You're shopping for a new car. You've selected a style, worked out the financing and even picked the color. But there is still one element in picking the right new car that could make or break the deal: the audio system and other tech features that can make the car an enjoyable place to be whether you're commuting to work or driving long distances.
Many new cars have systems, dubbed "infotainment," that can integrate music, navigation, climate control, cell phones and whatever else automakers can dream up. The good thing is that there are several approaches to the same concepts, and they are all pretty good at keeping our hands on the wheel while we sing along or connect with the outside world, thanks to things like iPod integration and Bluetooth. Here are the major players:
Developed in conjunction with Microsoft, this system is available on most Ford vehicles. It links up with almost any Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, makes the contents of an iPod accessible through the car's audio system, helps with navigation, and can even read back text messages. And it's all activated by spoken commands.
Just press a button on the steering wheel, say something like "phone home," and Sync will place the call. The latest version of Sync understands more than 10,000 words. If an airbag goes off, the system will call a 911 operator. If there's a vehicle recall, the driver is advised. Although Sync will only pair with one phone at a time, it can take up to 12 phones and preserve any specially designated ringtones for certain callers. Services and features can be upgraded later, so Sync will likely get even better over time.
For a subscription, OnStar will provide hands-free phone use, turn-by-turn navigation and communication with emergency services. Most of the system is hidden away in the rear-view mirror, where pressing the friendly blue OnStar button puts the user through to an operator. Because talking to a real person is a key part of OnStar, it can be perfect for older drivers or anyone else who might be intimidated by the less-forgiving computer interfaces found in the other systems.
OnStar also links up to the vehicle's on-board diagnostics system to remind drivers when service is due. And if your OnStar-equipped car is stolen, the system can track the vehicle (and even cut power to help police catch the thief). This system was initially available on General Motors' products (Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC), but is now available as an aftermarket item – called OnStar FMV – for any brand of car.
Uvo is a lot like Ford's Sync system. That's because Microsoft is involved in this as well, using the same voice recognition technology. But whereas Sync does not need a screen to function, Uvo employs a touchscreen display that also doubles as a monitor for a reversing camera. Uvo does not have the same range of extra services as Sync, but its 700-megabyte hard drive can store plenty of music, which can be useful when you forget to pack your iPod. The system is available in the 2011 Kia Sorento, Optima, Optima Hybrid and Sportage and will be an option for the 2012 Kia Soul and Rio.
Hyundai Blue Link
Hyundai's system is similar to OnStar. Among the 30 features Blue Link will launch with this summer are remote start (to warm or cool the car before setting off), geofencing (which sends a text message to a parent's cell phone if a young driver has driven the car past a preset boundary) and an "eco-coach" for optimum fuel conservation. The first car to receive Blue Link is the 2011 Hyundai Sonata mid-size sedan, but the company intends to add it to most of the lineup by 2013.
Going higher up the automotive food chain brings more features. BMW was one of the first companies to try and bring many controls and settings into one place, cutting down on the spread of buttons in the cockpit, and freeing the interior for more interesting design options. Now it's possible to adjust the air conditioning, tune into a radio station and select suspension modes and transmission shift points, all with just one controller. Most of the phone-based functions are activated by voice, but iDrive also has a rotary dial that acts like a computer's mouse.
The first generation, also using Microsoft software, came out in 2001 to a lukewarm reaction. Many users felt it required too much attention, becoming a distraction in itself. Since then, BMW has worked to make the system more intuitive. And a new system, called ConnectedDrive, links drivers to traffic updates, the internet, and a concierge service to book hotels and restaurants.
Audi Multi Media Interface
Shortened to MMI, Audi's command center tends to be user-friendlier than BMW's iDrive system, although it performs many similar functions. That said, an hour or so spent sitting in the driveway with the manual would be a safer course of action than trying to work out what it does while on the move.
It also incorporates a large screen with high-resolution graphics, while the navigation system displays "three-dimensional" images of buildings, once the user has zoomed in. On top of that is a 10-gigabyte hard drive for music, which should keep all family members happy on a road trip. Because no matter how sophisticated the speech recognition, it still gets confused when everyone talks at once.
Also known as Cockpit Management and Data System, Comand is at the silicon heart of modern Mercedes-Benz cars. With a turn-and-click function wheel to access menus and sub-menus ranging from navigation to showing the cover art of a favorite CD, Comand understands vocal input even when the speaker stumbles with an "Er..." or answers "Yeah" to a question. Another cool feature (though not unique to Comand) is dynamic navigation, where a route can be recalculated if the system learns of any traffic issues further up the road.
Lexus Remote Touch
Lexus has forsaken its touchscreen setup for something similar to the BMW iDrive and Audi MMI. It's like a trackball mouse with a flat top. Despite being one of the newer kids on the infotainment block, most reviewers have responded favorably to the eight-inch screen and the use of voice commands. Remote Touch is currently available in the RX, the CT200h and the HS250h.
It isn't just Toyota's luxury brand that gets all the good gadgetry. When it comes out this fall, the Prius V will have Entune. This is an application that offers mobile access to online applications, like MovieTickets.com (for times, reviews and tickets) and internet radio, plus updates on things like fuel prices, traffic, and sports. The first voice-activated app is Microsoft's Bing search engine, but there should be a growing number as Entune matures and proliferates to other Toyota models.
So far, this only works with an iPhone, but it brings web-based audio like Pandora into the cabin, Google Local Search (to locate nearby businesses), and social networking in the form of Facebook and Twitter. When using Google Maps, Mini Connected has a feature that sends a location to the car's navigation system.