Car Connectivity Buying Guide
Our detailed car buying guide can help you choose from among all the infotainment systems out there.
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As infotainment and telematics systems have developed, they've become signatures for car brands.
Today, OnStar is just as synonymous with GM as the legendary small-block Chevy engine, and many new car buyers looking at a Mustang are just as concerned with Sync as they are with wheel and tire combinations.
Though every manufacturer approaches connectivity differently, each setup has its own strengths and weaknesses. Our car buying guide can help you choose among the many systems out there.
Manufacturers a Through C
The navigation system layout used by Acura—Honda's luxury marque—is very similar to Honda's i-MID display, which we reviewed on the 2013 Accord. The latest iteration of Acura's navigation and infotainment system, called AcuraLink, will debut on the 2014 Acura RLX sedan and will include the option of a live concierge in addition to smartphone connectivity.
Active safety features on the new RLX flagship include a lane-departure warning system that will steer the car back into its travel lane if the driver fails to react to audible warnings.
Like many infotainment systems from German manufacturers, Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) uses a center console–mounted clickwheel to control a centrally installed color screen. One of its most interesting features is the ability to pull Google Earth images from a smartphone's data connection, and display them in real time. That way, the MMI screen can overlay turn-by-turn navigation on an actual satellite image.
If owners don't want to use their phone's data plan, Audi also allows them to sign up for AudiConnect, a data plan from T-Mobile that can turn any Audi car into a WiFi hotspot starting at $15 per month. Currently, most models run on 3G, but new cars will feature 4G connections.
When BMW debuted iDrive in 2001, it was the first time a single controller and screen supplanted a dashboard full of buttons and knobs. After some growing pains, it's emerged as one of the best in-car user interfaces currently on the market. We tested iDrive with ConnectedDrive and BMW Apps in a 2013 BMW X1 and came away impressed. You can also get BMW Assist, a subscription based telematics and concierge service, if you're so inclined.
Buick's IntelliLink system got a refresh for the 2014 model year. The old system is nearly identical to Chevrolet's existing infotainment systems, just with a Buick-specific look and feel. The new optional system is once again quite similar to Chevy's MyLink as debuted in the 2014 Impala, complete with smartphone connectivity. You may also see some third-party apps available in 2014.
Cadillac vehicles feature the Cadillac User Experience, or CUE system. It replaces most physical buttons with capacitive touchscreens, including "swipe" controls for volume and climate control.
While we personally prefer systems that leave knobs and buttons for the most basic functions, we appreciate that CUE has a user-adjustable LCD screen in the gauge cluster. If you want a basic speedometer, fuel gauge, and odometer, you can select just that. Alternatively, you can monitor all vehicle systems. It's up to you to decide how complex your dash should look.
There are three separate, optional infotainment systems currently on the market in Chevrolet vehicles.
The Malibu, Volt, and others get an optional setup with lots of physical buttons and a touchscreen. It's a bit crowded, and doesn't allow for internet connectivity.
The tiny Spark and Sonic models get one of the most innovative systems we've seen in recent years as an option. Where most navigation systems rely on a hard drive or DVD for map information and a separate GPS unit for guidance, the Spark and Sonic can be fitted with an in-dash touchscreen that mirrors a navigation app on the driver's smartphone. They also get one of the first implementations of Siri Eyes Free—a button on the steering wheel that will connect to Siri-equipped iPhones.
The new Chevy Impala gets an updated version of MyLink as an option, which we predict will roll out across the company's entire lineup as it's refreshed.
Of course, since Chevrolet is part of the greater GM stable, all cars feature an OnStar button that connects the driver to a real, live human being for turn-by-turn directions and emergency services. Whether that button is activated depends on whether you want to pay a monthly or yearly fee, however.
GM recently opened up MyLink to third-party developers, so in 2014 you can expect to see some third-party apps.
