You can have the car read text messages to you. With an integrated system, you can even look up local restaurants, make an online reservation and get turn-by-turn directions to get there. And many of those functions can be controlled simply by speaking commands.
Yes, the controls for many of these advanced systems are complicated and distracting to use. But the best designs offer an unprecedented level of versatility and convenience that is changing how we live with our cars.Most new cars come with one or more ways to link a portable music device so you can listen to your selections through the car's audio system. Mini jack and USB ports can be found even in budget models — just plug in, select "aux" in the audio controls and you're in business. With a USB port, you can often operate your device with the car's radio controls and see the song, album and artist information in its display. You can also play music stored on a flash drive.
Most new cars come with a Bluetooth system that allows you to wirelessly connect a phone. It lets you dial by voice and talk hands-free, and it also streams music stored on the phone or received through a data connection (think Aha or Pandora).The next step up is a full infotainment system that typically integrates a car's audio, navigation, communication and climate systems. It usually includes an in-dash display and is controlled through a touch screen or a multifunction controller (or both), hard keys and/or voice commands.
The latest trend is for automakers to integrate apps into these systems that let you access various content from your smartphone. Toyota's Entune system, for example, lets you stream Pandora and iHeartRadio stations, perform Bing destination searches, make restaurant reservations through OpenTable, search for and buy movie tickets, and check traffic, weather, fuel prices, stocks and sports scores.
To reduce driver distraction, some functions are deactivated while the vehicle is moving. And though there can still be features that take your eyes off the road, using an in-car system is easier than trying to operate the small buttons of a portable device while you drive.
That said, some systems are easier to use than others. Consumer Reports has found Cadillac's CUE and the MyFord/MyLincoln Touch systems to be particularly frustrating. Common gripes include complicated menus and touch screens that are slow to respond. On the plus side, Chrysler's Uconnect Touch system provides simple, clear menus while retaining easy-to-use push buttons and knobs for frequent tasks.Should you get a built-in navigation system? Automaker systems have larger screens and often allow programming by voice.
But they can be pricey. Some start at about $650, but others may come in an options package costing $2,000 or more.
You can also get a good portable GPS device with the same basic functionality for about $100.
Overall, Consumer Reports has been impressed with the convenience of today's systems, but would like to see automakers make them more intuitive to use, with simpler interfaces and greater use of voice controls. And keep in mind that this technology is evolving rapidly, so check automakers' websites to see what's available on any car that sparks your interest.