While the world waits for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay to change how we use our phones in our cars, automakers are already busy coming at it from the other direction — changing how we use our cars with our phones.
Car apps from the likes of Mercedes-Benz (which started it all, with its mbrace app), Nissan/Infiniti, Acura, Ford, GM, Toyota/Lexus, and Volkswagen let you do things Android Auto and Apple CarPlay can't. Automakers' car apps can lock and unlock the car, for instance; check windows and doors; track fuel usage; and pre-condition the interior.
Such amenities remain firmly within the automakers' bag of tricks — they'll likely not be giving them up to third parties anytime soon — and they do usually cost something to use. But the convenience is tempting. We recently tried two such apps: Toyota's Entune with the 2014 Toyota 4Runner, and Volkswagen's Car-Net with the 2014 VW Tiguan 2.0 R-Line TSI.
The rugged 4Runner uses the Toyota Entune mobile app, which debuted in the 2012 Camry. The app combines car controls with some phone-app compatibility, but it's much stronger on the former.
You connect your phone over Bluetooth (the app doesn't work if you connect the iPhone's USB cable), then you run the Entune app on your Android or iOS phone to create a conduit for apps like Pandora, OpenTable, and iHeartRadio to work on the 4Runner's touchscreen. Note that you can't just run an app like Pandora on your phone and play songs; you have to use the touchscreen — the point being that it's probably safer that way.
Once I followed those parameters, Entune worked flawlessly. One small perk is that, once you connect Pandora, you can enable the high-quality streaming option (just look under settings) without having to pay for Pandora One, which normally costs $3.99 per month.
That said, the app felt a bit dated. You can let everyone know you have checked into a hotel using Facebook Places (remember that one?), but most of us don't bother with that feature anymore. Newer streaming apps like MOG and Spotify are not supported. You can't search for anything using the Bing app right from the touchscreen, just addresses.
To use Entune mobile apps, you'll have to get the optional package that includes it with the Toyota car. In the case of the 4Runner SR5, you'd have to pay an extra $4545 for the Premium version of the car with Entune App Suite. But there's no monthly charge to use the app, which is more than we can say for Car-Net.
The Car-Net app (for iOS and Android) is an attempt by Volkswagen to play catch-up with other brands like Ford and GM, which have offered mobile apps for years. Announced in the summer of 2013, Car-Net works on most 2014 VW models, including the Jetta and Passat.
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