.
The ILX may not be what most consider an entry-level car, but it is if you're looking solely at Acura products. With a starting price around $27,000, the ILX is actually not much more expensive than a nicely equipped Ford Focus or Mazda6. Opt to pay a bit more and you can have Acura's ELS audio -- a system designed with the help of a Grammy-winning studio engineer. A 10-speaker system is driven by 415-watts and comprises one speaker in each door, two tweeters, a center mid-range speaker, two rear surround-sound units and one 8-in subwoofer. The ELS system has been universally praised for its excellence, faithfully recreating a studio sound experience aided by the ILX's ultra quiet cabin. As expected, the ELS audio system allows voice control for navigation, iPod or HDD (the system has a 15-GB hard drive for music storage) recall and also can access Pandora when paired with a Pandora app-equipped smartphone.
You don't hear much about Mitsubishi these days, but if you're looking for a reason to put one of their cars on your checklist, the available Rockford Fosgate audio is a pretty good one. Available on the Lancer, EVO, Outlander and Outlander Sport, the Rockford Fosgate audio package includes an astounding 710-watt amplifier driving eight speakers and a 10-in subwoofer. No question, this system was set up to punch bass and highs with the same brute force as the insane aftermarket systems normally seen (and heard) at SEMA shows. Knowing its intended audience probably isn't easy-listening aficionados, Mitsubishi designers worked with its Rockford Fosgate counterparts to design car doors that mimic speaker chambers and acoustic sound presets that mimic various musical venues, from studio to stage to concert hall.
Mitsubishi's FUSE hands-free voice activated system uses Bluetooth to control smartphone apps or iPod music selections, as well as connect with the car's available navigation system to place calls to a specific location, such as a hotel or restaurant.