Hands on: Hyundai Blue Link review

Start the engine with a smartwatch, rev it with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

Both Siri and Google Now are being installed in new Hyundai cars thanks to Blue Link. It marries Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and even remotely starts the engine with a smartwatch. It's not one of those flashy self-driving prototypes, but it's certainly the best car tech of the immediate future.

For

  • Apple CarPlay + Android Auto
  • Standalone head unit coming soon
  • Watch's remote start a nice touch

Against

  • Blue Link remote start fees
  • Limited third-party apps
  • Only for 2015 car models

It's not often that Apple and Google are brought together under one sunroof, but that's the idea behind the Hyundai Blue Link system that is making its debut in the 2015 Hyundai Sonata.

This mid-size car features Android Auto and Apple CarPlay within its infotainment console in addition to its own proprietary Blue Link service and navigation suite.

Hyundai Blue Link review
It drove away with our Best Car Tech award at CES

The South Korean auto maker didn't stop there, however, and that's why it drove away with TechRadar's Best Car Tech award earlier this month at CES 2015.

The cherry on top came in the form of Hyundai running an Android Wear demo in which Blue Link could start the car from a smartwatch and the sound of my voice.

Blue Link at its base

Hyundai's cloud-based Blue Link platform has already allowed drivers to use their smartphone in order to connect to their car. Right now, it's all done via an iOS and Android-compatible app.

Hyundai Blue Link review
Blue Link comes with its own maps if you're without your smartphone

From a phone or the web, you can remotely start your vehicle, unlock and lock the doors and activate the horn and lights. All of this can be done from afar for $99 (£66, AU$125) a year after a 90-day trial.

Just in case you're away from your car simply because you can't find it, this remote package includes a "find your car" feature. If it's stolen, Blue Link can assist the police is locating and stopping the car.

Blue Link's more-typical guidance package includes a destination search function for the same price, but it happens to be powered by Google. Google knows a thing or two about search.

Putting the "link" in Blue Link, it even lets you send search results to your vehicle via the web or app so that you're not re-typing in the address after having searched for it on the computer on phone.

Apple CarPlay, Android Auto in one

Of course, you never need to use Hyundai's navigation system because the more familiar maps from both Apple and Google are a part of the forthcoming 2015 Hyundai Sonata update.

Hyundai Blue Link review with Apple CarPlay
Apple CarPlay boots up and my iPhone 6 powers down

Plugging in my own iPhone 6, I was able to navigate Las Vegas via Apple Maps, play my iTunes songs and ask Siri to send out text messages and iMessages. It was all second nature to me.

Best of all, the 4.7-inch phone was no longer a distraction. As soon as the square app tiles powered up on the car's in-dash screen, my iPhone 6 went blank following a short Apple CarPlay logo.

Hyundai Blue Link review
Sending messages from the car and it's instantly reflected on the iPhone 6

The Apple CarPlay menus are simple and effective, albeit too dark next to Android Auto. Google's design reflects its Material Design layout that's found in Android 5.0 Lollipop.

Android Auto is also a bit smarter thanks to its personalized Google Now main menu that pops up as soon as an Android phone is plugged in. Like my iPhone 6, the demo's Nexus 5 showed a distraction-free logo.

Hyundai Blue Link review
Android Auto requires a container app, so I had to use Hyundai's way-old Nexus 5, not my Nexus 6

The overall Android Auto experience is laid out better than Apple Carplay, though I wasn't able to use my own Nexus 6 to toy around with the superior Google Maps, messaging and music apps.

In addition to Android Lollipop, it requires a container app - sort of like the Android Wear app - and that's still in a developer beta.

Standalone smartphone-linked systems

Before I highlight the smartwatch functionality, another way in which Hyundai stands out with Blue Link is that, eventually, the company isn't going to force you to buy its system if you don't want to.

Hyundai Blue Link review
Here's the cheaper standalone head unit that has just Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

Starting in 2016, the auto manufacturer plans to offer head units that can be powered by Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, but eschew Blue Link's Navteq GPS navigation options.

That's going to be a cost-savings, and for car-buying millennials who would rather use their new iPhone or Android, this is going to be a bottom-line incentive when haggling at the dealership.

Blue Link smartwatch controls

There's already a lot going on with Blue Link, but Hyundai didn't come to a complete stop there. It demoed its new Android Wear smartwatch app for the first time.

Hyundai Blue Link app
First, you have to tell your watch to start the Blue Link app

It put the car controls right on my wrist when I held up the Asus ZenWatch and said "Okay Google, start Blue Link." This smartwatch app, currently in beta, is due out before the end of March.

With the app started, I was able to voice-activate the remote engine start, which would have revved up the engine had it not been a demo within the crowded Las Vegas Convention Center.

Hyundai Blue Link review
Remote start, right from my smartwatch

Other voice controls include remote engine stop, door lock and unlock, flash lights or honk the horn and car finder. Call roadside assistance and call the Blue Link service center are also available commands.

Early verdict

I test drove plenty of smartphone-connected car ideas in the past six months, but Hyundai Blue Link has me convinced that this is the car tech of the very near future. It marries Apple CarPlay and Android Auto together and puts them in same Blue Link package, and eventually they'll be available in a standalone head unit without the unnecessary NAVTEQ GPS for a more affordable price. I didn't expect that.

Hyundai Sonata 2015 review
I didn't expect it, but the 2015 Hyundai Sonata's car tech impressed

The Android Wear smartwatch integration may seem like a neat car trick. But I can just imagine myself headed out the door with my morning coffee and laptop bag, and want to remotely start my car hands-free. It also just shows that Hyundai is on the right track for tech-savvy millennials who are looking for a car with cutting-edge tech, but without an outrageously expensive Tesla price.

As I wait for car makers to roll out self-driving vehicles in the next decade, cars like the 2015 Hyundai Sonata with Blue Link seem to be headed in the right direction.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.