- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The General Motors Co., in the form of its OnStar LLC subsidiary, would like you to hie yourself to your nearest Best Buy and plunk down $300 for a new rearview mirror for your car.

No, this isn’t a sneaky grab at another bailout, but rather the distilled marketing premise of the recently launched OnStar FMV (For My Vehicle), an enhanced rearview mirror that offers many - but not all - of the services offered by the OnStar product installed in millions of GM cars.

OnStar’s premise is to offer a one-button way to contact an “adviser,” who can supply directions, help locate nearby businesses or, in the case of a crash or medical emergency, summon help. On GM models, the service also offers a way to track and immobilize stolen vehicles. On some, it also will start or unlock your car. It can tell if a GM car’s airbags have been deployed in a crash. The latter GM-only features aren’t part of the FMV offering.

The OnStar FMV product brings many of these functions to non-GM car models. Most cars on the road can be retrofitted with an OnStar FMV device, the firm says. Because it ties into a car’s electrical system, however, this is not a job for the weekend hobbyist, but rather it requires professional installation. (Best Buy adds $75 to the basic price when selling the product on its website to cover this.)

At the heart of the OnStar FMV is a small cellphone tucked into the mirror housing. It, plus an accelerometer, a Bluetooth wireless link and some control buttons, are the “guts” of the unit. A small microphone is mounted in the car, along with the mirror, to communicate with OnStar and for hands-free calling.

I’ve been intrigued by the OnStar product for a while - the ads are frequently on satellite radio. For four days, GM provided a Toyota Camry with the device installed, and I learned a lot.

OnStar has been in existence for 15 years on GM models, and the OnStar FMV hews pretty much to the standard product. The accelerometer will detect if your car has crashed and will call an OnStar “adviser” to ask whether you’re all right. If you can’t respond, the adviser will send help; the unit can send your location data to the firm.

A basic OnStar subscription, including emergency response, hands-free calling, and vehicle security/roadside assistance, is $199 a year, paid upfront, or almost $19 a month. (The hands-free calling either taps into your cellphone via Bluetooth or requires the purchase of minutes, at a cost higher than most cellphone plans.) Add turn-by-turn directions and other navigational aids and the monthly service charge brushes up against $29 a month, or $299 a year when paid in full.

I’d like to say this is a product without flaws, and that the full-featured service is worth the price - as some other reviewers have - but I can’t. Five years ago, OnStar FMV would have been a breakthrough product. Today, OnStar FMV reflects a poor grasp of automotive and smartphone technologies.

The product connects to the car’s electrical system, but it won’t “dim,” or lower, the audio of your car radio/CD player when directions are spoken or you get a hands-free call. Other Bluetooth integrations - such as the Pioneer aftermarket car stereo in my 2009 Honda CRV or the built-in Bluetooth in my wife’s 2011 Kia Soul - automatically cut the radio when a call comes in. An OnStar spokesman claims this isn’t an issue for most users and that the company will contemplate adding the “dimming” feature in future releases.

Pressing the blue OnStar button should elicit an immediate response; in reality, my calls took as long as 25 to 30 seconds to complete. Now, I didn’t crash the car to see how that response would work, but response did seem sluggish. OnStar’s Stefan Cross said the test unit was linked to a “special events team” and that regular customers reach an adviser in 10 seconds and just one second if a crash occurs.

On Saturday night, OnStar just couldn’t download the audio directions from my home to a restaurant six miles away in Laurel. Instead, the Map application on my Apple iPhone 4 found the address and got me going while OnStar was struggling. Mr. Cross said this was a rarity, but it was frustrating nonetheless. When directions to other locations worked, they were good, and it was nice to have the verbal cues.

As mentioned, this would have been a great product in 2006. The crash response thing is important, and if I had a teenager at home or at college, I wouldn’t let them drive a car without this. But I don’t have a teenager, and I’ve got Bluetooth, a phone with GPS and supporting turn-by-turn software, and AAA roadside assistance. That’s not everything OnStar FMV offers, but it also doesn’t ask me to pay an additional $675 or so in the first year.

OnStar needs to fine-tune its audio integration, at the very least, to make this a more compelling product. Otherwise, keep driving along and put your money to better use.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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