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Top tech upgrades for your older car

Make your car new again with CarPlay, a backup camera and a dash cam.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, smart home, digital health. Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Brian Cooley
5 min read
Brian Cooley/Roadshow

We keep our cars longer than ever these days, so I bet you drive something older that you wish had the latest car tech. Don't buy a new one, upgrade your current one. I've made dozens of older cars cool again with the upgrades below. These are ranked by their general usefulness, and we cross-checked them with our friends at Crutchfield to bring in their experience upgrading thousands of cars like yours. Note that Roadshow may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.

Watch this: Don't buy a new car, upgrade yours

5. Remote-start kit

These are quite popular, but I'm slotting them low because a lot of cars have remote start built in from the factory and many of the add-on kits include redundant security tech your car probably already has. Still, there's nothing like remote start on winter mornings or summer afternoons when you want your car to be climate-controlled as soon as you get in. 


The iDatastart CMHCXA0 HC is an example of a remote-start kit that adds the functions you want without redundant security system features or a superfluous push-button start.

Some of you have asked about remote-start kits that also add a push-button starter to your car. Such kits exist, but I haven't seen one from a reputable brand and Crutchfield doesn't carry one as a result. Those two data points, along with the relative low utility of a push-button starter, leads me to recommend you skip it. 

4. Amp and speakers

This was long the classic car upgrade upon which a thousand local car stereo stores once thrived. They're still a big category, but factory audio systems have become quite good and, frankly, our appetite for MP3s and streams proves most of us have tin ears anyway.


The Alpine KTP-445A Power Pack is an example of a modern amps that delivers better sound over many stock systems while not taking up an entire trunk.

3. Dash cam

These are still fairly niche in the US, but you'll be getting ahead of an inevitable curve if you get one. Dash cams come in inexpensive basic versions that just record out the windshield all the time, but also in connected versions that offer remote access to the camera from anywhere, crash sensing and emergency notification, and even basic driver assists that can help keep you in your lane or from hitting the car in front of you. If you can't have me as your co-pilot, a smart dash cam is the next best thing. 

Read more: The best dash cams in 2020  


The Thinkware F800PRO is about as far as you can go with a dash cam before you get into the smart, connected models. 

There's a lot of innovation in dash cams, and they tend to be a new concept for most people, so see my recent videos on dash cam basics and smart dash cam features here on Roadshow.


You can see what's happening on the Owlcam live from anywhere, as well as access past clips via the cloud.

2. Rear backup camera

Lots of cars on the road are old enough to lack one of these -- it's been mandatory in new cars since 2018 -- yet they're probably the most useful piece of cabin technology of the 21st century. Seriously, get a backup camera. 

You may see seductive wireless backup cams that send an image your phone, but I agree with the team at Crutchfield that you should make the effort to install a wired camera that connects to a display in your car, either in-dash or in-mirror. Rear visibility is too important to pollute with the lag and busyness of a phone.

Look-IT wireless backup camera

The Look-IT Safety Backup Camera is an example of appealing wireless backup cameras, but you'll probably get more reliable performance from a wired camera.


The most common add-on rear camera is a universal design that attaches to your license plate fasteners, but the Crutchfield team points out that there is a trend of slick add-on rear cams that are designed for your exact vehicle. Look at this one that replaces your BMW trunk handle with one that has an integrated camera... or this one that replaces your Cayman's license plate light with one with a built-in camera. Look for something like those for your car before you go with a universal mount.


The Alpine HCE-C1100 is a high-quality wired backup rear camera. It works with most in-car displays using a standard video input and mounts above your rear license plate.

1. Android Auto/Apple CarPlay head unit

"Head unit" is industry jargon for this kind of car stereo because they do so much more than play music. 

Let's face it, all you really want is your phone in your dash, but done safely and with just the relevant features available. That's what a head unit with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay does, using the apps, accounts and history from your phone. Most also support both platforms so you don't need to choose. Streaming music, podcasts, navigation, calls and messaging all take place in the dash as if you were doing them on your phone, but reformatted for the head unit's display and for minimum distraction. 


This Android Auto and Apple CarPlay head unit has a rock-bottom price, but doesn't play CDs.

Most Android Auto/Apple CarPlay head units tether to your phone with a cable but some make that connection wirelessly. Take some advice from the techs at Crutchfield that I fully agree with: Don't sweat the wireless connection between phone and head unit too much. It tends to be less reliable than a cable and you're probably going to plug in your phone to charge it anyway. 


The Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX costs plenty, but it features wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, still plays CDs and DVDs, and can be upgraded with add-on modules to integrate satellite radio and HD Radio.


The Alpine ILX-W650 may be the sweet spot in Android Auto/Apple CarPlay head units. It's mechless, meaning it doesn't play CDs, but is an easy fit in most cars due to its shallow chassis. The moderate price makes it a good fit in your budget. 

And notice how a new head unit can also function as a place for your backup camera to display and as a highly compatible source for a new amp and speakers. 
Need more convincing? All of these upgrades, combined, will probably cost you less than the first year's depreciation on any new car.