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Spotlight On: Chrysler Uconnect

We take an in-depth look at the latest version of Chrysler\'s infotainment system.

That gigantic screen sitting in the dashboard of most of Chrysler's newest models is more than just eye candy - it's the automaker's latest Uconnect infotainment, a system that integrates most of its advanced audio, navigation and climate control functions into one unit.

Unlike conceptually similar systems offered up by most rivals, Uconnect has received little fanfare. But don't let Chrysler's relative silence concern you - the automaker has quietly created what might be the most user-friendly infotainment system yet. And in a world of increasingly complex - and distracting - infotainment devices, that's huge praise.

Here's a look at how the latest version of Uconnect (called Uconnect Access) works. We sampled the system on a 2013 Ram 1500, but other Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram products will see Uconnect Access phased into their dashboards. If you're in doubt about which system you're looking at, your dealer should be able to tell you. Beginning with certain 2013 models, Uconnect Access can be upgraded to newer software when it is released.

Breakdown

Available with or without navigation (which can now be installed by a dealer), Uconnect Access uses an 8.4-inch touchscreen located centrally on the vehicle's dashboard. Separate controls for climate and audio volume and tuning are also included, but radio presets are on the screen only. Redundant audio (volume, seek and media) switches are conveniently located on the back of the steering wheel.

A second 7-inch screen is available on the Ram's instrument cluster. It provides access to a number of trip computer functions and it can also be configured to display audio information.

In addition, Uconnect access can operate as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot over a 3G network for an additional monthly charge.

Using Uconnect


Uconnect fires up as soon as the vehicle is started. Only a brief safety warning screen greets drivers. At the bottom of every screen are seven large, well-labeled icons - Radio, Media, Climate, Nav, Phone, Apps and Settings. The selected icon is backlit in a glowing red shade when it is selected, making it easy for drivers to tell what menu they're on.

Built into the rearview mirror are 911 and Assist buttons, which can either call up emergency services or connect drivers with either roadside assistance or Chrysler's Vehicle Customer Care Center. Unlike General Motors' OnStar, the system does not provide concierge services, although a smartphone app can remotely lock, unlock and start the vehicle.

A steering wheel button accesses the handsfree voice commands. Generally, the system understands natural commands like "tune to Sirius 90s on 9” or "show map.”

Radio. AM, FM and SiriusXM are found here. At the top of the screen are six presets that list either the name (satellite) or the number (AM/FM) of the preset station. In the center of the screen is a large display for the chosen radio station. For SiriusXM, the display shows the station's logo, plus large text for the station name and slightly smaller text for the song and artist.

A few other buttons below control more advanced functions. Thankfully, a separate knob for tuning is included, which saves the effort of repeatedly tapping a fast forward button.

Media. Bluetooth streaming, USB, SD card and standard headphone jack auxiliary audio modes are found here. Using both an Android and an iPhone, it was easy to connect and use Bluetooth audio. The iPhone displayed song title information.

Climate. Our test vehicle's climate control system featured big redundant buttons and knobs below the 8.4-inch screen, something we hope all future Chrysler products will include. The climate control's temperature is displayed via a small icon at the top right of every screen (near the clock, compass and outside temperature thermometer).

Note: Some Chrysler products will include another icon next to Climate for heated and ventilated seat controls. Our Ram was not equipped with either. We prefer separate buttons integrated into the climate control for heated and ventilated seats, which makes them easy to access while on the go.

Nav. Chrysler uses a Garmin-like easy-to-use navigation software. Although the screen graphics are a bit rudimentary compared to the Google Maps-style screens seen in some other vehicles, Uconnect rewards by being incredibly easy to operate. Big buttons make inputting destination information a cinch. The system does limit some functionality while the Ram is moving, something we don't mind since the voice recognition system easily inputted our requests. Though it is more time consuming to input a destination or search for a nearby point of interest with the voice recognition software, keeping both hands on the wheel is much safer than tapping away at a screen while moving.

Phone. We had no difficulty connecting both an Android and an iPhone 4S to Uconnect. In fact, the system found our phones particularly quickly, and it downloaded their phonebook information. Drivers can set five presets at the top of the screen for frequently-called numbers. The only demerit we give this system is that the button to access the keypad is small, although the keypad itself is big enough to operate reasonably safely while driving.

The system can also announce and read text messages, which worked reasonably well with our iPhone but not our Android. Given the open source nature of Android, not all phones will necessarily be able to use the text message system.

Apps. Chrysler is planning to offer a number of downloadable applications for Uconnect, though the library is small at the moment. The most useful so far is a Wi-Fi app, although our truck also included a Bing search app. Instead of relying on the navigation for, say, restaurant suggestions, drivers (while sitting still if they want to use the touchscreen) can search for relevant locations. User reviews are also displayed.

While the Wi-Fi hotspot might be a boon for commercial users, consumers might find that their hotspot-enabled smartphone will provide faster data access depending on their carrier.

Apps are downloadable via the Sprint-provided 3G system. Apps currently offered are free. More complex future apps might require a charge.

Leftlane's bottom line


Frankly, it's hard to fault Uconnect. In fact, we don't think Chrysler has been vocal enough about its excellent infotainment software, which sets the standard for low-distraction usability. One thing that really sets Uconnect apart is its extra large screen, which gives Chrysler more flexibility than other automakers with smaller displays.

The attractive screen is intuitively laid out with big, clear labels. Even more advanced functions - like changing equalizer settings - can be done reasonably safely while on the go.

We wish that the audio presets had separate buttons, but that's about the only major complaint we can levy against Uconnect.

Leftlane's Spotlight On series aims to provide new car shoppers with an in-depth look and critical evaluation of new technologies and features. Since high-tech items tend to evolve quickly, it is important to note that the information presented here is accurate as of the publish date above.

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