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Exclusive: Hands-On With the 2013 Chevy Spark’s MyLink System

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While high-end, high-dollar cars have traditionally gotten the best gadgets, smartphones have had an equalizing effect across the automotive spectrum. Why spend a grand or more on an in-dash navigation system when smartphone nav apps are as good, or in some cases, better? Why buy an automaker’s in-car Wi-Fi when you already have an internet connection and data plan on your phone? And while software updates are finally coming to automotive infotainment systems, most dashboard electronics are frozen in time once they leave the factory, whereas smartphones can be easily and infinitely updated.

There’s a push by a group automakers and suppliers called the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) to make the head unit more of an extension of a driver’s smartphone through a standard called MirrorLink. Or as a GM PR representative intoned from the backseat as I put the MyLink system in a preproduction 2013 Chevy Spark through its paces: “Dumb head unit, smart phone,” although he’s not giving enough credit to the intelligence of the MyLink system that will debut in the diminutive Chevrolet Spark this summer and its slightly larger sibling, the Sonic, later this year.

It’s true that, except for an AM/FM tuner, most available content – music, information, navigation and communication – is fed to the MyLink system from a connected smartphone. It’s also the first modern OEM system that ditches the CD player. And while MyLink isn’t a huge departure from other cutting-edge automotive infotainment systems that have gone app-happy, it adds several new twists – and comes standard in a car that stickers for $14,500.

MyLink doesn’t exactly cede its UI to a connected device, and the GM engineer who walked me through the system was reluctant to call it the first head unit to use the MirrorLink standard and relegate the screen to a passive pass-through. But it is a step in the right direction, and also emblematic of an increasingly common path for automakers and their shared fate: foregoing their own outdated interfaces and giving drivers access to content on their individual devices. And it’s the most smartphone-friendly system I’ve seen in a car at any price.

When first fired up, MyLink’s 7-inch touchscreen greets you with five large menu tabs on the left side: audio, picture, movie, telephone, smartphone link and settings. On the right are small icons along the top that show the status of connected devices and on-board systems such as OnStar and Bluetooth, as well as a clock. The audio tab accesses garden-variety sources: AM, FM and USB. Certainly nothing groundbreaking, save for the missing disc option. The interface for an iPod or other connected USB device features large touch points and album art, although BMW’s use of the Apple spec iPod Out and the native iPod UI would make more sense. The system plays video on a USB device, as long as the transmission is in park.

Pressing the telephone tab is no great revelation either. Up pops a generic yet intuitive phone interface, and it was painless to connect my iPhone 4 via Bluetooth, without even entering a pairing code. The usual menu items (address book and call history) are available, and the large dial pad makes entering a number quick and easy. But it’s the microphone button on the telephone menu screen that makes this part of the system unique.

Photo: Doug Newcomb

Tap it or press the voice activation button on the steering wheel and you’re not using an on-board voice engine, but the one on the phone. In the case of our demo, it was Voice Action for Android on the GM engineer’s connected Droid. Since voice engine technology is one of the most expensive components of any automaker’s infotainment technology stack, eliminating it and leveraging the cloud-based voice activation on the device saves money. And also has the potential to reduce frustration since cloud-connected voice activation is typically more accurate than on-board systems for those difficult names in an address book. It also worked via Voice Control on my iPhone 4, and should be even more seamless when Apple’s new Eyes Free Siri-integration feature becomes available.

Hitting the smartphone link is supposed to be where the magic happens, but for now it only brings up two usual suspect apps – Pandora and Stitcher – along with MyLink’s proprietary smartphone nav app, GogoLink. GM says that the big blank space on the smartphone link screen will be populated with more apps in the coming months. And even if they’re captive like GogoLink, let’s hope they’re as full-featured, since the app is a deathblow to traditional in-dash and portable navigation systems.

While a bit pricey at $50 and with a somewhat dated mapping interface – particularly in light of Apple’s announcement this week of its new Maps app and Google Maps’ preemptive upgrade to 3D mapping – GogoLink includes features rarely found only on even the most expensive in-dash systems or the slickest nav apps. A Driving Range Projection screen, for example, not only displays the minimum and maximum mileage left in the tank as a numerical value, but also shows a safe green-zone range on the map screen, with yellow and red borders to show the limits of the available fuel. Of course, it also highlights the nearest gas station and would be the perfect companion for a future EV.

Photo: Doug Newcomb

Another sweet, time-saving feature is Single Line Address, which uses the phone’s Internet connection to quickly search for points of interest by entering a few keywords. GogoLink also has an Eco Route option and an Eco Driving Profile feature to keep tabs on fuel frugality, looks up local emergency contacts such police and hospitals, and includes real-time traffic info.

Finally, for such as small, inexpensive vehicle, the settings menu is as comprehensive as it is easy to use thanks to the touchscreen. Choosing preferences for entry lighting, how the doors unlock, reminder chimes and even whether you want the rear wiper activated when shifting to reverse are accessed through the touchscreen instead of the typical key fob fumbling with most cars.

This was all tested while sitting still, although I did take the Spark for a quick spin on the streets around the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. While some of the nav features are locked out for safety reasons once the car is underway, the large screen in the little car was easy to use for basic features such as finding music on a connected device or accessing Pandora, and didn’t get too washed out in bright sunlight

In-car infotainment has dramatically changed in just the past few years as automakers scramble to add connected features and apps. But it hasn’t changed fast enough to keep up with consumer electronics and expectations. Chevy MyLink is an example of how automakers can stay ahead of the tech curve by relying on the features and data connection of a tethered smartphone. It’s also an example of how, in the future, a $15,000 car could have infotainment features that are very similar to those costing ten times as much.
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