VW makes sweeping infotainment, safety system upgrades for 2016
Smartphone connectivity and electronic driver aids will percolate through the model range.
Volkswagen is upgrading its infotainment and safety systems across the board for the 2016 model year. Despite being closely related to Audi, a corporate sibling often regarded as being quite savvy in realms of tech, the parent company has denied the entry level brand of similar whiz-bang features in the past. That's not the case any more, as VW aims seeks to differentiate itself from the competition by taking the fight to the technology front.
The powertrain is old news. Volkswagen says that currently 90 percent of all automotive innovations are in the realm of electronic systems. New buyers value connectivity above all else, prompting VW to rapidly upgrade their infotainment systems to meet demand.
Leading the charge is an all-new system called MIB II, and like the neuralyzer in the film of the same name, it aims to make you forget about the company's outdated systems of old. The Modular Infotainment Platform II — named as such because its Nvidia processor can be plugged in modularly to the VW motherboard (hidden behind a deceptively old school CD player) — will be offered in four different levels.
At the most basic level, what VW calls Composition Color provides the absolute minimum expected in cars these days, offering a 5-inch touchscreen radio with aux-in, SD card slots, Bluetooth and (finally) USB ports that obviate the need for the old MDI cables that worked only with Apple devices.
The next level up, Composition Media, takes all the previous level's features and adds a JPEG viewer, Sirius XM, HD Radio and the new App-Connect interface that allows for Apple Carplay, Android Auto or MirrorLink integration. Simply plug a cable into your smartphone and get, say, Google Maps right on the 6.3-inch (or 6.5 if you're in a Golf) screen. Not all apps will have in-dash integration, but thus far the list is pretty impressive: Stitcher, Spotify, CBS Radio, Pocket Casts, Google Play, NPR One, WhatsApp, and Google Hangouts, to name a few. Starting at this level, touchscreens also become capacitive, meaning multi-figure gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and swiping are understood, while reaction times are reduced. Lastly, up to two phones can now be synced to the car's Bluetooth.
Level three is called, unaccountably, Discover Media. Again, it takes the previous level and adds several features such as 2.5D navigation, one-shot voice destination entry, and the clunkily named Car-Net Guide & Inform, a layer of real-time data such as weather reports, fuel prices and even sports scores on top of the nav system.
The fourth and final level is called Discover Pro, which ups the screen size to 8.0 inches and further adds up to 10GB of jukebox storage and wireless connectivity. A little advertised but neat trick also allows a passenger to enter a destination or control the stereo from a phone or tablet without changing the car's on-screen display. That way, the passenger can force their poor musical taste onto the cabin while the driver can keep, say, the navigation map front and center and arrive at the destination as quickly as possible. Sadly, the only model to support Discover Pro thus far is the e-Golf.
In addition to the four levels of MIB II, Volkswagen has developed new web interfaces for its Car-Net Safety & Security suite. Until now, its main feature was beaming vehicle locations to a call center for roadside assistance, automatic crash notifications and leading police to stolen VWs. Now, you can do all sorts of useful things like check and activate the windows, lights and door locks from a web browser, phone or smartwatch. It even marks your last parking location, but you can send it locations too, which the nav system will pull from the ether the next time the car is started. Creepily, you can also set speed alerts and "out of bounds" radii to keep Big Brother tabs on your teen drivers or cheating spouses.
In addition to the impressive array of tech gewgaws, VW is also making a suite of electronic nannies available across the model range for 2016. Many are nothing new, but aside from the Touraeg they weren't available in the more plebeian wagens of the volks. Now you can get features like Adaptive Cruise Control on models like the Beetle, Jetta, CC, and the many variants of the Golf.
For the uninitiated, ACC lets the car lock onto the car in front, matching speed like a Star Trek tractor beam, using millimeter wave radar. It can even come to a complete stop on automatic transmission cars, but otherwise it functions like regular cruise control. The radar system also allows for the option of rear-end collision alerts and braking assist. If it detects you're about to smack into an object in front, it issues audio and visual warnings. If those are ignored, or the driver's response isn't forceful enough on the brake pedal, the car kicks in additional braking pressure in a last-ditch act of self preservation.
A ring of ultrasonic sensors surrounding the car provide a host of other niceties to help with the arduous tasks of parking distance judging, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic observation. All start with audio warnings but the latter two, if ignored, will intensify with actual automated braking. Likewise, a lane departure warning starts with a vibration in the steering wheel, but kicks up to automatic countersteering if necessary.
Many of these may seem familiar to cutting-edge safety-tech geeks, having appeared on everything from Toyotas to Hondas at least half a model year ago. However, VW has a few additional tricks up its sleeve. The first is a parking assist function that not only pulls a car into a parallel parking space, but backs it in 90 degrees into a traditional perpendicular parking spot. In practice the system feels strange, asking you to operate the brakes without touching the steering wheel lest you override the computer. And of course, a skilled parker could back into a perpendicular space in one fell swoop while the car requires a three-point maneuver.
Lastly, a feature unique to the VW group is a Multicollision braking system. Linked to the airbag sensors, if the system detects a deployment the brakes automatically activate to bring the vehicle to a stop as quickly as possible. This, VW reckons, prevents ricochet collisions that might send the car into other obstacles.
Keen-eyed observers might have noticed the absence of the Passat on the list, but that's because a refresh of that model is forthcoming, and VW doesn't yet want to ruin the surprise of whether it will have these systems in place before the big reveal (spoiler alert: it will).
Though prices for MIB II have yet to be announced, the safety systems will range from standard to $1,495 depending on model and trim.
VW's innovations seems to arrive in spurts. As one of the first automakers to incorporate iPhone interfaces, it seemed to languish while the competition caught up and surpassed it. With MIB II and the new safety systems, VW is leapfrogging once again to the forefront. If VW's theories about tech-driven consumers are right, these packages should help boost sales in the US.