If you’re like me, you’re probably intimidated by the wide array of functions available with today’s infotainment systems. With Toyota Entune, for example, you can make restaurant reservations, buy movie tickets, and use Bing to find at least 35 percent of your search terms. Ford SYNC has an app called “tool finder,” which presumably provides the current location of John Mayer. And Chevrolet says its next-generation MyLink system can actually do the impossible: navigate an IKEA. Hyundai BlueLink can even help you put together the furniture.
Infotainment systems are daunting to those of us who aren’t sure about the idea of a motorized, road-going automobile offering all the comforts of your home computer, and also Bing. This isn’t a problem for some people, namely realtors, who are used to balancing two phones and a stack of documents as they drive their Lexus RX350 with their knees. Of course, realtors can’t do this in California, where it’s illegal to talk and drive. In California, they would be driving a Lexus RX400h.
Infotainment is also downright alien for anyone who’s used to driving an older car. For example, when I owned a Range Rover Classic, the only time I ever looked at a screen was when my mechanic pulled up the bill.
But for those of you nodding and readying your keyboard for a diatribe about the pitfalls of infotainment, listen up: it’s not all bad. I recently discovered this on a drive from Atlanta to Nashville, during which I passed – this actually occurred – a gold Lexus GX470 outfitted with police lights. Presumably, this was seized from a realtor who had been caught texting and driving too many times.
I made the trip in a Dodge Dart press car, which included many standard and optional features, all of them plastic. It also had Chrysler’s infotainment system, which boasted at least two neat items that helped convince me there might be at least some benefits to all of this in-car technology. They are:
1. “Favorite” songs. Say you’re cruising along and a favorite song comes on XM. You press a button called “favorite.” Hours later, as you’re bored out of your mind and listening to XM channel 247 (“Songs about Plant Life”), an icon appears on the screen: “Favorite Song On Air.” You press it, and you’re immediately transported to the channel playing your favorite song.
Apparently, you can do this with any number of songs, solving radio’s biggest problem: yes, I like this song. But what if there’s something better on one of the other channels?
2. StreetView navigation. In a normal car, using the navigation works like this: first, you type in the name of your destination. It doesn’t recognize it. So you use your phone to find the exact address. Then you have to enter the address, which is a tedious process that starts with the category “Country.” Eventually, you get on the road, only to be confused by vague directions and complicated highway interchanges.
This doesn’t happen in the Dodge Dart. I mean, typing in your destination is still a massive chore that no human should have to endure. But you don’t have any trouble with directions. That’s because the navigation system actually gives you a Google StreetView photo of the highway interchange that’s currently confusing you, along with purple lines that display exactly where you want to go. This makes navigating extremely easy, giving you ample opportunity to instead devote your time to more important endeavors, like favoriting songs about deciduous vegetation.
Between song favoriting and StreetView navigation, I made my trip to Nashville with ease. The only problem came at my hotel, which demanded $22 per night for parking. My cries of “But this is Nashville!” were largely ignored, giving me an idea for a new infotainment service: finding free parking. This would be really helpful, assuming it doesn’t rely on data from Bing.
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.