The 5 best and 5 worst in-car tech options
17th Apr 2013 | 15:39
From Bluetooth to on-board internet and apps
Five best in-car tech deals
It doesn't make headlines or shave off seconds round the Top Gear test track. But in-car tech like nav, Bluetooth and smartphone integration is the biggest differentiator in modern motoring. Here's our guide to the best and worst deals you can buy.
Shop around for a 1.8-litre diesel hatchback and you'll find most of the key metrics are separated by a cigarette paper.
Power, performance, emissions, passenger space, they're often almost identical. OK, the warranties that cover all that hardware can vary. But the oily bits are awfully similar.
The driving experience is very samey, too. It's often said there are no bad cars any longer. When it comes to things like ride and handling, that's almost true.
But not when it comes to in-car technology. From touchscreens to voice control and DAB to internet connectivity, there are huge differences in infotainment pricing and capability.
Put it this way. You probably won't notice whether a Golf or a Focus has better steering feel. But you definitely will know if you iPhone syncs more smartly or if that clunky navigation doesn't support postcodes.
However, the good news is that things are changing fast. Manufacturers are waking up to the fact the cars buyers simply won't stand for paying five times as much as a tablet computer for half the functionality.
Five best deals in infotainment
Audi A3 MMI with Navigation
Premium manufacturers are addicted to hitting customers with big bills for infotainment options. In this part of the market, full-feature in-car systems with navigation typically command four-figure fees.
Indeed, systems costing £2,000 or more are not unusual. But things are beginning to change. The new Audi A3 gets a fair amount of MMI functionality as standard, including the main LCD display, the input wheel and Bluetooth right across the range.
Meanwhile, upgrading to the navigation-enabled option costs £495. That looks pricey comapred with an aftermarket option like a TomTom. But it's very aggressively priced for a premium factory fit system.
BMW and MINI (every model) DAB radio
It seems like an obvious thing to do, fitting DAB radio as standard to every car. Instead, you'd be amazed just how many cars can't even be had with DAB radio as a cost option.
Hats off, then, to BMW for making DAB standard on every BMW and MINI branded car it sells . It'll cost BMW almost nothing in terms of fitting the hardware. But it does mean they miss out on on upselling DAB as an option. Here's hoping more car makers follow BMW's lead.
Fiat 500 Blue&Me
When Blue&Me first appeared on the cutesy Fiat 500 back in 2007, it was one of the most innovative in-car system on the market with its early take on in-car apps like ecoDrive.
Since then, Fiat has rather let Blue&Me stagnate. Smartphone integration and internet connectivity are conspicuous by their absence. However, For just £250 you still get a simple, effective little system that does the basics better than most. That includes music from iPhones or USB devices and Bluetooth telephony. For around £240 more, you can add an semi-integrated TomTom device for navigation.
Vauxhall Adam Intellilink
Vauxhall's new city car has a tough job on its hands. Whatever the price point, from the VW Up! To the Fiat 500 and Audi A1, the competition is seriously stiff.
But the oddly named Adam's new Intellink system could help turn heads. For just £275, you get what Vauxhall claims is seamless iPhone and Android integration along with access to internet-based apps and GPS navigation via your handset. The Adam is so new, we haven't tried it yet. But it looks great on paper.
VW Up! Maps and More
It's not perfect. But it is very cheap at just £250. And it has all the critical features covers. That's the VW Up!'s Maps and More infotainment system. At a glance, it looks like a boggo, off-the-shelf Navigon satnav device.
But it's actually a bit cleverer than that. It's integrated into the Up!'s telematics and audio system. So features like the trip computer, music playback and Bluetooth functionality are all brought together on the x-inch touchscreen. And because it's based on a Navigon device, you can whip it out of the car and use it as a portable nav device.
Five worst in-car tech deals
BMW 1 Series iDrive Professional
Just to prove we're not BMW fanboys, here's something BMW could do better. It's one thing charging a couple of thou' for an infotainment system in an £80k luxury limo. But the BMW 1 Series is the brand's entry-model starting at £17,510.
In that context, charging nearly £2,000 for nav, tunes and a few other frills is utterly outrageous. In many ways, you get more functionality in a £400 tablet.
It's pity because iDrive is one of if not the best full-feature in-car systems on the market. We'd definitely want it in any BMW we bought. Our advice is to drive a hard bargain in the showroom and get the dealer to throw it in for free or at least at a very heavy discount.
Honda Civic Honda SD Navigation System
Hondas are reliable, well made and reasonably priced. We like Hondas. But what on earth is Honda doing charing nearly £2,000 for the frankly semi-shonky SD Navigation System?
OK, it has a 6.1-inch touchscreen, USB, Bluetooth connectivity and navigation. But it feels utterly ancient compared with the latest and greatest systems. Internet connectivity? Apps? You must be joking. Luckily, it slots into a double-DIN slot in the dash, so you it's easy enough to skip it and buy something better from an aftermarket supplier.
Mercedes A-Class DAB radio
Four hundred and twenty earth pounds for DAB radio? Cue John McEnroe levels of pure, unadulterated outrage.
There's not much more we can say about this one. We doubt it costs much more than £10 to put DAB in an A-Class. And frankly it ought to be standard. So charging that much for it is positively preposterous.
That's a shame because the Drive Kit Plus iPhone-integration feature of the Mercedes-Benz COMAND system (see our video here) is really rather funky. So Merc does know how to do good infotainment features. It just needs to wake up a bit on the pricing.
MINI Cooper Bluetooth with USB
If you asked use to put together a Bill of Rights for modern in-car infotainment, we'd say every new car should have DAB, Bluetooth and USB as standard.
When you think about it, you often get the latter two on even the cheapest portable devices. There are smartphones that have that kind of functionality, plus a touchscreen, internet connectivity, GPS and more. Anyway, at the very least, Bluetooth and USB should be cheap.
OK, you get an armrest connector for your phone. And MINI swears blind the price reflects the cost. But for £700, it's surely one of the biggest rip offs in car tech.
Porsche Cayenne TV Tuner
How much use is a TV tuner in a car? That's open to reasonable debate.
What's not is that charging over £1,000 to add that functionality takes breathtaking cheek. Just think how much HDTV that would buy you. Hell, you could buy a pretty decent HDTV and a nice 1080p projector for £1,000 these days. And Porsche wants that to stick in a £50 tuner board? Very, very naughty.