Chrysler vehicles feature Uconnect as an option. It's a very straightforward system with navigation provided by Garmin. Icons are large, basic functions are controlled by physical knobs and buttons, and only a few items are hidden away in sub-menus. We previewed it on the 2013 Dodge Journey.
For 2014, Chrysler is adding some smartphone connectivity to Uconnect. We're looking forward to testing it.
Manufacturers D Through J
Though Fiat owns Chrysler, the little 500 doesn't get Uconnect. Instead, there's the option of a specially-designed aftermarket system that can attach to the dashboard when it's in use and be stowed in the glovebox when it's off. The 500 also lets users download their driving history on a USB drive and analyze it for fuel efficiency.
The new, larger Fiat 500L will feature a version of Chrysler's Uconnect as an option.
Ford is famous for its Sync infotainment and voice recognition platform, which it developed with Microsoft. MyFord Touch is an optional touchscreen component, which divides up vehicle functions in quadrants on an LCD screen. On the home screen, you'll get an infotainment overview. Press any of the quadrants—Navigation, Audio, Phone, or Climate—to expand it for more options. It's a good design, but being among the first to market has its disadvantages. Since MyFord Touch has been around for awhile, it's starting to lag behind some of the competition, lacking the lightning-fast processing times of recently developed competitors. That means you have to list out addresses by street name and town, rather than rattling them off in one shot, and sometimes button presses don't register immediately. We're hoping there's an update soon. At CES 2013, Ford announced that they'd be opening up the Sync platform to third-party developers. We're excited to see what apps may evolve from any partnerships. ***
A GM brand that often shares dealerships with Buick products, GMC has a similar optional IntelliLink system. In 2014, expect to see some third-party apps.
Honda's optional HondaLink navigation system uses two screens: a touchscreen for radio displays and settings, and a larger screen that uses a jog-wheel for data entry. It's the first to offer Harman Kardon's Aha connectivity system, which streams audio over a smartphone's data connection.
In addition to podcasts and radio stations, Aha will also read recommendations for restaurants and local attractions, so you don't have to take your eyes off the road. We tried it out in the 2013 Accord and found it to be a bit buggy, so we're hoping for updates soon.
Honda will also debut one of the first implementations of Siri Eyes Free, which uses a steering wheel–mounted control to connect to an iPhone's Siri voice recognition system.
As for active safety, the new Accord features a "lane watch" camera option that can display a wide-angle view of the passenger-side blind spot on the car's center stack–mounted LCD screen.
In addition to a basic touchscreen navigation system with no smartphone connectivity, Hyundai offers an optional telematics service called Blue Link. It's similar to GM's well-known OnStar system, with safety features such as crash alert and emergency assist. It also has a concierge-based navigation system, which lets you ask for directions by address or point of interest, hands-free.
What's especially interesting is that Blue Link first tries to use automatic voice recognition before routing you to a human operator. We tried it in several Hyundai products and found it to work quite well, though the final step of downloading a destination into the nav system is a little clumsy at first.
Also, there are annual fees ranging from $79 to $279 depending on the level of access you want. Other manufacturers offer free systems with similar infotainment functionality, although they lack safety features such as crash notification and will never connect you to a human being.
Since Infiniti is Nissan's luxury brand, it's no surprise that the two share similar infotainment platforms. Infiniti's system goes a little further, however, with Infiniti Personal Assistant concierge service to make reservations or find tickets—free for the first four years. Infiniti Connection provides telematics features such as collision notification and service reminders, and also allows your car to sync with Google Calendar and send appointments straight to the car's navigation system.
Stay tuned for an updated infotainment system that will result from Nissan's partnership with Intel.
Optional active safety features include a full-surround camera and collision detection for low-speed maneuvering in parking lots, plus a rear collision warning system that will slam on the brakes if the driver is in reverse and a collision with an obstacle is imminent. Lane departure warning goes one step further than a beep, as some cars and crossovers in Infiniti's lineup will even gently steer a car back into a lane.
