If sitting behind the wheel of your car is starting to feel more like operating the Enterprise from “Star Trek,” it’s no surprise. Many predicted the rise of the digital dashboard years ago, and it’s finally here.
Factory-installed audio, video, navigation and security gadgets have never been better, but it goes without saying that you don’t buy a car for its gadgets. Even if you can afford a new vehicle in these tough times, you should consider that automakers select electronics for inclusion in new vehicles almost 3 years out, so if you want the latest and greatest, the aftermarket is the place to go. Cutting-edge technology is where the aftermarket always will have an advantage, and manufacturers of today’s aftermarket car electronics are making high-quality gear that delivers music, directions—even TV—like never before.
Best of all, these electronics cost less—a lot less—than ever before. For instance, when we last reported on this topic 5 years ago, a top-end navigation system might have set you back $2,000. Now you can get premium models for about a third of that. And car stereos—in-dash single-CD receivers—that used to cost $500 or more now can be purchased for $350.
Safety: The Next Aftermarket Frontier
FUN WITH FUNCTIONS. Five years ago, a typical aftermarket experience was more about buying a “deck and four” (a new receiver and four speakers). GPS, satellite radio and other of today’s standards still were in their expensive infancies. But now you can find multipurpose devices that play music and movies on a large touchscreen; have built-in Bluetooth for hands-free cellphone operation or streaming music; and provide navigation with 3-D map views, real-time traffic updates and advanced voice recognition.
Built-in GPS navigation and Bluetooth capability for hands-free control are the newest features in the manufacturers’ trick bags. These are nice features, and you can expect more choices and lower prices as early as next year. Prices likely will drop as more models are introduced in this competitive field, but for now you’ll pay at least $800 for only a few models that do it all.And those same units probably come ready for satellite radio, HD Radio and digital connectivity with your portable devices. “Today, it’s all about integration and connectivity,” says Barry Vogel of Mobile Enhancement Retailers Association and owner of the Oswego, N.Y.-based shop The Ultimate Edge.
But you don’t need a multipurpose unit to expand your in-car entertainment options. Many of today’s CD and multimedia receivers have a USB port—sometimes two—to plug in a personal media player (PMP) or GPS. This digital connection delivers better sound quality than what you might get by using the head unit’s traditional auxiliary input jack. You can expect to pay $130 for units that have this connectivity option.
APPLES TO APPLES. More than any other thing, Apple’s iPod—and now its iPhone—changed the landscape of the car aftermarket. Not only is the ability to plug in your Apple device and control it through your vehicle’s stereo widespread, but increasingly the stereo itself works like an iPod or iPhone. For example, there is an area on the faceplate or display of receivers that can sync with an iPod and that is designated to view album art, just like on your iPod. Displays also can have a scroll bar on the bottom, so you can use your finger to find songs, just like on an iPhone. Alpine’s iXA-W404 ($550) lets you add widgets—floating icons that are similar to those on the iPhone or iPod touch—to your screen.
The iPod “look” is being mimicked in everything from head units to portable navigation devices. Even a few security systems sport a look that’s similar to the iPhone, complete with touchscreens.