Maybe it's the air; maybe it's the sunshine. But there's something about Florida that gives me new-car fever. This year though, I didn't succumb.
I did in 2008. My family and I were in Orlando for a week-long getaway that included a day at Sea World and a Blue Jays spring training game. To get around, we rented a Toyota RAV4, and really liked it. About a month after I returned, we had replaced our ancient Subaru Outback, which was starting to need serious repairs, with a brand-new red RAV4 Sport V6.
Fast-forward eight years. I'm back in Florida, visiting Miami and Key West. No rental car this time. But after picking up a couple of car magazines for light reading, I begin thinking that it may be time to get some new wheels. Upkeep isn't costing serious coin yet, but my eight-year-old ride has almost 220,000km on the clock. Maybe it's better to be proactive.
A couple of weeks after getting back to the frozen north, I spent a couple of days test-driving new cars: the new version of the RAV, plus a Nissan Rogue and Honda CR-V. I thought I'd experience some let-down getting back into my old wheels after tooting around in a brand-new vehicle.
I did; but it had nothing to do with the ride. The big difference was the technology: not just what was in the dashboard, but also the various driver-assist features. I live in downtown Toronto, and regularly have to zip around streetcars while avoiding cyclists. Several times a month, I find myself on highways that can be as much as eight lines wide in each direction.
The most attractive aspect of these new cars was the technology that makes driving in these conditions safer and less stressful. The Rogue's Around View Monitor presents a 360-degree view of everything around the car. The CR-V's LaneWatch feature shows output from a camera under the passenger side mirror, eliminating the right-side blindspot. The RAV4 has blind-spot detection and rear-cross traffic alert to make changing lanes and backing out of my driveway safer.
While test-driving the new RAV, I had the dealership take care of a couple of minor recalls on my old one. The shop gave my car a complete checkup, and everything came back with an all-clear. At that point, the light went on: instead of replacing my car, I should just change the technology. If I can get another three or four years out of it, I'll come out way ahead financially.
Ted Cardenas, Vice President Marketing, Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc.: "The average age of vehicles on the road in the U.S. is 11.4 years, and a lot of those vehicles are very road-worthy. We're telling people, ‘Don't break up with your car. Upgrade it.'"
Not only that, I could choose the technology I want, instead of taking what the carmaker offers. At the top of my wish list is a head unit with Apple CarPlay, so I can control key iPhone apps like Messages, Maps, Phone and Music from the dash. CarPlay is compatible with the iPhone 5 and later. If I was in the Android camp, I'd want a head unit with Android Auto, which works with phones running Android 5.0 Lollipop and later.
While OEMs had CarPlay and Android before the aftermarket, it's not on any car that I want and can afford. But these features are in the aftermarket now.
TAKING BACK THE DASH
As it turns out, I'm not an outlier. Quite the contrary: people with perfectly good aging cars are right in the industry's crosshairs. "The average age of vehicles on the road in the U.S. is 11.4 years," says Ted Cardenas, Vice President Marketing for Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc. "There are 230 million registered light vehicles in the U.S., and a lot of those vehicles are very road-worthy. We're telling people, ‘Don't break up with your car. Upgrade it.'"
Cardenas says Pioneer's 2016 campaign, which includes print, online and social media, will convey that message in media where people go to find about new cars.
Carmakers are already priming consumer appetite for new technology. "Car commercials barely talk about the car," notes Michael Berger, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at AutoMobility Distribution Inc. "They talk about the technology." A case in point: Hyundai's 2016 Super Bowl commercials, which highlighted features like voice control, collision avoidance and car tracking. "People are using their phones all the time, and want to integrate them into their cars," Berger adds.
Glen Swackhamer, National Sales Manager of the Mobile Electronics Division of Gentec International, calls CarPlay and Android Auto "a big shot in the arm for the industry. Customers are walking through the front door and asking for it. It's the biggest buzzword on the floor right now."
It's one of those golden moments that come along every few years, he says, when new technology suddenly expands consumer appetite for aftermarket 12V products. In 2005, consumers wanted to integrate their iPods into their cars so they could have a much vaster music library than they could fit into a CD changer. In 2010, they wanted to add Bluetooth to stay on the right side of distracted-driving laws, and to drive more safely. Now they want the tight, safe smartphone integration that CarPlay and Android Auto provide.