Jaguar and Land Rover are under the same corporate parent, India's Tata Group. Their similar touchscreen navigation systems feel a bit laggy and outdated, and lack any smartphone connectivity aside from Bluetooth audio streaming.
Like Dodge and Chrysler, Jeep features Chrysler's Uconnect system as an option, which we previewed on the 2013 Dodge Journey. The new Cherokee will have an updated system with smartphone connectivity.
Manufacturers K Through R
Kia's optional infotainment systems are about to go through a sea change. Currently, Kia offers UVO, a Microsoft-powered system with voice recognition similar to Ford and Microsoft's Sync, albeit with an entirely different user interface.
The 2014 Sorento will be the first Kia to get UVO eServices, which allows for Google Maps integration, including directions and location search. It will also feature crash notification. At launch, it's expected only to work with an Apple iPhone.
The new Soul will feature a different platform entirely, and it runs Android. We saw it at the New York Auto Show, and though we only got a few minutes with the new Kia in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system, it sure looked impressive. There's an app store and smartphone connectivity, and Kia decided to ditch the CD player in favor of a larger screen. We'll be sure to give a full report when we've had more time to spend with it.
Aside from a cool off-road GPS system, Land Rover and Jaguar get similar navigation setups. Both are functional, but neither is as polished as the luxury competition.
Where Toyota has Entune, Lexus—Toyota's luxury division—has Enform for smartphone connectivity. Bing, Pandora, Yelp, OpenTable, and other apps are available in a user interface that's very similar to Entune. You need to have your Enform smartphone application registered and running first, and after the first year it gets fairly expensive.
Lexus also offers the SafetyConnect telematics suite for roadside assistance, emergency response, and crash notification. We unfortunately had the chance to try it out after some debris dropped by a truck punctured a tire on the GS we were driving, and found it a lot more pleasant than calling a tow truck directly. Bundled with Enform, the service costs $264.90 per year. It's $139.95 on its own.
While the software behind the two systems is extremely similar, one big difference between the Toyota and Lexus system is that Lexus vehicles feature a user interface called Remote Touch. Instead of a touchscreen or jog wheel, there's a sort of trackball in the center console that gives haptic feedback, vibrating and "locking" on to on-screen buttons. It requires less of a reach than a touchscreen and allows the screen to be set deeper in the dashboard. In the case of the new GS, it allows for a much wider split screen. We just wish Lexus hadn't done away with the physical "back" button, as the system now forces users to touch an on-screen back arrow instead.
As Ford's luxury division, Lincoln—er, the Lincoln Motor Car Company—gets a Lincoln-specific version of Sync and MyFord Touch called MyLincoln Touch. There's also the same available suite of active safety features, such as cross-traffic alert, blind spot detection, and lane-departure warning.
The Mazda infotainment systems we've tried out are fairly basic, with navigation from TomTom and an optional touch screen. There's one cool feature on the CX-5, though: As long as your car has the LCD screen in the center stack, you can upgrade to navigation even if your car didn't originally come with it.
Mercedes vehicles come with several optional infotainment and telematics systems. COMAND is the entire user interface, which relies on a clickwheel and buttons in the center console and a large LCD screen in the dashboard.
mBrace2 is Mercedes current telematics and connectivity setup. The hardware comes standard on all 2013 and up model year cars aside from the S-Class and CL-class. For $280 a year, you get safety services, such as collision notification and emergency assistance. For $20 a month more, you also can access a real, live concierge if you need help from a human being. For another $14 a month, you can also connect your data-enabled smartphone for access to apps such as Google Local Search, Yelp, and Facebook. That's $314 a month for the whole shebang. Keep in mind that those features come at a lower cost or even free on other vehicles.
There are also available active safety controls, such as collision-mitigation braking that helps to apply maximum brake force in the event that a collision is unavoidable, active cruise control, and blind spot warning.
We drove the 2013 GLK 350 crossover and used them all, even some of the active safety features.
