While the world waits for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay to change how we use our phones in our cars, automakers are already busy coming at it from the other direction--changing how we use our cars with our phones.
Car apps from the likes of Mercedes-Benz (which started it all, with its mbrace app), Nissan/Infiniti, Acura, Ford, GM, Toyota/Lexus, and Volkswagen let you do things Android Auto and Apple CarPlay can't. Automakers' car apps can lock and unlock the car, for instance; check windows and doors; track fuel usage; and pre-condition the interior.
Such amenities remain firmly within the automakers' bag of tricks--they'll likely not be giving them up to third parties anytime soon--and they do usually cost something to use. But the convenience is tempting. We recently tried two such apps: Toyota's Entune with the 2014 Toyota 4Runner, and Volkswagen's Car-Net with the 2014 VW Tiguan 2.0 R-Line TSI.
The rugged 4Runner uses the Toyota Entune mobile app, which debuted in the 2012 Camry. The app combines car controls with some phone-app compatibility, but it's much stronger on the former.
You connect your phone over Bluetooth (the app doesn't work if you connect the iPhone's USB cable), then you run the Entune app on your Android or iOS phone to create a conduit for apps like Pandora, OpenTable, and iHeartRadio to work on the 4Runner's touchscreen. Note that you can't just run an app like Pandora on your phone and play songs; you have to use the touchscreen--the point being that it's probably safer that way.
Once I followed those parameters, Entune worked flawlessly. One small perk is that, once you connect Pandora, you can enable the high-quality streaming option (just look under settings) without having to pay for Pandora One, which normally costs $3.99 per month.
That said, the app felt a bit dated. You can let everyone know you have checked into a hotel using Facebook Places (remember that one?), but most of us don't bother with that feature anymore. Newer streaming apps like MOG and Spotify are not supported. You can't search for anything using the Bing app right from the touchscreen, just addresses.
To use Entune mobile apps, you'll have to get the optional package that includes it with the Toyota car. In the case of the 4Runner SR5, you'd have to pay an extra $4545 for the Premium version of the car with Entune App Suite. But there's no monthly charge to use the app, which is more than we can say for Car-Net.
The Car-Net app (for iOS and Android) is an attempt by Volkswagen to play catch-up with other brands like Ford and GM, which have offered mobile apps for years. Announced in the summer of 2013, Car-Net works on most 2014 VW models, including the Jetta and Passat.
For some reason, rather than just tapping in the vehicle's VIN number and registering on my iPhone 5, I had to call a special registration line and obtain an account number and passcode. That's a bit annoying, though also a good security precaution.
Once registered, the app worked fine for conveniences like locking and unlocking the car, flashing the lights and horn in an emergency, checking the current fuel economy and distance to empty, and even calling for concierge help from VW. You can find a location on a map and send the directions to the car's nav system. I clicked an option in the app, dialed the number, and asked about which movies were playing my area.
I wanted the app to do more, though. There's no support for Pandora or other music streaming services, no Facebook integration, and no option for reading your texts while you drive. Car-Net is also expensive: One year's service costs $199, or you can pay $17.99 each month.
Car apps coming from all directions
Car apps are still very new, and so are all the do's and don'ts, whys and wherefores, around what an app can or should do. Toyota's Entune and Volkswagen's Car-Net do things that Android Auto and Apple CarPlay may never do--because the automakers are, understandably, cautious in giving away controls like locking and unlocking doors, or turning on the air conditioning, to third parties, even ones as formidable as Google and Apple.
With the automakers coming at it from the car's side, and the phone makers coming at it from the phone's side, someday, at least theoretically, the technology should converge in the middle. In the meantime, using a car app gives you conveniences that are well worth considering if you're shopping for a new car.