Find Your Way and Let the Music Play: Navigation systems and iPod plug-ins latest new-car options
Trying to afford the new car you really want can become a game of subtraction: Maybe you can swing it if you don't take too many expensive options. As you go down that options list, you will see two fairly recent choices--navigation assistance with a global positioning system (GPS) and hookups that let you play your iPod through your car audio system. Deciding whether these options are worth the cost calls for a hard look at how, where, and how long you drive.
If you repeat the same commuter route and similar local errands every week, you probably don't need navigation help. But if your job requires lots of different, unfamiliar stops--think of real estate agents or other sales people--a GPS could be essential.
"A navigation system might also be worth it to you if you take two or three road trips a year and like to explore new parts of the country," says Wayne Cunningham, the senior editor in charge of the Car Tech channel on the Web site CNET.com. "Or if you are simply someone who gets lost a lot."
When it comes to an iPod decision, do you have a short daily commute filled with favorite radio programs? Or do you have a long traffic-infested daily ride that could be eased by having your full iPod music collection right there in the car?
Though sometimes standard on luxury models, navigation systems generally are options costing $1,500 or more and sometimes only are available as part of a much more expensive multioption package. Jacks that let your iPod play through the car speakers but do not integrate the controls are widely available and usually are free if offered. But you still have to go through the cumbersome process of choosing what plays on the iPod directly through its own controls. About one-third of current models offer an option--ranging in price from $150 to $300--that let you control your plugged-in iPod through buttons on the dash or steering wheel and that show the title of the song playing on the dash display. And even more sophisticated iPod connections are coming soon.
Deciding if options are worth the cost calls for a hard look at how, where, and how long you drive.
Talking through the turns
Most navigation systems have a computerized voice that tells you when to turn. But General Motors' OnStar system combines that with access to live operators who also can pinpoint your location and call help in case of an accident or other problem. The difference with OnStar is that the technology is standard on most Chevrolet, Buick, and Pontiac models but you must continue to pay for the service--$26.90 a month or $299 a year if you include the navigation feature.
More typical is the once-only price of $1,995 for the navigation system offered on Ford Explorer, Taurus, and most other models. In yet another approach, Honda treats its Civic EX with navigation system as a separate model--charging $1,750 more than for the same car without navigation.
If you need GPS help but are not about to buy a new car, you can get a hand-held version from manufacturers like Garmin and Magellan for roughly $500 to $1,500, depending on the features included. See CNET.com for reviews.
The one add-on feature that may change buyers' decisions about navigation systems is real-time traffic information. CNET's Cunningham points out that Lexus now offers traffic delay data that's much more up-to-date than what's on the radio and instantly plots an alternate route for you when a traffic jam hits. He says he expects other manufacturers to follow suit soon. Ford already has announced such plans.
If your job requires lots of different, unfamiliar stops, a GPS could be essential.
It's all about controlPlaying your iPod through your car speakers is good, but having the controls fully integrated is far better. Chrysler, in cooperation with Apple, offers a dealer-installed kit that lets you control the iPod through the car buttons for $175. It's available for most Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep models. Scion, the youth-oriented brand Toyota owns has a similar option for $260. You also can hook up iPods in sporty models such as the Mini Cooper and Pontiac Solstice. When you plug your iPod in, it also recharges.
Even more control
Ford Motor Co. plans to take the next step in entertainment technology with its so-called Sync system developed by Microsoft. It will be available in about 12 Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln models for the 2008 model year (at dealers in September 2008) and on almost all company models a year later. Sync will offer button control of the iPod similar to current systems plus voice commands. For instance, you can say: "Play the Grateful Dead" or "Play 50 Cent"--depending on your musical taste--and the system will work through all songs by that artist in your iPod. Sync also will offer similar connectivity for non-iPod MP3 players. And it will be integrated with a Bluetooth wireless connection for cell phones.
Which of the new options you choose is all about who you are and what you do.
Gary Jablonski, the Ford engineer in charge of this project, demonstrated with his high-tech cell phone recently at the New York Auto Show. He made an online connection with the cell phone and then tuned in a British radio station via the Web. Models from the compact Ford Focus to the big, expensive SUV Lincoln Navigator will offer the Sync system. "We're going to have one affordable price for this option," says Jablonski--though the price isn't set yet.
As with much else about cars, which of the new options you choose is all about who you are and what you do. As one of those people who get lost a lot, I was amazed and gratified while using a rental car navigation system in Puerto Rico that it always could tell me exactly where I was in a way that translated even to finding my way on old-fashioned paper maps. As for music players, easy connection is likely to become more and more important--especially for younger buyers. "People who have become used to having their cell phone and iPod with them at all times naturally want those things to work easily in their car," says CNET's Cunningham. "I think such connectivity will become standard in many models within a few years."
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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