The infotainment system in your car may be difficult, confusing, poorly designed—or all of those things. Apple CarPlay promises a shortcut: it simplifies functions from music to phone calls, even navigation and voice-to-texting.
The concept is simple. Your vehicle’s infotainment screen mimics and operates your iPhone to use Siri, Waze, and other various apps. But while CarPlay has spread to a vast number of the new cars and trucks you can buy today, not all systems that offer it are made equally.
In the four years since CarPlay started to spread across the industry it’s morphed, adding features, capabilities, and connectivity options. That means that for every different car or truck where CarPlay is available, there’s a different format, screen size, or way to access voice commands. What was intended as a one-size-fits-all interface has been subject to a surprising—and sometimes disappointing—number of hacks and shortcuts by automakers themselves.
Some car companies are going with the spirit of the interface, making things simpler and safer on the road. And some clearly are holding a grudge. Here are the ways things go right in the best Apple CarPlay interfaces.
2019 Audi E-Tron Apple CarPlay
Let’s go wireless
Wireless CarPlay is the best CarPlay—no cords, no hassle, just an automatic connection via Bluetooth as soon as the vehicle boots up.
Audi and BMW’s newest vehicles with touchscreens all offer wireless CarPlay, but in our testing BMW’s system is glitchy and complicated to connect. After an initial pairing it works well, but it could just as easily work well from the first use.
To date, most vehicles that feature wireless CarPlay also feature a wireless charging pad to juice the iPhone so the system doesn’t drain the battery.
2020 Toyota Supra Apple CarPlay
It seems like common sense, and yet many automaker’s don’t display CarPlay at full width on the infotainment screen. We’re looking at you, Toyota Supra and Porsche 911.
Kia, Hyundai, Audi and many others do it right. A full-width display makes the CarPlay buttons large and easy to find and use. It can be bad when it blocks other screen-based functions that can’t be controlled by CarPlay, such as climate controls, though.
2020 Subaru Outback Apple CarPlay
Many vehicles have an 8.0-inch or smaller touchscreen, which means CarPlay needs to take over the entire screen otherwise the buttons turn into Chiclet-sized squares. That leaves little room for other functions automakers have baked into touchscreen interfaces.
FCA, Volvo, and Subaru have figured out how to fix this issue: larger displays.
Volvo stacks CarPlay on its 9.0-inch portrait-style touchscreen into the interface’s tiles, which allows users to maintain access to the other vehicle functions while using CarPlay. FCA’s 12-inch display in the Ram pickups and Subaru’s 11.6-inch unit in its latest vehicles act like a modern double-DIN stereo. CarPlay can run on the top of the screen for, say, Waze navigation while the vehicle's audio or climate control system can be controlled on the lower half of the screen.
2020 Kia Soul Apple CarPlay
No digging required
One should not have to dig into system menus to find CarPlay. Once a phone is connected it should simply appear as an icon in the infotainment system’s app tray. The latest Mercedes-Benz, Audi, FCA, and Ford systems all do this well. Toyota insists users activate CarPlay via an on-screen toggle on first use.
2020 Mercedes-AMG 4-Door Coupe Apple CarPlay
Now we touch
CarPlay is best experienced on a touchscreen. It becomes exponentially less easy to use with infotainment systems that use a touchpad, a mouse, or a rotating knob to control infotainment.
Scrolling around in a moving vehicle to find the icon needed in the interface, or worse, using a mouse-like controller like the one in Lexus vehicles, is more difficult than an ordinary touchscreen.
As Steve Jobs once put it, humans have a built-in stylus, it’s our finger. We should use that to manipulate the screen and icons easily, quickly, and safely.