Wednesday, September 14, 2011

OnStar is On-target

I must admit that the last time I was in the market for a new car (almost a decade ago), OnStar wasn't really on my radar. I didn't see the value proposition of having a car-only cellphone with easy access to an operator. And quite frankly, the fact that the Volt comes with a free 3-year subscription to OnStar was "That's nice, but I've got an iPhone with GPS and Google Maps."

But since OnStar is free for me, I activated it (paying $5.00 for 60 minutes of calling time just in case) and started playing around. And I must admit, OnStar has evolved significantly. The one-touch access to a human advisor (or 911) and the automatic crash alert functions are nice, but the real value for me is that OnStar is really a 2-way data link to the car.

From the OnStar website, or from their RemoteLink smartphone app, you can get all sorts of status information about the car, you can lock and unlock the doors, and you can remote-start it so it's nice and cool when you get to it.

However, the real killer feature of OnStar in the Volt is the turn-by-turn navigation. Forget about paying for the expensive Navigation package option, you don't need it.

All you do is find your destination using MapQuest or Google Maps, then send it to OnStar using cunningly-hidden options. You can have up to 5 destinations stored (MapQuest, btw, lets you delete destinations when you add a new one, but Google apparently does not -- and you can't manage the destinations on the OnStar site as far as I can tell). You can also add destinations using the RemoteLink app, and that even does voice recognition, or you can hit the blue button and get a human to help you -- but no self-respecting techno-nerd like myself would ever stoop that low!

Then when you're in the car, you hit the hands-free button on the steering wheel, say "Virtual Advisor", and a voice-recognition system at OnStar runs you through the options; you select which destination you want to go to, and turn-by-turn directions are sent to the car. You get both visual and audio prompts as needed.

I won't be using this feature all that much, to be honest; most of my driving is along familiar routes, and I have very good map-memory. But I can see how there will be times when it will be very handy.

It's one of those things that, until you actually use it a bit, you don't see the value proposition. If I were a Chevy salesman, I'd have the dealership location pre-loaded into the demo Volt, and demo it as part of every test-drive.

Another feature that fits into this category is the rear-view camera. We got sold on these when we bought a Nissan Cube for my oldest son (a college freshman), and we have one in the Volt as well.

However, the Volt rear-view camera is the source of my first major bitch about the car.

One of the features the rear-view camera is supposed to have are backup guidelines -- the manual clearly states they are part of the camera functionality. The manual, alas, is wrong. Apparently, you only get the guidelines if you have the Nav package! Another related issue are the ultrasonic obstacle sensors, which give you a lot of beeps when you're close to hitting something. But there is no display showing you which sensors are being triggered, all you get are two different tones for front and back, and a big caution symbol on the dash display.

Both of these are epic fails on the part of Chevrolet, in my opinion. Let's hope they fix them in a software update.

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