Ford pushes the Amazon Alexa envelope in the new EcoSport subcompact

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Apple's Siri, the Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, and Amazon Alexa are all competing for our attention these days. Still, the world of voice assistants is getting a bit confusing, especially if you just want to order a USB cable for your laptop or get directions. 

In the new 2018 Ford EcoSport – a subcompact crossover that has at least a hint of Subaru ruggedness (with a $19,995 price tag) – you can connect up and use three of those four voicebots. 

While Cortana plays catch-up, and both Apple and Google have provided voice interaction in cars for a years, it’s Alexa that provides some of the most interesting features. Not all of them work perfectly, but there’s a hint of things to come.

One of the signs that we’re not quite at the point where phones and cars get along perfectly is related to the setup. 

It’s not hard, but it’s also not totally intuitive. To use an iPhone, you first have to disable CarPlay on the EcoSport touchscreen (you might be tempted to look for a way to disable the feature on your phone, but that doesn’t work). 

You’ll need to install a Ford app for Alexa on your phone. Then, under a new mobile apps section on the EcoSport, the Alexa app will suddenly appear. (The steps are similar if you are using an Android phone.)

Once you see the bot, you can click the icon on the touchscreen, press the Ford Sync button and say “Alexa” to start using Alexa, or utter “Alexa” to your phone. 

This last step is the strangest of all – normally, you can’t say Alexa to an iPhone, but in the EcoSport, you can.

Using Alexa in the EcoSport was a bit frustrating at first. We had to reboot our phone as a refresh, but during an initial test the bot would sometimes not work and not answer questions. 

In a second test, most questions about playing music, the weather, and navigation got a response.

It’s an odd experience to have full access to Alexa, because you can get lost in conversation. 

After ordering some beef jerky at Amazon.com, streaming a Radiohead album, asking the bot to close a garage door using a Vivint security system, and then goofing around by asking a bunch of trivia questions, it became obvious that this is the future of car technology. You can envision a day when all we do is drive and talk. That’s a nirvana state for sure.

More integration to go

Another nice touch? If you ask Alexa about a business like Starbucks, the bot then shows a list of options on the touchscreen. 

You can select one, and then see the navigation using the EcoSport touchscreen. It’s a bit different from how CarPlay and Android Auto work, because it uses Ford Sync and the EcoSport in-car nav system; Apple and Google use their own nav that runs on the touchscreen. (They look quite different and seem more like add-ons.)  

You can play music from your [Amazon] Prime account just by queuing that up

Ford's Elizabeth Halash

“We have two really cool integrations,” says Elizabeth Halash, the Ford Connected Vehicle and Services Supervisor. 

“One is called the Alexa+Ford mobile app from the Google Play store or the Apple App Store, to enable the most common Alexa commands in the vehicle. You can play music from your Prime account just by queuing that up. 

"We also have integration with our navigation to get directions, all hands-free. The other integration is on the Skills side of things, so for people who have an Echo device, you can call up different Skills. You can say, 'Open FordPass' to remote control the car or get information about the vehicle back to you.”   

That kind of integration is a step in the right direction for sure. In future Ford cars and trucks, it might be nice to have a single dedicated Alexa button, and no configuration at all. 

The fact that you even need your phone seems odd. If Ford can figure out how to make voice assistants work without a phone, and you can still make calls, get directions, and play music, then Alexa could help with just about everything else. 

It would be even cooler if Alexa could tell you when you need an oil change, arrange for service at the dealership, and monitor teen drivers.

On The Road is TechRadar's regular look at the futuristic tech in today's hottest cars. John Brandon, a journalist who's been writing about cars for 12 years, puts a new car and its cutting-edge tech through the paces every week. One goal: To find out which new technologies will lead us to fully autonomous vehicles.