We published our head-to-head shootout of infotainment systems in the January AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE. But technology doesn't stay in one place for long. Since that comparison, we've uncovered new trends and products. This is the first in a semi-regular series of such updates.
For nearly a century, General Motors’ brand strategy has been to trickle-down luxury and convenience components from Cadillac through its myriad divisions, finally to Chevrolet. Some of its high technology breakthroughs have been handled differently, though. The first car with a steel top was the 1935 Pontiac and the first full, torque-converter automatic transmission was in the 1940 Oldsmobile.
The second strategy applies to GM’s best infotainment system. The Cadillac User Experience and the similar GMC/Buick/Chevy MyLink represents the latest can’t-take-it-with-you internet-based phone/audio/navigation system in a car. The best, most leading-edge infotainment technology is featured on its two smallest and least expensive Chevrolets, the Sonic and Spark.
It’s called MyLink, too, in the Sonic and Spark, but don’t confuse it with the MyLink in more expensive models like the Traverse and Malibu. The pricier MyLink (nicknamed "color connected radio," or CCR) is decent. The cheaper system (nicknamed "bring your own media," or BYOM) is excellent for its simplicity.
BYOM in the Spark and Sonic consists of a touchscreen and four touch-sensitive buttons underneath it that control volume up/down, power on/off and home. Devotees of the iPhone will note that Apple’s iconic device has the same number of touch-sensitive buttons that perform the same functions. Once the Chevy BYOM is on, tap the up/down buttons to make small volume adjustments, or move the on-screen slider to make big volume adjustments. It also has an on-screen mute button. BYOM has lifted these volume controls, unchanged, from Android devices.
This is more than a replication of the smartphone experience. It leverages the smartphone you probably own. BYOM has a standard AM/FM/XM radio with iPod/USB connectivity. Whereas the MyLink CCR screen has its own icons for Pandora and Stitcher internet radio, for example, the BYOM unit connects with those applications installed on your smartphone. It soon will support an additional app, TuneIn. As Pandora, Stitcher and TuneIn update their apps for your phone, BYOM follows automatically. Soon, Spark/Sonic owners will be able to load new apps onto their phones, plug into BYOM, and be on their way.
BYOM's "killer app" is arriving soon. Later this year, GM will launch support for BringGo, a $50 smartphone app that turns BYOM's screen into a full-fledged GPS, saving users hundreds, if not thousands, on nav systems or services. Soon after, BYOM will start supporting Apple's Siri, adding the ability to push a button on the steering wheel to set reminders, find points of interest, or ask questions like "how far is it to the moon?" You'll never lose another in-car argument.
BYOM would be nearly flawless even without these future upgrades. I paired both an iPhone 4 and a Samsung Galaxy S III in a Chevy Sonic RS one weekend, and BYOM never skipped a beat with either phone. With the Galaxy, I only had to turn the car on, wait for the Bluetooth link, and hit the Pandora button to start the music. It took less than 15 seconds. The iPhone was nearly as quick, although iOS devices must be connected via USB (Apple's requirement, not GM's) for these services to work.
The system feels well engineered without being over-designed. My favorite detail is the phonebook search. With CUE, you type letters on a tiny keyboard. BYOM works like T9 predictive text: it shows you a standard keypad and searches by letter combination (you'd find me by tapping 8466 for TIMM). The buttons are larger and you'll find most anyone within four button presses.
This is the sort of feature that explains why BYOM is catching on with buyers. GM says the majority of Spark buyers opt for the 1LT trim level, and many point to the standard MyLink as a motivating factor. The system is so popular that GM reversed its decision to install MyLink on the top-spec Sonic RS, and is offering it on lower models.
One problem: if you want the BYOM system in your dash -- and you do -- you're still stuck with Chevy's two smallest, cheapest offerings. GM describes BYOM as an infotainment system designed for the twenty-somethings who own smartphones and can only afford the smallest cars. But the infotainment system geared towards young people is easier to use than the systems geared towards older, more affluent customers.
Will future Cruze buyers be able to slot BYOM units into their dashboards? Considering BYOM's potential for greatness--and its current excellence--we're crossing our fingers.