Car-tech reviews, the Alphr way
The line between vehicles and technology is blurring, and a car is now the most important, expensive piece of technology you’ll ever buy. To help you make the right choice, we’re teaming up with our prestigious sister titles Auto Express and Carbuyer to guide you through the exciting, and often confusing, world of in-car tech. From now on, we’ll be featuring regular car-tech reviews on the Alphr website, kicking off this week with the Volkswagen Golf GTE.
But what makes good in-car technology? And what separates a lemon from a humdinger? This guide explains what we’ll be looking for when we review in-car tech, and how each car achieves its overall score. It also outlines what we test and the comparisons we make when putting each car through its paces.
1. UI and controls
A screen is the first point of contact between you and your in-car system, so it needs to be top quality. The best screens should be high resolution, bright and easy to read and operate – regardless of whether it’s bright or dark outside.
The screen will need to be quick and responsive and, because not everyone likes using a touchscreen, we also want to see buttons and dials for quick, old-fashioned operation.
Voice control is arguably the ideal way to control your in-car tech, meaning it’s one of the most important systems to get right. The best voice recognition systems should be easy to master and should control as many aspects of the car as possible.
They’ll also be able to process more natural phrases such as “where’s the closest petrol station from here?”, instead of awkward commands such as “nearest petrol stations, present location search”.
Modern cars come with a host of different connectivity choices, allowing drivers and passengers to connect everything from their smartphones to their laptops to their cars. First, we’ll look for the physical ways occupants can connect to the car, but we’ll also look for apps that make pairing your device a more seamless experience.
Bluetooth is a given in most new cars, but aptX support – the highest quality codec – is what separates the good in-car audio systems from the best. Physical media is also important: we’ll be looking for SD card slots, disk drives, aux ports and more – and noting just how many each car provides. Why? That’s because, just like the USB ports on your laptop, the more ports or connections a car has, the more convenient it is to use.
The most sophisticated cars will also offer its own 3G or 4G hotspot connection, meaning that passengers can browse the internet, and access internet services with their tablets and laptops while you drive.
Satnavs might all look the same, but some are significantly better than others. To test each car’s navigation prowess, we’ll be comparing their performance to the one we most frequently use on our smartphones: Google Maps.
As well as examining the quality of routes with Google’s app, we’ll also be looking for other features such as multi-point route planning, traffic dodging, and 3D buildings that help you get your bearings. Any plug-in or electric vehicles we review should also display range on the map, and display charging stations, allowing you to plan longer journeys without fear of running out of charge.
Of course, we’ll also be weighing up and considering all the usual factors that can make or break a satnav. Visual and audio guidance needs to be clear, concise and delivered in ample time, and we’d also expect the best cars to take advantage of heads up display (HUD) technology and on-dash next-turn displays.
4. Audio quality
Audio connectivity is nothing without good sound, so we’ll also be putting each car’s speaker system through its paces. This is largely a subjective judgement, but we’ll be testing using the same set of tracks and audio test files to keep things as consistent as possible – and to ensure each car’s system is comfortable with everything from the vocals of Radio 4 to thumping dance tracks.
It’s not just the speakers that affect audio quality, though, which is why we’ll be considering the build quality of materials in the cabin (buzzing and rattling should be kept to a minimum at top volume) and road noise, too.
5. In-car apps
Apps help you get the best from your smartphones and tablets, and the same is true of in-car systems. The best cars we review will come with their own polished systems, but should also include apps that give drivers access to their favourite online services – from Spotify to TuneIn Radio.
Systems such as Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink go one better, and deliver apps from the smartphone directly to the screen of your car’s main touchscreen. We expect complete solutions such as these to appear on high-end vehicles first, but it’s only a matter of time before they filter into more affordable vehicles.
That’s not all, though. Car manufacturers also often offer remote control and status apps you can install on your smartphone. We’ll be testing those, too, alongside other miscellaneous features such as concierge services, which allow you to talk directly to a real person in a call-centre, for help with everything from directions to technical assistance.
6. Semi-autonomous safety and driver assistance tech
Safety is also a huge factor when buying a car, but rather than focusing on technology that reduces the effects of an accident, we’ll look for tech that prevents one from ever happening.
Parking sensors and cameras are also becoming more common in new cars today, but the best cars will come with semi-autonomous technology that makes driving safer and less stressful.
Features such as lane-departure warning, blind spot monitors, self-parking and autonomous emergency braking represent the cutting edge of semi-autonomous car tech, and these are the sorts of features we expect to find on the most expensive cars we test.
Rolling it all together
That, in a nutshell, is it. We won’t be looking at the things traditional car reviews do. For details on drivability, performance and practicalities such as legroom and boot space, you can read the full reviews on our sister sites Auto Express and Carbuyer – but at the end of an Alphr car review you should have a better idea what it does from a technological standpoint and how well it all hangs together.