12/20/2010 2:30 PM ET|
How to get car tech on the cheap
You don't have to go with factory-installed options for navigation, entertainment and safety; off-the-shelf gadgets are usually cheaper -- and may offer better features.
When A.J. Teixeira went shopping for a Subaru Forester, the Washington, D.C.-area resident knew he wanted a navigation system. But when the dealer tried to sell him the factory-installed GPS, he balked -- and not just because of the $1,800 price tag. When he test-drove the car, he says, the system seemed "clunky" and couldn't find a gas station near the dealership. Subaru says it's always upgrading its technology, but Teixeira opted for a $189 portable unit he clipped to the air vent.
"I love gadgets," says Teixeira, 42, "but I'm not going to pay a high price."
Call it car tech for the wallet-watching set. Instead of paying thousands for manufacturer-installed systems that access phones, music, maps and more, many are customizing their rides with off-the-shelf gadgets, from GPS units to keyless-entry systems and backup bumper cameras. With technology getting better and cheaper -- and more consumers feeling frugal -- the market is growing steadily, says Larry Fisher, a research director at consultancy ABI Research, which expects aftermarket GPS sales in North America to more than double by 2015, from $160 million in 2010.
Of course, gadgets added after the fact can be glitchy. Compared with manufacturer systems that increasingly integrate all the tech action (think BMW's iDrive or Ford's Sync), off-the-shelf GPS devices or backup cameras may not work as seamlessly with the rest of a car's technology, says analyst John Canali, of research firm Strategy Analytics -- often because carmakers use different systems.
A poor installation may void the factory warranty for related components, says Ivan Drury, an Edmunds.com analyst. "You have to trust the person doing it," he says.
Sales of portable GPS units jumped in recent years, with nearly 9 million units sold in the past year, up 11% from 2007, according to NPD Group. And it's easy to see why. Prices average about $140, compared with $1,400 for in-dash nav systems. Maps can be updated more frequently -- and cheaply -- than through dealers. Plus, units now offer 3-D mapping, traffic alerts, even customized voices, from Homer Simpson to your favorite uncle.
Granted, some folks may not love the look of a suction-cup mount or dangling wires. But according to Blake Jacobson, a lead automotive-tech installer for Best Buy's Geek Squad in Minneapolis, his company's nav-system installations range from a simple GPS mount and setup ($50) to seamless in-dash jobs ($100), gadgets not included. "We don't cut holes in dashes," he says. Experts recommend looking for free lifetime warranties on aftermarket jobs and reinstallation of factory units come trade-in time.
In the world of big family haulers, dealers make big bucks ($1,500 and up) on rear-seat entertainment packages, which can include kiddie catnip like video-game hookups and links to TV and the Internet. (Hello, monthly subscription fees!) Even in a rough economy, these systems are gaining popularity: Americans bought 1.7 million rear-seat entertainment units in 2009, a figure projected to hit 2.9 million in 2015.
Many factory systems have one drop-down screen, but aftermarket options allow for customized backseat entertainment: separate headrest units for your game-playing tweener and your Big Bird-watching toddler.
And pleasing both kids may not cost you more. When Edmunds.com asked some aftermarket shops to re-create a few popular systems using off-the-shelf parts, the average cost was $1,099, versus $1,593 for manufacturer equipment.
Still, aftermarket DVD players may not be as tightly integrated with a car's electrical system, creating more noise or radio-frequency interference, cautions Phil Magney, VP of automotive consultancy iSuppli. And, he says, non-original antennae, used for satellite video or digital TV, are usually less robust.
Safety and convenience
Minivans and SUVs are notorious for their large blind spots, leading many owners to dread backing up -- and creating a booming business for cameras and sensors. Most luxury cars and large SUVs now offer them, according to Edmunds.com, but aftermarket cameras can cost a fraction of the price of factory-installed systems: Pyle Audio's rearview system with night vision, for one, is $180.
Brad Webb knows the anxiety of backing a minivan out of his driveway with small kids around. So when the Minneapolis-based product manager bought a used Acura RL, he had an aftermarket backup cam installed. He loves it -- especially for parallel parking. But because its wide-angle image makes things appear farther away than they are, Webb had to draw a chalk line in his driveway to test the range. "It's a little trial-and-error," he says.
This article was reported by Daren Fonda for SmartMoney.
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