Priced in Canada at $1,499, Kenwood's top-of-the-line eXcelon DNX-893S features built-in Garmin navigation, CarPlay and Android Auto capability, motorized 7" capacitive touchscreen with six-step tilt adjustment, and high-res audio playback to 24/192.
As in these previous golden moments, CarPlay and Android Auto are expanding the 12V customer base beyond the traditional young male demographic. "We're not after the tuner market," comments Rory Butler, Assistant Manager, Product Planning and Training for JVC Kenwood Canada Inc. "They care mostly about sound pressure level."
This is an opportunity to reclaim leadership from OEMs, to take back the dashboard, he adds. "Can we offer the same features as carmakers?" Butler asks rhetorically. "Absolutely, and with better sound. We're definitely not out of the dashboard of all those vehicles without that modern technology."
Last year, Pioneer became the first aftermarket vendor to offer CarPlay and Android Auto. This year Alpine and Kenwood have joined the party, which keeps getting bigger. Arriving in Canada in July, JBL's new Legend CP100 $599 price tag is very attractive for a unit with CarPlay and Android Auto, considering that it has a 6.75" capacitive touchscreen. It will also work with steering wheel controls, and accept rear camera input. "We're not targeting the car audio enthusiast," says Brad Wisnoski, Product Manager for Erikson Consumer, JBL's Canadian distributor. "We're targeting the consumer looking for CarPlay or Android Auto."
Wisnoski believes support of both CarPlay and Android Auto in a single head unit is an essential feature. "Until now, very few head units were dual-platform," he elaborates. "But many homes are dual-platform. The parents may have an iPhone and the kids an Android phone."
While CarPlay and Android Auto have a different look and feel, they're functionally quite similar. Both offer a small but critical subset of the apps available on a connected smartphone, the primary ones being telephony, text messaging, music playback and navigation. And both should be instantly familiar to users of those two dominant mobile platforms.
The CarPlay home screen has big icons for Phone, Music, Maps, Messages, Now Playing and Podcasts, plus another icon that takes you to the home screen of the head unit. CarPlay supports some other apps as well, such as Spotify and Audiobooks, and you'll see big icons for these if they're installed on your iPhone. A circular button on the lower left activates Siri voice recognition.
Priced in Canada at $599, JBL's Legend CP100 supports CarPlay and Android Auto. It works with existing steering-wheel controls, and has a 6.75" capacitive touchscreen.
The Android Auto home screen has wallpaper in the background, and in the foreground are windows with information about current location, weather etc. Along the bottom are small icons for maps/navigation, phone, an Android home key, music, and an icon that takes you to your head unit's main screen. A microphone icon on the upper right activates voice Google Now voice recognition.
When you select a function, it takes over the screen. With CarPlay, you can touch the Siri icon to return to the home screen. With Android Auto, the phone, music, home and other primary icons remain on the screen even with an app running full screen.
Michael Berger, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, AutoMobility Distribution Inc.: "Car commercials barely talk about the car. They talk about the technology. People are using their phones all the time, and want to integrate them into their cars."
The apps too will be familiar to smartphone users. Anyone who's used Apple Maps on an iPhone or Google Maps on an Android device will know how navigation works in CarPlay and Android Auto. Ditto for phoning, messaging, music and other supported apps. Any retailer doing a live demo can be pretty confident about plugging in the customer's phone (assuming it's a recent model that supports these automotive platforms), and letting the customer take over.
Butler says it's important for retailers to distinguish CarPlay and Android Auto from MirrorLink. With a MirrorLink-supported phone and head unit, you can see video from supported apps on the dashboard screen. But communication is strictly one-way: you have to control the app from the phone, not from the dashboard. "Our biggest training task is to prevent customer confusion between CarPlay, Android Auto and Mirror Link," Butler states. "MirrorLink is just video. We want to get away from MirrorLink, because it's not safe. CarPlay and Android Auto are a safer driving experience."
