In the mid-2000s, automakers set their sights on generating new revenue by going after a piece of the vehicle-customization pie. As a result, “tuner” versions of automobiles no longer were the domain of customizing shops and aftermarket-parts producers. Aero kits, high-end wheels, lowered suspensions and chrome exhaust tips could be installed at automakers’ factories or by the dealer, so your one-of-a-kind ride already was pimped out at many dealerships for you to drive away.
The automotive aftermarket is under attack again.
Automakers can install smart-entertainment systems that incorporate the utmost in technology, right at the factory. That’s because automakers know that today, for many new-vehicle shoppers, high-quality sound takes a back seat to connectedness—to one’s email, Facebook newsfeed, Twitter feed, texts and music that’s cloud-based or that resides on a smartphone.
Although manufacturers of aftermarket automobile electronics pump out systems that provide this technology, too, these companies are doing so in a new era in which their expertise is required less, just as vehicle customizers witnessed 10 years ago. So what has been the response of some aftermarket automobile-electronics manufacturers, in particular in regard to automobile receivers? It has been to produce numerous versions of a “base” model, with each version including fewer or more features and functions than the base version has. Rather than try to compete with the automakers’ packed-with-tech, factory-installed receivers, aftermarket companies are going after new-vehicle buyers who are interested in some tech, but only the tech that they want. These consumers are able to forgo the significant cost that they would pay if they bought a vehicle that includes not only a fully featured smart-entertainment system that’s installed in the factory but also the equipment package of which that receiver—or multipurpose system or navigation system—is a part.
Of course, the availability of the latest technology in aftermarket electronics components is important to owners of vehicles that were manufactured before the emergence of today’s breed of sophisticated technology.
ARE YOU RECEIVING? According to Mark Boyadjis, who is the principal automotive-user-experience analyst at market-research company IHS, the North American market for so-called head units (read: receivers, multipurpose systems or navigation systems) that are made to be installed by the consumer via an installer is projected to be $780 million in sales in 2018 compared with $1.7 billion in 2011.
“The automotive companies have done a good job of putting better equipment in [vehicles] at the factory, so demand for aftermarket installation is falling,” Boyadjis says.
So, catering to the individual preferences of the aftermarket buyer—to provide a better-bang-for-the-buck option—is the only way that the makers of aftermarket automobile-electronics systems can survive. Hence, the slicing and dicing of models, particularly receivers, whether they include CD players or are of the so-called mech-less, or CD-player-less, variety. Aftermarket automobile-electronics manufacturers now approach the development of a receiver model from the perspective of engineering the root architecture of the component and then tweaking it to create, for example, a version that produces a high wattage but lacks Sirius/XM Radio readiness and vice versa.
Consider three CD receivers that are from Pioneer: the DEH-X6900BT ($110), the DEH-X4900BT ($100) and the DEH-X3900BT ($90). These models are similar, except that the most expensive one has a 13-band equalizer and three RCA jacks. The second and third models have a five-band equalizer and two jacks. The least expensive model lacks a function that permits you to change the color of the LED display readout, a function that the other two models have.
Not long ago, the sign of a true audiophile could be found in the boom of the bass that was produced by the stereo that he/she had in his/her automobile. Today, for many consumers, it’s all about connectivity.
“Consumers, especially younger consumers, are demanding connectivity in their vehicles,” says Chris Cook, who is the president of the industry trade group Mobile Electronics Association. “Being connected is a lifestyle.”
This assertion is backed up by Ford Motor, which reports that 80 percent of its customers opt for the version of its smart-entertainment technology that includes its Sync system, which provides voice control of functions. The automaker says at least 90 percent of its customers who are under the age of 35 opt for the system.
Although automakers keep upping their offerings of sophisticated smart-entertainment systems, it still is courtesy of the aftermarket by which savvy consumers can save a substantial amount of money while they get state-of-the-art connectivity and entertainment. For example, an aftermarket multipurpose system that provides a Google Android Auto or Apple CarPlay smartphone interface, SiriusXM Radio, Pandora, iHeartRadio internet radio and navigation can be had for about $1,000 or less installed. You could pay $6,000 on a 2017 Ford Escape if you upgrade to the Escape Titanium trim level to get the package that includes such a system.
Furthermore, consumers who own a vehicle that lacks the new breed of automobile-electronics components can turn to the aftermarket, so they can have this technology themselves.
“There is still a lack of education among a big chunk of the driving public … that they can upgrade their older vehicle to modern, state-of-the art connectivity and audio for not a lot of money,” Boyadjis says.
Yet those who don’t want the connectivity aren’t compelled to pay for it. Manufacturers of aftermarket electronics “customize” their models in this vein, too, providing versions of products that exclude Android Auto or CarPlay.
DISPLAYING INGENUITY. Perhaps the most notable innovation in components for aftermarket automotive electronics is the introduction of multipurpose systems that fit into a 2-inch-tall space in the dashboard (single-DIN) and have a touch screen that flips out to be either 6.5 inches or 7 inches tall. This, too, can be appealing to owners of automobiles that predate the new-generation automobile electronics and for which single-DIN is the typical amount of space in the dashboard where a multipurpose system is installed. (Many of today’s new-vehicle multipurpose systems include a 7-inch-tall screen.)
We like the benefit that this type of design provides in regard to its capability to display numerous mobile apps, serve as the display for an aftermarket rearview camera and link to an aftermarket blind-spot-detection system.
The Kenwood KVT-7012BT ($600) is particularly notable, because it can fit into a single-DIN slot in the dashboard. (Editor’s note: The receiver can be installed in the dashboard of a vehicle in which the slot is 4 inches tall (double-DIN), too, because mounting spacers are available to fill the area that isn’t filled by the receiver. These same mounting spacers are available to serve the same purpose if you purchase a 4-inch-tall receiver to install in the larger space that’s typical of vehicles from the 2011 model year and newer.) The flip-out touch screen of the KVT-7012BT includes what the manufacturer calls TrueMirror, which duplicates the display of your smartphone.
When we laid our hands on receivers that include the flip-out screen, we came away concerned about the durability of the element of the flip-out screen’s articulating component on less expensive models. Undoubtedly, the higher that you move up the price ladder, the more robust that the model’s articulating component will be.
Although Consumers Digest looks skeptically upon the worth of extended warranties, experts tell us that exceptions exist. Difficult-to-repair products, such as treadmills, and products that can take a beating during use fall into this realm. Given that these flip-out screens have no track record, we can’t argue with you if you decide to purchase an extended warranty for an aftermarket automobile receiver that includes the feature. This particularly goes for the models that have motorized flip-out screens.
HAVE IT YOUR WAY. Unsurprisingly, automobile technology changes much faster than the rate at which people replace their vehicle. (The current fleet of vehicles that are on the road has an average age of at least 11 years.) As our staff’s investigation of these aftermarket automobile-electronics categories revealed, you have no shortage of affordable solutions for an older vehicle to get tricked out with the latest entertainment technology. In fact, the biggest obstacle that you’ll face might be to find a well-established installer where you live. The economic calamity of the late 2000s drove many installers out of business.
Over his 30-year journalism career, David Kiley served as the president of International Motor Press Association and won the Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism. He has covered automotive electronics for 20 years, including responsibility for AOL Autos/Autoblog’s Tech of the Year Award program.