Mercedes has also announced an iPhone-based navigation system for the upcoming CLA and C-Class. It mirrors a navigation app that uses the iPhone's GPS and processing power, but on the car's LCD screen. We're looking forward to testing it out.
We have yet to drive a Mini with an updated infotainment system. However, Mini does offer a Mini Connected iPhone App that appears to be quite similar to corporate parent BMW's ConnectedDrive. There's also an iPhone app called Mini Link that's meant as a driver-focused social network for Mini owners, including a parking spot finder and restaurant recommendations.
We haven't driven a recent Mitsubishi product that features an infotainment system.
Nissan's current optional infotainment and navigation systems are straightforward and simple, and lack internet connectivity. Many feature a jog wheel in addition to a touchscreen and a D-pad, for multiple entry methods.
On the 2013 Altima, Nissan debuted NissanConnect, which uses a phone's voice connection — not a data plan — to access Google POIs for navigation, among other features.
Recently, Nissan announced a partnership with Intel to build an entirely new infotainment platform. We're looking forward to testing it.
Just because you're driving a performance car doesn't meant that you don't want to listen to a playlist from your smartphone or find a restaurant. In fact, we'd argue that both are more important on a long road trip than on a daily commute.
We spent some time with Porsche's Porsche Communication Management (PCM) infotainment system, and came away impressed. It's quite simple, but also extremely straightforward, with solid-feeling knobs and buttons that click into place when you turn or push them. Our favorite feature: You can decide whether to look at audio, navigation, and vehicle functions on the center stack screen or on an LCD in the gauge cluster.
Ram is Chrysler's truck brand, and its models can feature the parent company's Uconnect system.
Range Rover and Land Rover share navigation systems.
Manufacturers S Through V
The Scions we've tested lack sophisticated infotainment systems. We're looking forward to trying out Scion's new-for-2013 BeSpoke system, which will run navigation, internet radio, Facebook, and Twitter off any iPhone that's running iOS 5 or 6—as long as it isn't an iPhone 5.
Subaru has updated their infotainment systems for 2013, scrapping a tiny TomTom system for a full-featured touchscreen setup. There's no smartphone connectivity other than audio Bluetooth streaming.
High trim level Legacys and Outbacks have active safety features including EyeSight adaptive cruise control, which will follow a vehicle at a safe distance, slowing and speeding up automatically.
We have yet to try out the massive touchscreen on the Tesla Model S. It controls nearly every vehicle and infotainment function.
In addition to optional navigation and infotainment systems, Toyota offers Entune, a series of apps that run on your car's infotainment system using your phone's data plan.
The setup differs a bit among Toyota's many cars, but the basic premise is the same: Connect your smartphone, run the Entune app, and access a few tailored apps on your car's touchscreen including Bing, OpenTable, MovieTickets.com, Yelp, and Pandora.
Though our first try with connecting Entune proved a bit buggy, we were impressed with it once our phone was properly paired. Using Bing to search for an address or point of interest is exceptionally fast, and we successfully made restaurant reservations through voice recognition.
VW's lineup has the option of basic infotainment systems, including touchscreen navigation. At the moment, there is no smartphone data connectivity and you can't get active safety systems such as blind spot detectors.
There's about to be a technological revolution at Volvo. Every 2014 car will come standard with Volvo's Sensus Connected Touch Android-based infotainment system, which we previewed at the New York Auto Show.
Every 2011+ car with a 7-inch touchscreen can be retrofitted with the setup, which impressed us in our first short look. Instead of capacitive touch, Volvo uses a "beam-scanned" screen, which uses infrared sensors to find your fingers. That allows drivers to keep their gloves on and still get the most out of the infotainment setup.
In addition, many Volvo cars come standard with City Safety, a radar-based automatic braking system that detects potential collisions and slams on the brakes to prevent them. Adaptive cruise control and pedestrian detection are also available.