Smartphones make car buying somehow even less appealing

Chevy's MyLink in-car system, which aims to incorporate the iPhone's Siri assistant in an upcoming update. Credit: Image credit: Chevy

Modern in-car app/entertainment systems seem like off-brand phones that won't update. Except they weigh a few tons.

My 2002 Nissan Sentra has something more than 105,000 miles on it. I just replaced the original battery in it two weeks ago. It is sufficiently beaten down, rusted at the edges, and noisy enough so that nobody wants to steal it, or even rifle through it (even, apparently, if you accidentally leave the rear window down). Which is great, because I freeze up at the idea of buying a new car in the smartphone age.

I'm not scared to pick out the car itself. It's the in-car dashboard that I'm concerned about. I'm afraid that in two years' time, my car system will not work with newer phones. It will seem like a very expensive version of a free, no-contract Android phone from an unknown manufacturer. Except that trying to get rid of your car's old-and-busted system will result in many more unsightly screwdriver pry marks you have to look at nearly every day than with that phone.

There are many, many "Infotainment System" options for the modern car. Wired recently reviewed four notable systems. Ford has what seems to be the most powerful brand recognition and a healthy head start with their Microsoft-built SYNC system, and they just announced a new version for 2014 cars (which are sold in 2013, of course). The goal of all such systems is to enable you to call or text people, listen to and switch music, get turn-by-turn directions, and, if you want, allow passengers to play games or browse the web, all without having to touch your smartphone.

Some systems connect to your phone, either through a specialized app or a standard Bluetooth connection. Some use your phone's voice recognition, data connection, and other features to provide access and guidance, while others use their own systems. Most have interfaces that were not designed by anyone who takes minimalism as a guiding principle. Some car makers (namely, Ford) update existing, on-the-road cars when they have newer software and bug fixes, while others treat existing customer upgrades like—well, they treat us like cellphone carriers treat us.

From reading news and reviews of all the systems out there, I tend to think the Ford SYNC system has the most versatility and road-tested stability. I've been a passenger in a few Ford cars with SYNC installed, and their drivers seem to have adapted to the unique ways you had to call to them: "Play FM 103.3," "Play Pandora station: Oh-AY-Sis," and so on. It's like reverse dog-training: you learn the commands, and your car rewards you.

But here's something I like, after some reading, about Chevrolet's MyLink: it's available on basically every car Chevy makes. There's no price delineation, or extra-super-turbo versions of it for the luxury vehicles: it's available in a roughly $14,000 Chevy Spark, and presumably every car up from there. And Chevy is out in front of Apple's Siri, announcing an intent to integrate Siri into upcoming MyLink updates.

Yet what I really want, and what at least one of my car-buying friends told me he wants, is a kind of fall-back option: just let me talk to my phone or tablet's built-in voice recognition through the car's audio/mic system. Phones will upgrade faster than car systems. New apps will suddenly become essential, a la Spotify's rapid gain on Pandora's streaming music crown. And it's much more viable for a car owner to decide they want a better phone, or faster data plan, than it is for them to hope that their car maker will keep up with the times.

Honestly, I'd rather they focus on brakes and airbags. Tell me that your car is very smart about passing along my voice to my phone, and I'll stop by the lot on an upcoming Saturday. Oh, one more thing—standard USB charger? Please?

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