There Was a Time When You Could Get OnStar in an Acura TL

As most people know by now, OnStar is General Motors’ vehicle-based communication and information service. Less relevant in today’s connected world than it was in the past, the service was ahead of its time back in the late 1990s and 2000s, and it was, and still is, offered in just about every General Motors vehicle sold here in the U.S. GM marketed OnStar’s functionality heavily. It was just about impossible to watch an entire football or basketball game in the early 2000s without seeing a commercial mentioning the service, to the point where it became synonymous with each of the GM brands. But did you know that OnStar wasn’t always strictly a GM thing?

From 2002 to 2006, OnStar was offered through a licensing agreement on products from Isuzu, Subaru, Acura and Volkswagen. I still remember the first time I noticed this, way back in my days working as a lot attendant at a car dealership. Someone had just traded in a Volkswagen Passat, and when I got behind the wheel to move it, I was taken aback by the little blue "OnStar" button on the overhead console — and I proceeded to momentarily panic at this perceived bending and melding of two different worlds.

As far as how these non-GM brands came to offer the service, the explanations are pretty simple, for the most part.

The likely reasoning behind the Isuzu association is probably the easiest one to explain, as GM held a large ownership stake in Isuzu at the time.

GM had a roughly 20 percent stake in Subaru in the early 2000s, as well, the fruit of which included the famous "Saabaru," the Subaru Impreza-based Saab 9-2x. GM divested from Subaru in 2005.

Acura’s inclusion of the OnStar button on certain models came into the picture as part of an agreement that GM would use a Honda engine in an upcoming vehicle. Presumably, this was the Honda V6 that saw use in the first-generation Saturn Vue. Apparently, when GM abandoned analog OnStar service in favor of digital in 2006, owners of Acura models with the feature were left high and dry, as Acura had chosen not to sign on for the hardware updates required for digital service.

VW’s incorporation of the OnStar service, which in this case was referred to as "Volkswagen Telematics by OnStar," started with the Passat W8 and presumably was added to the rest of the Passat lineup shortly thereafter, as I would surely remember if the example I sat in was a rare W8 model. Details on the origins behind OnStar’s relationship with VW have proven difficult to track down.

Anyway, the more I researched it, the more I grew fascinated by this little footnote in automotive history, and I thought you would enjoy it, too.

Chris O’Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. Follow him on Instagram: @MountainWestCarSpotter.

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