Android Auto: Google's head unit for cars explained

We test drive Android Auto and go in-depth

Hyundai Elantra Android Auto

Update: Added section on upgrading existing infotainment systems with Android Auto and more Kias to the compatibility list.

Google Maps is the unquestionable king of navigation for the last decade, yet it's never had a central role in cars. Garmin, TomTom and Navteq occupied that co-pilot seat.

Android Auto gives Google smartphone users their first chance to unsuction those clumsy GPS units from the windshield and skip car maker's clunky navigation systems.

Yes, in-dash Google Maps' is here, and it goes beyond navigation. Apps for making calls, playing music and sending messages are part of this digital journey.

Android Auto
Connect your smartphone to the dash

All of the basics are here, and they're all conveniently out of reach. Android Auto gives you safe access to everything that's important on your phone and nothing more.

Here's what we found in our experience with Android Auto over the last year, which provides a better-looking experience than Apple CarPlay.

What is Android Auto?

Android Auto casts a Google Now interface onto your car's infotainment display via USB. It's not the same as mirroring your phone onto the car display using HDMI, as the vehicle's touch screen, steering wheel controls, buttons and control knobs remain functional when using Android Auto.

There's still limitations on app support though. Only Google approved apps with necessary driver-safety measures in place can take advantage of the Android Auto user interface.

Audio is sent via USB for music with no loss in sound quality, unlike with Bluetooth audio streaming. Phone calls are handled via Bluetooth hands-free.

Which cars support Android Auto?

How does one get Google Maps in the car? Right now, you can buy brand new cars with the necessary technology in place to take advantage of Android Auto. Some existing cars may be updated down the road.

A total of 40 automakers are selling new cars in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, the UK and the US with Android Auto support.

GMC Sierra Denali

Cadillac and Chevy announced that all of its new models will come standard with Android Auto while Audi, Honda, Kia, Hyundai and others are rolling out support with each new vehicle introduction or mid-cycle refresh.

Chrysler pledged support for Android Auto with its next-generation Uconnect infotainment system, but hasn't confirmed which vehicles will have it. Ford promised all 2017 model year cars with SYNC 3 will gain support for Android Auto, starting with the refreshed Escape crossover. Existing 2016 models with SYNC 3 will get a software update later this year for the feature.

Volkswagen supports Android Auto on most of its current lineup, with the exception of the Touareg and Eos, two of the oldest models in its lineup.

Android Auto aftermarket solutions

Android Auto is a perk if you're already buying a car, but what if you're not in the market for new wheels or just started making monthly payments on a long-term lease?

Android Auto aftermarket
Expect the same aftermarket options as Apple CarPlay for older cars

That's where stereo manufacturers come in with Android Auto aftermarket head units. JBL, JVC, Kenwood and Pioneer plan to save the day on your dated ride.

Android Auto phone compatibility

Android Auto requires a smartphone with Android 5.0 Lollipop or newer. It's likely an easier process than upgrading to a new car, unless your carrier is being stubborn. Then it's way harder.

The patient wait for Android updates gives you reason to check out the latest Android phones, which come with Marshmallow and Android Auto compatibility out of the gate, like the Nexus 6P, Samsung Galaxy S7, S7 Edge and LG G5.

Android Auto
Works with Android 5.0 Lollipop phones like this Nexus 5

I used the older Nexus 5 to run through the Android Auto demo, so I can confirm it works just as well on older Android 5.0 Lollipop hardware too.

Beyond that, all it takes is plugging a micro USB-to-USB cable into the phone and car's USB port. The first time the phone is connected to the car, the Android Auto app will ask if you want to enable Android Auto on the phone.

Once you click the agree button, the car-stylized interface is projected onto the in-dash screen almost instantly and the phone automatically pairs to the car via Bluetooth.

Can I add it to my factory system?

You're typically stuck with the software that ships with your factory system most of the time. However, Ford, Hyundai and Kia are offering free software upgrades to previous model year vehicles that adds Android Auto connectivity.

These companies announced new model year vehicles with Android Auto, but previous model year vehicles came with the same infotainment system hardware. Hyundai and Kia released free software updates for select 2014 and newer vehicles while Ford is working on bringing Android Auto to vehicles with SYNC 3 later this year.

If your car isn't in Ford, Hyundai or Kia's list, new hardware is required, unfortunately.

What does Android Auto look like?

Android Auto has a slick and informative interface that's inspired by Google Now.

It has that same card-based menu that's part of Google's unified design language, and it's laid out on a home screen with all of the predictions you'd expect.

Without even having to think about it, Android Auto suggests directions on where you might want to go. This is based on recent searches or your daily routine.

Honda Civic

The weather, missed call or text alerts and in-progress music also appear within this very glance able menu - it looks a lot like the new Android Lollipop lock screen with embedded notifications.

Flanking these notifications are the always-present text and icons for the time, your phone's battery life cellular signal strength and microphone for voice searches.

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