It's a sad fact that Apple's iPod, the best thing to happen to portable music since Sony's original Walkman, is useless once you get behind the wheels of most cars. Why? There's no way to plug it in. Many Pod people resort to static-prone RF modulators or low-fidelity cassette hookups. BMW and Alpine promise better iPod solutions with their new adapters, but these cumbersome first-generation products don't come close to the brilliance and simplicity of the iPod itself.
The best thing about the iPod is that it stores days' worth of music organized automatically for quick access. The BMW iPod adapter forces you to make as many as five playlists named BMW1 through BMW5 that it presents as discs one through five in an imaginary CD changer. You don't get any display on the radio other than a track number, so good luck finding a specific song unless you remember its position within the playlist. The sound quality is great but no better than it is through BMW's auxiliary input adapter. With that, you give up the ability to change tracks with the steering-wheel audio controls, but we'd rather use the iPod's interface to select any song or artist. Working the iPod is distracting but less so than BMW's own iDrive system. $149 plus $150 installation. (www.ipodyourbmw.com)
Alpine's solution is much more versatile than BMW's, because you can select any existing playlist or song by name using the radio controls. Unfortunately, it requires an Alpine head unit, and few modern cars have the standard-size dash openings into which one will fit. The sound quality of this setup is stellar, and we love how easy it is to choose playlists. Alpine touts the ability to search by artist or album, but the interface is slow-it took a minute just to get through the As. Alpine admits that if you have a lot of music, you should put it in playlists before accessing it through this product. Once we did, we found that it works, although small, fussy controls require too many clicks and spins to get to your music. CDA-9833 receiver $450, free installation; KCA-420i adapter $100 plus $35 installation. (www.alpine-usa.com)