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New gizmos by the carload

High-tech world of auto entertainment shifts into high gear

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Carlos Mora commutes three hours a day, then spends even more time on road trips with his teenagers. So when he wants to relax, where does he go? Right back to his SUV, which has a navigation system, Sony PlayStation and a built-in PC — plus a DVD player with surround sound.

After years in the slow lane, the world of auto entertainment is shifting into high gear. Among the new products: gizmos that promise to help you skirt traffic jams or even "read" you the morning paper. Within just the past two months, drivers nationwide got two new ways to hear music — in-dash MP3 players and satellite systems that offer 100 stations nationwide. And DVD players, until recently a high-cost novelty, are one of the fastest-growing car toys, both for new-car buyers and for folks installing them. In all, sales of high-tech auto gear were up nearly 70 percent at big electronics stores in 2001, says market researcher NPD Intelect, making it the hottest sector of the $2 billion car-stereo market.

The new wave of car technology is receiving an especially warm welcome this winter. Not only are Americans spending more time on their commutes by the year, but cheaper gas and the recent drop in air travel have more people turning to long-haul road trips. Plus, as the interest in everything from cell phones to navigation systems shows, drivers are already looking for ways to make their car time more constructive — or shorter. The result: Alpine Electronics, a big DVD and audio maker, says it ran short of some systems over the holidays. "We are frankly quite surprised," says its vice president, Steve Witt.

So how does the stuff work? To sort the nifty from the needless, we hauled a truckload of new gear along on our own family road trips. Our goal: to see what would keep the kids entertained, front-seat passengers sane and the driver on the right road. We discovered that not all of these gizmos are ready for prime time. One navigation system told us to take a sharp right as we sailed down the interstate, while some newfangled stereos seemed to make it more complicated to hear what we wanted. But we also found radios that let us hear Hollywood movie tunes 24 hours a day and learned that DVD players, naturally, were great for pacifying kids. With prices starting at $300, we thought it would be worthwhile to make room on the dash for a number of them.

And of course, this new technology has its critics. Stereos and cell phones are already credited with isolating Americans in their cars. More serious are the safety implications: As many as a quarter of all crashes involve driver distraction, from talking on the phone to eating breakfast, according to government data. But industry officials and owners point out that drivers have always dealt with diversions — and, in fact, because things like DVD players keep kids quiet, these gadgets may actually reduce one source of distraction.

Here, our own experiences with the latest in car technology:

DVD players ($500 to $2,500) — Faster than you can say "Free 'Shrek' Video," DVD players have gone mass-market, with Ford and Honda offering them pre-installed and General Motors expecting to sell as many as 70,000 DVD-equipped vehicles in 2002, triple the amount last year. And you don't have to buy a new car to get one: Some retail models slip over the back seat while others have screens that drop down from the roof.

THE PROS: Not only does it keep kids happy, but with wireless headphones, parents don't have to listen. "We have conversations now," says Mary Lou Erber, a mother of three whose Chevrolet minivan has a built-in model. When we pulled into the driveway after our own less-than-"Fantasia"-length test drive, our 6-year-old passenger lamented: "But it's not over yet." When's the last time you heard that from the back seat?

THE CONS: Choose your screen carefully: The one on the Audiovox we tested was too tiny and needed to be viewed straight-on. Preinstalled screens, on the other hand, can give a sharp picture — but one model that folded down from the ceiling obstructed our rear-window view. Then there's the carsickness issue. One final thing: Don't your kids watch enough TV as it is?

THE BOTTOM LINE: Sure, we'd love to discuss philosophy all the way to the Grand Canyon. But there's still the drive home.

Satellite radio ($300 to $1,200, plus monthly fees) — Not enough Tejano music in your life? Miles above the Earth, satellites now transmit some 100 stations to every corner of the United States — Sinatra, Hindi, comedy and, yes, northern Mexican cowboy music. To hear them, you need a special receiver and antenna, plus a subscription costing about $10 a month. The first satellite radio company, XM, rolled out its nationwide coverage in November, while competitor Sirius Satellite Radio is set to launch its own channels in February.

THE PROS: We liked Sony and Pioneer models that paired with our existing stereos and gave us access to everything from be-bop to unsigned bands. Once you try satellite radio, "it's hard to go back to local FM," says Ken Patterson, a 46-year-old wireless consultant from rural Texas who listens to news, disco and a Christian rock channel called The Torch. The display shows the song titles and artist names, a big plus.