A safer driving experience is exactly what I was looking for after test-driving those new cars. For this article, Pioneer supplied a AVH-4200NEX, its new top-of-the-line non-nav DVD receiver. Priced in Canada at $1,050, the AVH-4200NEX has a 7" WVGA touchscreen, Bluetooth and DVD drive. It supports Pioneer's App Radio feature, which lets you control a variety of smartphone apps for streaming music, navigation, contacts, and news and information.
Pioneer's AVH-4200NEX, tested for this article, supports both CarPlay and Android Auto. It features a responsive 7" Clear Resistive touchscreen, and can play high-resolution FLAC files from a USB drive or SD card.
But my main interest was CarPlay and Android Auto, so that's where I focused. I used my own iPhone 6 Plus to check out CarPlay, and a loaner sample of the new LG G5 smartphone to check out Android Auto.
The G5 is a lovely phone, with a really neat camera that lets you choose between a normal and wide-angle view when taking pictures. But my purpose was just to check out Android Auto. I did run into one issue: loading music from my Mac onto the phone. With recent Android phones, you can do this using a little utility called Android File Transfer, but that app didn't detect the G5 when I connected it to my MacBook Pro using the supplied USB cable. There was an easy workaround: load files onto a microSD card, and insert the card into the phone.
The AVH-4200NEX wasn't my first upgrade to the RAV's dashboard and sound. In 2010, I added a Pioneer AVIC-X920BT DVD navigation receiver, rear view camera, iPod interface cable, plus GM-6400F four-channel amp driving a pair of TS-D1720C 6.5" two-way speakers up front and TS-D17020R 6.75" coaxial speakers in the back. Based on my experience with this system, I had a couple of concerns.
One issue I've had with the AVIC-X920BT is that its resistive touchscreen isn't very responsive. It takes a lot of pressure to make something happen, and sometimes the extra force or duration of a gesture causes the unit to overshoot the menu item I'm looking for. Would I have the same problem with the AVH-4200NEX's resistive touchscreen?
Tony Verni, Vice President of Sales for Pioneer Electronics of Canada Inc., said not to worry. The 4200NEX's Clear Resistive screen "is incredibly robust and responsive," he wrote. "Pioneer has made tremendous strides with our touchscreen technology." And so it turned out. While I didn't find the 4200NEX's touchscreen quite as responsive as the capacitive screen on my iPhone, it was awfully good, to the point where it was hardly an issue at all. My main issue with the screen is that it isn't quite bright enough to be clearly legible on a brilliant sunlit day, especially if I'm wearing sunglasses.
FINDING MY WAY
I also wondered if I'd miss built-in navigation, which has some advantages over phone-based navigation. With a smartphone, if you don't have a good signal, the function doesn't work. This can definitely be an issue in remote areas. Notes Gentec's Swackhamer: "If you're driving from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay, good luck getting mobile data."
I experienced this very issue during a summer jaunt through Ontario's Bruce Peninsula. There were times when I ventured off Highway 6 when I couldn't get any bars on my iPhone. This made it impossible to enter destinations into Apple Maps.
Aftermarket 12V vendors raise another issue about phone-based nav. If you're taking your car to the U.S., using your phone for navigation could lead to a surprise bill for data usage. That's the theory. The reality is that there are now options, like Rogers' Roam Like Home plans, that make those carrier gotchas less frequent than they used to be.
Cardenas says built-in nav allows for a more informative interface. "You can put more data on a local device," he elaborates. "On our AVIC units, we have embedded 3D mapping, showing roadside buildings."
The advantages for phone-based navigation are also compelling. Maps are always current. Unlike dedicated navigation, you don't have to wait for the head unit supplier to issue an update, you don't have to install the update, and you don't have to pay for the update.
Also, Apple Maps and Google Maps both show traffic conditions, which is a big deal for urban drivers. When you've specified a destination, you can look at alternate routes, and choose the one with the least congestion. As anyone who's driven in a big city knows, the quickest way from Point A to Point B is rarely the shortest. Moreover, the app will base your ETA on traffic conditions.
Glen Swackhamer, National Sales Manager, Mobile Electronics Division, Gentec International: "CarPlay and Android Auto have been a big shot in the arm for the industry. Customers are walking through the front door and asking for it. It's the biggest buzzword on the floor right now."
