Sync 3 gives me a reason to want to drive Ford cars again

When Ford first rolled out Sync eight years ago, I was favorably impressed with how well it interacted with my phone. I could push a button and ask it to call anyone in my contact list, or tell it to play a specific artist or album stored on my phone. That was rocket science in 2008.

Then came MyFord Touch, and I began to dread reviewing Ford vehicles, as the interface response was slow and clunky while navigation frequently lost my position.

Now, Ford wins me over again with Sync 3, a whole new system combining navigation, stereo, phone and a graphical app platform called AppLink. A radical change from MyFord Touch, this system is just what Ford needed, a fresh design from the ground up, giving car owners a clean interface and fast response.

2017 Ford Escape Sync 3

Ford's new Sync 3 infotainment system is rolling out in the majority of its cars for the 2016 model year, and represents a huge leap in usability over that of its predecessor.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

Persistent menu

Depending on the vehicle, Ford may change screen size or some of the associated hardware, but my first chance to dig into Sync 3 was with a 2016 Ford Escape. (I more recently used Sync 3 on the 2017 Ford Escape, with support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.) This car uses an 8-inch touchscreen, big enough to easily see and hit onscreen buttons accurately while driving. Buttons on the steering wheel let me control a few basics, like voice command, track skip and stereo volume.

The light blue-on-blue color scheme of the software interface may not appeal to all, but I found it complemented the clean and simple graphics while remaining easy to read in a variety of lighting conditions. Sliders and buttons throughout the interface put function over style

Ford gives Sync 3 a homescreen displaying navigation, stereo and phone information, the big three functions in modern car electronics. I would prefer the ability to change this up, maybe dropping the phone screen and just showing the map and the current track, but it's a solid and useful homescreen.

Helping usability, Ford maintains a menu bar across the bottom of almost every screen, giving quick access to every major function, from climate control to apps. That menu bar kept me from getting lost in submenus.

Ford keeps distraction to a minimum by maintaining consistent layouts in Sync 3. The most notable example comes with the different audio-source screens. Whether listening to FM or satellite radio, my preset buttons were in the same place on the screen, although the satellite radio screen adds a few buttons for additional features.

Likewise, with a USB drive plugged into the stereo or using Spotify from my phone, the playback screen kept play, pause and browse buttons in the same areas. As such, it was easy to develop muscle memory to control playback, rather than having to look at the screen.

The consistent and clean look of Sync 3 may not wow anyone with its style, but using it while driving felt safe.

Navigation and apps

Navigation stars in any infotainment system, although the stereo controls likely get the most use. Sync 3's navigation system shows maps in plan and perspective views, with 3D-rendered buildings for some urban areas. As with most modern navigation systems, it includes traffic data, and plans routes around traffic jams.

One neat thing here, when I programmed in my work and home addresses, the destination screen automatically showed an estimated travel time to those locations, taking traffic into account. That's a big help for commuters.

2016 Ford Escape Sync 3

Sync 3 shows detailed maps of urban areas, including renderings of buildings.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Navigation also benefits from streamlined destination input. Similar to search in Google Maps or Apple Maps, I could type a name or street address into a single box, which quickly returned relevant results. Unfortunately, those results only came from the system's onboard database rather than also conducting an online search. Sync 3 doesn't include a built-in data connection, although Ford could add that in the future.

Online functionality comes through Sync 3's AppLink, which mirrors supported apps running on a connected iPhone or Android phone on the car's screen. As of this review, Sync 3 only supports a handful of apps, including iHeartRadio, Spotify, Glympse, Pandora and MLB.com At Bat, but given Ford's previous track record, that number will likely grow. I would really like to see a destination-oriented app, such as Yelp, adapted for AppLink. Under the apps menu, I also found Sirius Travel Link, showing fuel prices, movie times and other data gathered from satellite radio data.

Along with app-based audio, Sync 3 includes HD FM radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth streaming and USB ports supporting both iOS devices and drives. For any device I plugged into a USB port, Sync 3 showed a full music library interface, complete with album, artist and genre categories. However, Bluetooth streaming let me control only playback, with no ability to select specific music.

Sync 3 and Android Auto

Sync 3 supports Android Auto, shown here, and Apple CarPlay, giving you deep integration with your smartphone.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

Ford retains the excellent voice command of the first Sync system with Sync 3, allowing phone calls by contact name and music selection for USB port audio sources. Address entry is also streamlined, letting you say a single address string without having to break out street name, city and state. I would like to see voice command upgraded to include free-form name searches as well, but that feature may require a data connection to some heavy-duty cloud-based processing power.

If you prefer your smartphone's navigation, Sync 3 supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Plug either an iPhone 5 or later model, with updated iOS, or an Android phone running Android 5.0 or later, into the car's USB port. The Sync 3 interface gives way to the Apple CarPlay or Android Auto interface, depending on what type of phone you are using, letting you access the phone's navigation, messaging and any supported apps.

Running Apple CarPlay, a Ford Sync icon appears on the homescreen. Pushing it brought me back to the Sync 3 homescreen, with one crucial difference: navigation was locked into using Apple Maps from my phone. I could not access Sync 3's native navigation function unless I unplugged my phone.

Immediate response

A big part of Sync 3's improvements come in the underlying hardware, a Texas Instruments OMAP 5 dual-core processor with 2GB of RAM and a capacitive touchscreen. With its processing power and software, the system reacted as quickly to my inputs as my iPhone 6S. Tapping the map on the homescreen, for instance, instantly brought up a full-screen map. More impressive, and an area where most navigation systems fail, I could drag the map around with my finger, quickly browsing locations or viewing real-time traffic details nearby.

Likewise, I was pleased with how quickly Sync 3 gave me search results for places or street addresses from the single search box.

2016 Ford Escape Sync 3

A simple keyword search brings up matching entries for navigation.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Running route guidance, the maps accurately showed the car's location and gave easy-to-understand turn-by-turn directions. In this instance, Sync 3 didn't show any great strides over other navigation systems, but it is certainly an improvement over Ford's previous effort.

Finding my way around Sync 3's menus, the system never stumbled, consistently responding immediately to my button-pushing requests. Ford engineered animations for some of the button-presses into the system, which look slick but ultimately prove a waste of time, not something drivers will pay attention to when negotiating traffic.

Using Spotify through AppLink worked seamlessly, although the system required my iPhone to be plugged into the car's USB port. Android users can connect through Bluetooth. One issue, which I've seen on more than one car infotainment system, is that Sync 3 had difficulty switching from an audio app back to the phone's own stored music.

Solid state

Sync 3 is an excellent effort from Ford, a solid infotainment system supporting navigation, audio, climate controls and hands-free phone calls, and bringing in an app platform that integrates third-party online services. Rather than pile on bells and whistles, Ford focused on functionality and features that work well for the harried driver.

AppLink is an important addition, letting the driver use new features as they become available. The biggest miss here is an onboard data connection powering online destination search. That may come in future Ford models, but existing cars will need a hardware upgrade. Ford could help rectify that missing piece by pushing development of a search app to work with AppLink.

Chevrolet's MyLink system gives Sync 3 stiff competition, but MyLink doesn't have an ambitious app platform. Toyota's Entune apps work well, and integrates with navigation, but new apps have been few and far between.

Ford's aggressive schedule for rolling out Sync 3, has already made it available in the majority of its 2016 model year lineup. Expect Lincoln to get either a duplicate or modified version soon.