Buying or owning an older used car has often meant missing out on the latest car technology. It doesn't have to be that way anymore. With some help from the aftermarket, you can update your car's technology at a fraction of the cost of buying a new car.
We've come up with a list of aftermarket upgrades that will bring an older car into the modern era. Although we have tested only a few of these products, many on the list have received positive reviews from consumers and the tech media. Nevertheless, it's always a good idea to conduct your own research before making a purchase.
New Head Unit (Bluetooth, Navigation and Smartphone Integration)
Replacing the car's stereo, or "head unit," is the best one-step way to add new technology and spruce up your car's interior. On the low end, you'll easily find a basic single- or double-DIN stereo that adds Bluetooth functionality and iPod connectivity for around $100-150, plus installation.
For those looking for more advanced features, newer, more expensive double-DIN head units can bring Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Pandora integration and a touchscreen interface. These head units fully integrate with your smartphone and also provide navigation by using the phone's built-in map application. It is a safer way to bring navigation into the car than propping up a smartphone in a cupholder.
We tested this for ourselves when we upgraded the head unit in our 2007 Dodge Charger SRT8 with a Pioneer AVH-4100NEX. Prices on these advanced head units can range from $550 to more than $1,000 for a top-of-the-line model with satellite-based navigation. This upgrade also featured an adapter that keeps the functionality of the steering wheel audio controls. The adapter costs roughly $50 plus installation, but we highly recommend it.
Bluetooth Adapters (Audio and Phone)
If your vehicle didn't come with Bluetooth from the factory, there are two ways of adding it. The best integrated but more expensive option is to buy a new head unit. A Bluetooth kit is a lower-cost option, but it comes at the expense of some sound quality.
If you opt for a Bluetooth kit, there are a few ways to go, which depend on the connections in your current vehicle. If you have an "aux-in" port, The Wirecutter says the Himbox Bluetooth kit, for about $30, is its top pick. This unit is powered by the 12-volt plug that is in most vehicles. It has an additional USB plug to charge a smartphone as well.
The other option is to use a Bluetooth speaker. This is recommended for vehicles that do not have an aux jack. The $76 Motorola Roadster 2 has a number of positive reviews on Amazon and is also recommended by The Wirecutter. You clip the Roadster 2 to the car's sun visor, and once it is synced to your phone, the device will allow the driver to place and receive phone calls. The Roadster 2 has the ability to play Bluetooth audio via an FM transmitter, but The Wirecutter notes that the device had a hard time keeping a consistent signal, which in turn affected the sound quality.
A back-up camera is a great way to spot objects or small children behind a vehicle. The camera also helps with positioning a vehicle in a tight parking space. There are three types of camera system configurations: a camera that you add to a car with an in-dash screen, a camera that you add to an aftermarket head unit and an "all-in-one" system that adds both the camera and the screen. This article goes more in detail about what to consider, but here are a couple recommendations. This $35 Esky system has a screen that folds away when not in use, and a camera that mounts to the license plate. We installed the $100 Pioneer ND-BC8 camera in our Charger SRT8 to match the head unit, and have been pleased with it so far.
If your car doesn't have a screen, parking sensors can be a less expensive and less complicated alternative to back-up cameras. The sensors will beep and display color-coded LED lights to let you know if you're getting too close to an object or vehicle while reversing.
These sensors from Esky have more than 450 positive reviews on Amazon and are worth considering.
Diagnostic Port Adapters
Newer vehicles have multifunction information displays in the gauge cluster that show such things as trip information, elapsed time and average fuel economy. If you want that information and more, we recommend the Automatic adapter from Automatic Labs. This $100 device plugs into the diagnostic port of any 1996 or newer vehicle. Each time you take a trip, the device records your distance, fuel economy and even assigns a score on how safely you drove. The information displays on the Automatic smartphone app. The Automatic is also good for troubleshooting any problem codes associated with the "Check Engine" light.
Verizon's Delphi Connect offers many of the same features as the Automatic, but can also serve as a WiFi hotspot if you opt for the $199 version. This version uses 4G LTE data, so you'll have to add it to your Verizon cellular data plan.
A head-up display (HUD) projects driving information onto the windshield so the driver doesn't have to look away from the road. This $115 model from Garmin is not only a head-up display but also features a full GPS system for turn-by-turn directions. We should note that the model was discontinued in 2014, but it is still for sale, has positive reviews and should be backed by the manufacturer's warranty. The $89 HUD from SEI is a less expensive option that provides basic speed information and speed alerts. It could also be a good fit for a used car with a broken speedometer.
Driver Assistance Systems
Driver safety aids such as lane departure and forward collision warning systems are helpful features that aren't yet widely available in new cars, and you'll typically find them in higher trims or in costly safety packages. If you want those features in your current car, here's one possible solution. The Safe Drive Systems RD 140 has both these features, but it isn't cheap. The pricing isn't listed on the site, but Consumer Reports says the basic system with collision warning costs about $1,100 installed and $1,700 for the top-of-the-line version with lane departure warning. Still, this tech upgrade is less expensive than buying a new car.
Pick and Choose
We're not suggesting that someone buy all these items in hopes of creating a pseudo new car. Instead, we recommend picking out the tech you will use the most and that fits your price range. For a small investment, you can have a safer, smarter and more entertaining used car.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.