THE CONS: The DJs were as annoying as their FM counterparts, the stations were so specific we felt like we were hearing the same songs over and over, and though we were paying for a subscription we still had to listen to commercials on some channels. And while XM's 100 channels may sound like a lot, the selection sometimes isn't as good as it seems: Classical fans can choose from four channels, but one is all Pops, another Bach-to-Beatles. Finally, call us news junkies, but we found XM's offerings lacking: Thanks to the time difference, when we were looking for our morning news update on BBC World Service, we got long features on prehistoric footwear and medieval zoos.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Narrowly defined stations seem to lack personality. But if you're driving in eastern Montana, who cares?

Navigation Systems ($1,000 to $3,000) — For most of their short history, satellite navigation systems — basically, computerized maps that show you where you are and how to get where you're going — have been considered frustrating and expensive toys. But cheaper and easier models are expected to show up everywhere in 2002 — even in Toyota Camrys. New systems understand spoken commands, while some promise something even more — to steer you around traffic jams.

THE PROS: The models we tested — ones that come in Infiniti and Lexus cars, plus a $3,000 Pioneer model you can have installed — are the best we've seen. Their databases now cover the entire United States, and their computers can spit out a realistic alternate route when you miss a turn (older systems tended to order U-turns). Voice controls were cool: When we said "restaurant," our screen filled with red, white and blue flags symbolizing "American" cuisine, with other flags for French and Chinese.

THE CONS: Even now, they're clunky, requiring drivers to pull over to program an address. All the systems lost us eventually; one told us we were beneath the Detroit River. Voice recognition needs some work, too: We asked our Lexus for grocery stores and it gave us French restaurants. And that traffic-jam feature? We liked how the Pioneer system receives special traffic data, but it still ran us into a tie-up.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Still pretty expensive. For now, we'll take a $3 map and restaurant tip from the guy at the gas station.

Talking Internet ($500 to $700 for hardware, plus annual fees and phone charges) — Forget books on tape. Now it's possible to have the day's news, stock quotes and even your own e-mail read to you as you drive. The service is available only for subscribers of OnStar, a General Motors' on-board phone system, but a competitor, MobileAria, is due out soon.

THE PROS: Much safer than trying to read your BlackBerry at 75 miles per hour. OnStar's Virtual Advisor can recite local traffic reports, a real bonus in congested cities. It even reads news from papers and television. The system has a lifelike, virtual female voice to guide you from one information category to another.

THE CONS: You say "news," it may give you "sports." And the system won't listen while it's talking, so the only way to get out of a dull report is to hang up and start over. (Who knew a 600-word news story could be so long?) We found the traffic reports weren't always accurate, with news of one tie-up remaining in the system for days. Finally, OnStar charges $200 a year, plus at least 20 cents a minute for the connection — so that news update probably cost you a buck.

THE BOTTOM LINE: It has promise, but for now it feels like an expensive gimmick.

MP3 Players ($500 to $800) — Eight-tracks, cassettes, CDs . . . hard drives? The newest thing in dashboards is a removable drive that can hold hundreds of hours of tunes; just fill it up with music files from your PC and plug it into a port in your car. The first players on the market — the PhatNoise car-audio system and Neo's car jukebox, both released last fall — are meant to be mounted in the trunk and wired to your existing stereo.

THE PROS: You can drive for days and not hear the same song twice. "Now I have a 70-CD changer," says Jeff Cohen, a 39-year-old computer specialist who uses PhatNoise. Though he anticipated a challenge — "I was expecting the geek experience" — Cohen found it pretty easy to set up. PhatNoise comes with software that automatically updates your drive to match the music library on your PC.

THE CONS: The PhatNoise isn't compatible with all car stereos, while the Neo, which works with a broader range of models, was less user-friendly. Neither system makes it easy to find that one song you absolutely have to hear without scrolling through dozens of choices — you have to remember that "Stairway to Heaven" is on disk 79, track 236. While PhatNoise says the system isn't designed for behind-the-wheel searches, separate in-dash units — just starting to become available — will make finding songs a bit easier.

THE BOTTOM LINE: If you have $800 and a ton of digital music files on your PC, this is for you. If you want no-fuss digital music, try satellite radio.