Teaching Your Old Car New Tech Tricks

A guide to making your existing car smartphone-friendly with aftermarket stereos or accessories that don’t require any professional installation

By guest author Nicole Nguyen from the Wall Street Journal.

I have CarPlay envy. My 11-year-old SUV has a multimedia screen, but it lacks Apple’s sleek in-vehicle software. I didn’t know what I was missing until I rented a car on a recent trip that had an Apple CarPlay/Google Android Auto combo system.

There were no fussy menus or buttons: I just plugged my phone in, and my Google Maps route automatically filled the car’s screen. As texts came in, Siri read them aloud, and at a red light, I quickly found the podcast I wanted to listen to. I was hooked.

CarPlay, software that simplifies the often-janky car infotainment experience, began appearing in vehicles around 2014, followed by Android Auto about four years later. They activate as soon as you connect your phone, and the apps’ big, friendly buttons and voice-enabled features are easy to use while you’re at the wheel—and safer than fiddling with a handset. They’re essentially simplified versions of your phone, on your dashboard.

Unfortunately for me, it’s a terrible time to buy a new car. Pandemic-related supply shortages have sent prices for new and used cars sky high, and buyers often wait months for delivery. So I set off on a quest to install a CarPlay/Android Auto unit on the vehicle I already own.

If you, too, are interested in a smartphone-enabled system for your existing car, buckle up: This column is for you.

A Whole-System Upgrade 

Many aftermarket multimedia receivers are compatible with both CarPlay and Android Auto. They range in price from $200 to $2,000, depending on the size of the screen and other features, and come from brands such as Pioneer, Boss and Kenwood. Some models can connect to phones wirelessly or include additional USB charging ports, which add to the cost.

When shopping for these units, a common term you’ll come across is DIN, which stands for Deutsches Institut für Normung, the German organization that established car radio sizes. A single DIN stereo chassis is about 7 inches wide and 2 inches tall, while a double DIN is 7 inches wide and 4 inches tall. Crutchfield, an auto-parts retailer, has an online Fit My Car tool that can tell you which DIN is compatible with your model.

I was excited about the prospect of upgrading—until I learned my Lexus 450h wasn’t upgradeable.

Most car stereos can be replaced with aftermarket units, according to Brandon Bevins, a sales supervisor at Crutchfield. But a few exceptions occur. “In your Lexus, the factory dash panel around the radio is not a standard size or shape,” he explained. I’d need to get a custom kit fabricated, and the complex installation would cost much more than the standard $125 fee for most vehicles. I called a few auto shops, which quoted me around $1,800 for a special aftermarket receiver plus at least $350 for installation, with the caveat that the total could easily be more. Boo.

A Workaround: The Intellidash+

Search “CarPlay” or “Android Auto” on Amazon and you’ll find dozens of mountable smart screens. The Intellidash+ (USD 350) is one option. It has a 7-inch display with CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities. I was surprised: It worked. The same CarPlay interface that showed up in the rental was now running in my car, no professional installation needed.

The Intellidash+ isn’t exactly an elegant solution. You need a lot of cables to make it work, including a power cord running to a 12V cigarette lighter socket, and another connecting your phone to the screen’s USB-C port. If your car has a 3.5mm jack, there would be an auxiliary cable for audio, too. The kit comes with a handful of cable clips to manage the mess.

My car doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack, so to broadcast audio to my car’s speakers, I connected my iPhone over Bluetooth. You won’t want to play music over the Intellidash+’s terrible, tinny internal speakers.

The Pixel 6 activated Android Auto without a hitch, but despite many attempts, the Android device’s audio couldn’t be broadcast over Bluetooth. Instead, I used an FM transmitter built into the Intellidash+, which sounded fine over my car’s speakers, but finding the right station took longer to set up.

The screen’s telescopic arm attaches to the dash or windshield via a suction cup. For textured dashboards, there’s a glass disc with an adhesive back included in the box that gives the cup something to suction onto. Beware: You only have one chance to set it using the adhesive.

Before you mount anything onto your windshield, look up local laws. In California, devices can only be mounted in the lower corner of the windshield on the driver’s side and must be at most 7 inches square.

The Intellidash+ isn’t perfect and falls short compared with a built-in system, but it’s better than many alternatives. I tried other mountable CarPlay products, but they were buggier and clumsier. If you don’t want to install an aftermarket unit, the Intellidash+ is a good solution that doesn’t require a complete car-stereo swap—so long as you’re OK with cables.

A Good Mount, and Maybe a Car Thing

No matter what system you opt for, a solid phone mount makes a difference. In my experience, mounts that clip to your car’s heating/cooling vents are the most reliable. Accessories that stick on the dash block your view and are prone to suction cup malfunction, or need to be permanently affixed with an adhesive, a big downside of the Intellidash+.

For MagSafe-compatible iPhones, Otterbox’s mount ($40) holds phones securely with an easy snap-on magnetic pad and can be adjusted to portrait or landscape. For others, Belkin’s premium car-vent mount ($30) with expandable arms has a cable holder on the rear and can also be viewed in both orientations.

Ultimately, my favorite setup didn’t involve CarPlay at all. It included my phone, running Google Maps, mounted on my vent, plus an odd little USD 90 gadget by Spotify SPOT -2.14% ▼ called Car Thing. (Yes, that’s the actual name.)

The small, lightweight screen displays a driving-friendly version of the Spotify interface, and can be mounted to your dash, CD player or vent. It requires a Spotify Premium subscription, plus a smartphone with the Spotify app installed and connected to the display via Bluetooth. Then, you need to route the audio from your phone to your car, through whatever method you typically use. “Why not just your phone?” is a valid question for this product, which is essentially a dedicated Spotify remote.

While a full-featured CarPlay system would be nice to have, I realized that my most-used driving applications are maps and music and, with the Car Thing, I don’t have to toggle between the two. The gadget’s best feature is a set of four buttons across the top that can be programmed to specific playlists or podcasts, like a shortcut to your favorite radio station. The Car Thing only does one thing—play audio from Spotify—but it does it well. And, in the end, that, plus my phone, is all I needed.