In their YouTube videos showing CarPlay and Android Auto, aftermarket and OEM companies often show how the systems work using voice input. In my experience, this feature often works well, but not always. On the 4200NEX, I asked CarPlay and Android Auto for the nearest Loblaws supermarket and Shoppers Drug Mart. They found them within seconds, showed me their location, and offered to guide me there. Fantastic!
But when I asked CarPlay for guidance to a popular local restaurant, it came up with a long list of eateries whose name sounded vaguely like the one I requested. My desired restaurant wasn't even listed. I had the same experience requesting music on my iPhone. Sometimes Siri found the album I wanted; sometimes she was hopelessly confused.
Voice recognition has come a long, long way; but especially in a noisy car, it's not always reliable, especially if your request is unusual. Siri has heard zillions of vocal renditions of "Tim Horton's," so will almost certainly help you find your double-double. But Siri might get flummoxed if you ask her to guide you to Trattoria Giancarlo. That said, if you want to enter a destination when you're driving, voice is the only safe way to do so; and I'm really glad to have a system that works pretty well, if not perfectly.
What I really like about CarPlay and Android Auto is the way they integrate your dashboard with your phone and even your computer. I can enter an appointment in the Calendar app on my MacBook; and it will update my iPhone's Calendar app via iCloud. iCloud also syncs Address Book entries on my MacBook and iPhone. (Unfortunately, iCloud won't sync contacts and appointments from Outlook.) If the address, or even a full company name is in the calendar entry, I can highlight it, and it will shoot that information over to Apple Maps. I can also highlight an address book entry, and send that information to Apple Maps. When I connect the iPhone to the AVH-4200NEX, CarPlay starts, the route appears on the head unit's screen, and guidance begins. Fantastic!
There's similar integration with Android Auto. You can enter an appointment in Google Calendar on your computer. If your Android device is registered to the same Google account, that entry will appear in the calendar on your phone. So will your Google contact list. Again, you can select an address in your calendar or contact list, send it to Google Maps and get guidance to your destination. When you connect the phone to the head unit via USB, Android Auto starts and navigation begins. Also fantastic!
If I'm entering the destination manually, I'd rather do it on my smartphone than on a dashboard touchscreen. Certainly, I find the interface friendlier and the responsiveness on both Apple and Google Maps superior to my old AVIC-X920BT, though that's a six-year-old unit.
I appreciate that I can often just enter the name of a business, and have the phone find the exact address. There's also less insistence on entering information exactly as the navigation system wants. Not only are smartphone apps more tolerant of typos, they'll find a location on Evans Ave. in west Toronto, whereas my old Pioneer nav insisted on having Etobicoke as the correct municipality. (How is an out-of-towner to be expected to know that?)
Bottom line: for getting around in a place where you can get bars on your cell phone, I prefer phone-based navigation by a big margin. In the big city, I love the combination of my iPhone and CarPlay. If I were an Android user, I'd be just as enamoured of Android Auto. But out in the boonies, I think you need dedicated nav.
LIVING OUT LOUD
What about the sound of the AVH-4200NEX? I can sum it up in two words: love it! Unfortunately, I can't make an authoritative comparison with the factory radio, or even with the AVIC-X920BT. The factory radio is of course long gone. As to my previous aftermarket system, a comparison isn't possible either, because the retailer who installed it botched the job.
When my new system was being put in, the installer showed me what he found. There was a chaotic rat's nest of unterminated cables behind the head unit. The four-channel amp was set in two-channel mode. Even though the AVIC-X920BT has four-channel pre-outs, the incompetent who installed it had run only a single pair of RCA interconnects from the head unit in the dash to the amp under the driver's seat.
Rory Butler, Assistant Manager, Product Planning and Training, JVC Kenwood Canada Inc.: "Can we offer the same features as carmakers? Absolutely, and with better sound. We're definitely not out of the dashboard of all those vehicles without that modern technology."
Apparently, it wasn't an oversight. The previous installer had damaged one of the RCA inputs on the amp trying to put in a cable, and to cover up the mistake, had put the amp in two-channel mode and operated the speakers in parallel. It cost me an extra $80 to fix the amp's inputs.
