So you finally found that shiny new (used) ride you’ve been after, and while it ticks most of the boxes you wanted to tick, it lacks a major modern convenience: Bluetooth. What do you do? Fortunately there are several paths you can take to bring your slightly older car fully into 2016.
First, you’ll need to decide what you want the Bluetooth system in your car to do. If you just want to make hands-free phone calls, you might be best served with a the simplest solution: a standalone unit that clips to your sun visor or mounts to the dash. These basic units function as microphones and speakers, connected to your phone via Bluetooth, and can cost less than $20. Audio quality can be quite good, but volume is often limited due to the small size of the included speakers. Other models can use your car’s speakers, through the auxiliary input of your existing stereo. If you don’t have an auxiliary input, however, or if a small standalone unit won’t meet your needs, you’ll want to upgrade to a stereo head unit that’s Bluetooth-capable.
With Bluetooth built into the head unit and playing over the car’s stereo, not only do phone calls sound better, but you open the door to music streaming, app connectivity, and even Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. Choosing the right Bluetooth head unit can be as simple as looking for the newest, most feature-packed unit regardless of cost—and that’s great if you have $1,000 or so in your budget for the equipment and install. If you’re looking for something more affordable, however, there are still many options that will meet your needs.
At the base of the pyramid is a wide selection of Bluetooth-capable basic head units, often available for less than $100. These will have basically the same functionality as a standalone Bluetooth car kit or adapter, but with the benefit of an updated AM/FM/radio stereo control unit that can offer upgrades of its own over older factory systems.
Next up the ladder you have Bluetooth-enabled systems that also enable some app functionality, and can even include screens on their faces. Here you’ll find systems that enable full Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, usually offer one or more USB ports for input and charging, Pandora Internet radio and/or iHeart Radio access, and HD Radio tuning. Prices at this level can range from $150-$500, and include no screens or up to 7” touch screens. Devices with small screens can offer enhanced information display, but lack the size and detail to deliver useful touch-based menus, navigation, or other display-focused functions.
When you want a larger screen, you begin to run into an issue of compatibility: is your car single DIN or double DIN? While this bit of industry jargon might sound confusing, it’s really a matter of whether you have space for a single standard-height insert, or a double-height unit. Smaller, thinner single DIN units will only allow for very small screens, typically in the 2-3” range. While this can add some extra functionality and a higher-tech look, it’s not as practical a solution if you want your phone to send navigation directions to your car’s new display. Fortunately, there’s an exception: the flip-out screen. Using a retractable screen housed with the main body of the unit, but which comes out and flips up or down when engaged, these flip-out screen units can add a full 7” touch screen in the space of a small single DIN unit. So the bottom line: if you want a larger screen, you can get the job done with both single DIN and double DIN units, but it’s important to know which you have.
Beyond the first and second tiers of modern Bluetooth-capable stereo head units, you’ll need a double DIN slot. Fortunately, odds are very good that your new (used) car is good to go. Most of the cars built in the last decade have been fitted for double DIN stereo/infotainment systems, so most used car buyers will be able to opt for larger double DIN system that makes room for larger touch screens—up to 7” or 8” LCDs are available.
Once you’ve decided how many features you need and which are the most important to you (and your budget), it’s a simple matter of installing the system—a service most places which sell car stereo systems will provide for a fee, or which you can do yourself if you’re comfortable with basically disassembly/assembly and electrical wiring and have an afternoon to spare for the task. Now your once-dated car can, potentially, do anything your cutting edge smartphone can.
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automotive freelance journalist