After four weeks of owning my 2016 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen SEL, I've come to appreciate all sorts of things about Apple CarPlay, the software that allows me to use my iPhone's apps as seamlessly as the ones built into my car's infotainment system. It's fast, it's smart, and it's great at reducing distraction. But it's not perfect -- not by a long shot.
First and foremost, the system works as intended. I start the car, and Volkswagen loads its App Connect services (which also includes Android Auto), which takes about 30 seconds. After that, I plug in my phone, and CarPlay loads about 5 seconds thereafter. It will also boot right into CarPlay (after loading App Connect) if I start the car with the phone already plugged in.
Before CarPlay, I was a longtime proponent of Google Maps. Despite Apple claiming that Apple Maps has come a very long way from its early days, I can't help but remember its larval stage, which was fraught with bad directions and incorrect maps. However, Google Maps doesn't work with CarPlay, so unless I want to use Volkswagen's navigation system, it has to be Apple Maps.
My favorite part of Apple Maps is the guessing game that takes place when you open the map after turning on the car. If you're a creature of habit, driving to the same place at the same time each day, Apple Maps recognizes this and offers you the choice to begin navigation immediately. It's a great feature if you're in a hurry, and it's very easy to ignore if you're headed somewhere new.
On the whole, CarPlay is quick and relatively seamless. Plug in your iPhone, and CarPlay loads up in just a few seconds, with large, iOS-style icons popping out against a black background. Want to play music on your phone? Tap Music. Want to load up a Spotify playlist? Tap Spotify. Want to check the map? Tap ... well, you get the idea.
CarPlay's voice recognition has been great for mitigating distraction. Hold down your car's voice-recognition button, and Siri's familiar voice calls to you. You can listen to or send texts, load up playlists or start navigation without looking away from the road. Even with a mouthful of granola bar, Siri's pretty good at figuring out what you want (ask me how I know).
Replying to a message received on the road is also simple. Upon receiving a message, the notification bar appears atop the screen. You can ignore the message, or have Siri dictate it to you right away. You can't read the message yourself, though. If you do listen to it, Siri will then ask if you want to reply. Replies are sent entirely by voice, and you must speak out each punctuation mark as it should appear in the final message. Before sending, Siri will read it back to you.
Making calls is equally easy. Both Phone and Messages jump right into a voice prompt when opened, stressing hands-free operation. You can bypass Phone's voice prompt, though, and search through lists of contacts, recent calls and voicemails to find something specific.
All three music apps I've used -- Spotify, Music and Podcasts -- allow you to play locally stored songs or use your internet connection to stream radio stations. Spotify doesn't permit full browsing capabilities through the infotainment system, so it's best to save a whole bunch of playlists or albums before heading out on the road (you can do it in the app while driving, but that's distracting and not recommended).
As for that Volkswagen button you see on the screen, that just takes you back to Volkswagen's built-in system. Nothing really fancy, there.
We've as of yet been unable to verify that the issues below are specific to Volkswagen's implementation of CarPlay. That said, they're still annoying enough to where I feel they're worth noting.
About half the time, if I have satellite radio playing when CarPlay boots up, attempting to switch to iPhone-based entertainment will result in failure. I'll open up Music or Spotify, tap a song and...nothing. Satellite continues to play, despite the screen showing a different source. Occasionally, a quick pause-and-unpause will get the system to switch over, but other times, I have to open my phone and select a song through there. The same occasionally happens when switching between Spotify and Music -- I'll have to dive into the phone to get CarPlay to change songs. Not exactly mitigating distraction, that.
Furthermore, Google Maps fanatics will be pleased to know that Apple Maps still isn't perfect. Twice now, it's attempted to guide me along private roads that don't connect where Apple thinks they do. Rerouting is easy enough, but it's not great having to make awkward three-point turns at security gates or "Dead End" signs. Maps also refuses to set the map to "up is forward" orientation about half the time, which is frustrating if you're not a fan of North being anchored to the top of the screen.
Also, if your passenger wants to check something on your phone, you'll lose whatever is on the infotainment screen. During CarPlay's operation, the phone's screen matches whatever the display is showing, so if you leave Maps to write a note (as I did while preparing for this review), you can't see the map until you either return to Maps on your phone or click the Maps app on the infotainment screen.
Is it worth it?
If you're a fan of iOS and you happen to be in the market for a new car, I absolutely suggest you give a little extra attention to models that offer Apple CarPlay. It's a great system that brings a more phone-like experience to your infotainment screen, and it's easier to work with than most OEM-developed software. It's not perfect, with quirks ranging from bothersome to outright distracting, but the benefits are still apparent.
CarPlay could also save you a few bucks when buying a new car. If you can't order OEM-based navigation without opting for additional, expensive equipment, you can see if CarPlay connectivity is offered at a lower trim level. You lose the backup of a factory-installed navigation system in case Apple Maps wants you to drive off a bridge, but it might save you a whole bunch of coin.
The apps also aren't limited to what I have on my phone. You can use a wide variety of applications with CarPlay, including Apple's own iBooks (for audiobooks), Amazon Audible, CBS Radio News, MLB at Bat, iHeartRadio, Pandora and about 10 others. Nearly every CarPlay-compatible app involves audio, whether it's music, news or sports.
I'm just hoping Apple issues a few updates to iron out some of the major quirks, especially as more and more automakers adopt the software in the coming months.