I had known for a long time something was amiss, because the head unit's fader control never had any effect. But I could never find the time to have the problem fixed. And so I had never got the full enjoyment out of that system that I could have. I kind of liked the sound, but was never blown away. And that made me question the quality of the Pioneer speaker and amp.
The new system put those questions to rest. The sound was fuller, more dramatic, more exciting, more effortless. But I can't say for sure what contribution the new head unit made to this improvement, and how much was due to the correction of installation errors. What this does show is the importance of the installation, not just to system performance, but to the reputation of the equipment manufacturer. You have to choose your partners carefully!
What I can fully attest to is the effectiveness of the AVH-4200NEX's digital signal processing. Along with 13-band graphic equalizer, the unit has an auto EQ and time-align feature. Activate the measurement function, connect an optional calibration microphone to the unit, and the 4200NEX will analyze speaker output and your car's acoustics, then optimize EQ and time alignment for the driver location. The mic looks just like the one Pioneer supplies with its AV receivers for auto calibration, and the process is very similar to automated home theatre setup.
It works like a charm. With auto EQ/time align engaged, the sound was smoother, more focused and more detailed than before - and the difference was anything but subtle.
I also like the fact that the AVH-4200NEX lets me play my high-res music in the car. You can play FLAC files to 96kHz/24 bits from an SD card or USB drive. I've loaded up 95GB worth of FLAC files onto an SD card, which fits into a slot behind the 4200NEX's screen.
The sound is great; but I gotta say I'm disappointed in the interface. Pioneer offers two options for navigating music files on a USB drive or SD card. File mode lets you navigate through files and folders, while Tag mode lets you view music by Album, Artist and Track.
The trouble is that the Tag option lists songs within albums in alphabetical order, and plays them in that order, rather than by track number. WTF??!! My music files are tagged correctly, with accurate track numbers (and disc numbers too in the case of multi-CD sets); but in Tag mode, the 4200NEX ignores this information. Moreover, on many albums it doesn't display album art, even though the art appears when I play the same music on other devices.
I can play tracks in the correct order in File mode, because the first characters of the filename for every song are the track numbers. But this is a cludgy method compared to the traditional Tag method - when it's implemented properly. It isn't on the 4200NEX. I hope Pioneer issues a firmware update to fix this ridiculous flaw.
However, when I listen to high-res music through the Pioneer system, especially with auto EQ and time-align engaged, all (or almost all) is forgiven. For the first time in my life, I don't miss my home hi-fi when I'm listening to music in my car.
Having state-of-the-art smartphone integration and fantastic sound has gone a long way to assuaging the car fever I felt when I got back from Florida. But I'd still like to have some of the driver-assist features I experienced on new cars.
I already have a backup camera, and with the 4200NEX, it works better than ever. The new head unit lets you calibrate the parking-assist guidelines on the screen, so you have a better idea how far away parked cars and other obstacles are behind your rear bumper. It makes this aftermarket add-on function like original equipment.
Over the years, I've had some near-misses when changing lanes, and I'd like to add some kind of blind-spot-detection system. Ideally, it would combine the best features of the systems I experienced during my test drives last spring. The 4200NEX has inputs for two cameras. If I could keep one for the backup camera, and use the other for cameras underneath the side mirrors, that would be great. What I'd like is for the camera output to appear on the dashboard screen as soon as I turn on my turn signal. An alternative would be to have camera output routed to a small screen in an aftermarket rear-view mirror.
Designed to work with Jeep Wrangler factory radios, this blind-spot detection system from AutoMobility displays camera output on the dashboard as soon as the turn signal is activated, then reverts to the radio screen when the turn signal is switched off.
Berger of AutoMobility says this is a becoming a huge business. So are dashcams that capture video in front of the car. AutoMobility offers dashcams with a Parking Lot mode that records video when you're away from the car. If somebody damages your vehicle and leaves the scene, you have a recording of the event. Some models also feature Red Light alert and collision avoidance to help drivers avoid tickets and accidents.
A couple of decades from now, autonomous cars may make all this stuff obsolete. But until that happens, this new technology can make our time behind the wheel more enjoyable, less stressful and a whole lot safer. The great thing is you don't have to buy a new car to get it.