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Mobile data connections are making a big change in how we handle car maintenance and management, as just about every car company will offer some sort of telematics service even in economy cars. These services will let you check your car's status using a smartphone app from almost anywhere in the world.
If you want to retrofit an older car with telematics capability, Audiovox can make it happen with its Car Connection, a device that plugs into a car's OBD-II port and sends data to a central server.
The Audiovox Car Connection is similar to the Vehicle Diagnostics by Delphi system I reviewed recently, but comes in at a lower price, has a better physical design, and includes different capabilities. As it requires an OBD-II port, the Car Connection only works in cars from 1996 and later.
Through the Car Connection Web site, you can see your car's current location, fuel economy information, engine health, and a driving coach. There is also an associated smartphone app with limited functionality.
The Audiovox Car Connection device includes a GPS chip and wireless data transmitter wrapped in glossy black plastic. One end terminates in a standard OBD-II plug, which fit easily into my car's port. The other end is rounded and has an LED status light on its face.
Unlike Delphi, Audiovox does not include an OBD-II extension cable, but the Car Connection hinges in the middle, letting you adjust it so as not to intrude in a car's footwell. I liked that design, as my car has the OBD-II port on the transmission tunnel in the passenger footwell. The placement of OBD-II ports varies widely between carmakers and models.
Plug it in
Setup was very simple. After creating an account on the Car Connection Web site, I merely had to plug the device into the car and leave it for at least an hour. The LED status light on the module blinks green when it connects to the car and its external server, or red if the connection fails. Of course, the car has to be in an open area with a mobile data connection.
When the connection was active, I was able to log in to the Web site and the smartphone app to see information about my car.
Fortunately, at least for the purposes of testing, my car's Check Engine light was on. Although I suspected the reason, the Car Connection confirmed there was a problem with the engine's oxygen sensor. Still, 99 percent of car owners, myself included, won't be able to fix this problem, so the alert is of questionable use. An honest mechanic will diagnose the problem and fix it for you. My car also had its ABS warning light on, due to a bad wheel-speed sensor, but the Car Connection offered no information about that issue.
The Car Connection Web site let me set maintenance reminders for everything from windshield washer refilling to timing belt replacement. However, these notifications are merely based on mileage, not on any specific alert from the car.
I liked that I could choose which notifications to activate, and whether each would come as an e-mail, text message, or both.
One of the primary features of the Car Connection is car location tracking. When the car is running, it updates its location every 5 minutes, and hourly when the car is parked. On the Web site, I could choose any particular day and see where my car went, something of particular use for parents who let their kids take the car out.
Along similar lines is the geofencing feature, called Safety Zones on the Web site. With this feature, I set a region and gave it a label. Whenever the car left that area, the Web site recorded an alert and I could have a notification automatically sent to my phone.
The tool for creating the zones is easy to use, but limited. You start with an address, then set the radius of a circle from that point. You can have up to five zones.
The smartphone app also makes use of the Car Connection's location features. In fact, that is pretty much all it does. The app let me see the location of my car, and, through Google Maps, gave me driving or walking directions to it. That feature could be useful in large parking lots.
The Car Connection lacks any sort of remote door unlock or engine start feature, which can be found in other telematics services.
One final, but limited, feature of Car Connection is a driving coach and fuel economy log. Actually, "log" is what I wish the fuel economy feature were. The Car Connection Web site merely shows your car's average fuel economy over the last 30 days, along with some driving tips on getting better fuel economy.
More useful would be a tool that showed fuel economy for specific trips, along with the ability to enter data about when you last filled the tank and the per-gallon price. That type of data would come in handy for budgeting and would also let you see if your car begins to show declining fuel economy, which could indicate a problem not shown in the maintenance alerts.
The driving coach, or Driving Scoring, as Audiovox calls it on the Web site, records bad driver behavior such as excessive acceleration or speed. While most people might bristle at a device rating their own behavior, parents will likely want to know how their kids are driving when not under adult supervision.
Unfortunately, you can't really customize what behavior might trigger the alerts in this section. For example, you can't set a maximum speed that will cause the Car Connection to send an alert.
The downside of many data-connected devices such this is an exorbitant monthly wireless charge, but the Audiovox Car Connection manages to stay pretty reasonable in this regard. The cost of the device itself is about $170, while the data plan comes in at $10 per month, with a $20 activation fee. Audiovox offers a discount for paying by the year.
That pricing is much cheaper than the Vehicle Diagnostics by Delphi system, which requires a Verizon data connection.
The Car Connection's feature set is not that compelling for the single driver. Its engine health monitor doesn't tell you anything that a competent mechanic couldn't, and most cars have trip computers that show more information than its fuel economy monitor does.
However, parents who want to keep track of their children's car travels and driving behavior will find its location features very useful. Not only does the Car Connection keep track of where a car has been driven, but it can also be set up to send an alert when a car leaves a specific area.