In-dash electronics tend to lag pretty far behind portable electronics. I work alongside editors that cover cell phones and MP3 players, so I frequently see cool, new features that won't appear in cars for years. Even the current standard feature sets for these products are often not reflected in automotive electronics.
What feature do you find most important in a car stereo system?
But now and then a car will show a flash of brilliance, a stereo or cell phone system with features that equal those found in personal electronics. So in this column, I've assembled my own Frankenstein car. Keeping the focus on cabin gadgets, I've picked cars with particular features that could be combined into one fantastic entertainment and communications platform.
I'm going to start with the amps and speakers from the Lincoln MKZ's THX spec audio system. Not the actual stereo, which isn't that great, but certainly the part that pushes the sound into the car's cabin. The MKZ's audio system uses a 12-channel, 600-watt amp and 14 speakers, plus some very smart programming, to produce spectacular sound.
You can pack a lot of music onto an 80GB iPod, but that much music is also difficult to organize. The iPod interface does a good job of making that music accessible with different indexing and search parameters. With the Audi A6's optional iPod connectivity, you can access the same search and indexing via the car's LCD, making it easy to find the music you want to listen to.
The Audi A6 iPod interface lets you access 80GB of music.
MP3 CD playback
Lots of cars come with CD players that can read MP3 tracks, but only the stereo found in GM cars, such as the Cadillac Escalade EXT, have a really sophisticated interface. The Music Navigator in the Escalade EXT scans MP3 CDs, then lets you look through the music by artist, album, genre, or track.
There are times when you aren't carrying around an iPod or your MP3 CDs, which is why I would also want a hard drive music server in my Frankencar, such as that found in the Mitsubishi Lancer GTS. You can rip CDs through the stereo interface, giving you a huge library of songs that stay with the car.
Not only can you dial numbers in the BMW X5, you can also access your phone's contact list on the car's LCD.
Full-featured Bluetooth cell phone integration
Beyond music, I also want a good hands-free connection between my car and my phone. The system in the BMW X5 not only lets you answer and place calls through the car's interface, it also accesses the numbers in your phone's contact list, letting you see the entries on the car's LCD. With many other systems, you actually have to speak or type in the actual numbers you want to call, and who can remember someone's phone number these days?
Finally, I'd like to control all of these features in my Frankencar without having to touch a button or an LCD. Throw in the voice-command system used in the Honda Civic Si, and all you have to do is ask it for what you want. The Honda voice-command system is the easiest to use and the best at recognizing different vocalizations that I've seen.
I call my creation, the car with the best factory-installed stereo ever, the Mitsuhonillac MKX5A6.
Of course, another way around the dilemma of how to get a perfect audio system is to go the aftermarket route. Something like the Pioneer Avic Z-1 has most of these features, plus navigation. Combine that with a decent set of amps and speakers, and you have a full-featured, great-sounding system. And it would probably look better than my Frankencar.