Car Tech 101: How To Test-Drive a Bluetooth System

Features and Functions To Look for in a Hands-Free Telephone System

Bluetooth is the industry standard for hands-free telephone technology in cars, a wireless phone technology that has evolved far beyond what we thought possible when it was introduced in 1994. But even though Bluetooth is nearly pervasive in new vehicles and theoretically uniform in the way it operates with compatible devices, miscommunication between vehicles and phones is still pervasive.

We discuss these ongoing issues with incompatibility between car and telephone issues in the Edmunds story, "Drivers Still Suffer From Bluetooth Blues." (If you need more information about Bluetooth technology in general, check out Bluetooth Basics.) But if you're buying a new car, you probably only care about whether your phone works with a particular vehicle. So to make sure your phone and your new car will get along, we've developed a plan that you can use to test-drive the Bluetooth system. It starts with this story.

Once you're at the dealer, use our Bluetooth Checklist to ensure that a particular Bluetooth system meets your needs. You'll also find this article, "How to Test-Drive Car Technology Without Dealer Interference," will give you tips about how to avoid any problems you may encounter at a dealership while you're testing technology in a vehicle.

Pairing the Phone

  • Check the vehicle manufacturer's Web site to ensure that your phone is compatible with the car (or ask the dealer).
  • If necessary, read the vehicle's owner's manual for pairing instructions.
  • Does your phone pair to the vehicle over Bluetooth? Are the steps easy to understand?
  • Does the phone reconnect automatically if the vehicle is stopped and restarted?

Making Calls

  • Are the hands-free controls on the steering wheel? The dashboard? Both?
  • Does the vehicle allow hands-free calling using voice activation and steering-wheel controls only? Or do you also need to use controls on the dash that require you to look away from the road?
  • How easy is it to place a call using the system?
  • How easy is it to end or reject a call using the system?
  • How easy is it to redial a call using the system?

Bluetooth Features

  • Is ringing heard through the speakers of the vehicle for incoming calls?
  • Does the audio system return to its previous state after the system is disengaged?
  • Does the vehicle support Caller ID? If yes, is the Caller ID easy to read and understand?
  • Does the Bluetooth system support Dual Tone Multi-Frequency (DTMF) dial tones to access voicemail and other touch-tone services?
  • Are you able to transfer between hands-free mode and privacy mode? If yes, is it easy to switch between the two?
  • Does the vehicle support call waiting? If yes, is it easy to switch between calls?
  • Does the vehicle allow you to download a device's address book or does it have its own Bluetooth address book that requires you to add entries one at a time? Or does it have both?
  • If the system downloads the phone's address book, how easy is the process? Do all the information fields for the address book display? Are they easy to read?
  • If the system has its own address book, how easy is it to add entries? Does it have different fields for multiple numbers for the same contact? Does it allow you to add "voice tags" to contacts so you can quickly find them using a voice-activation system?
  • If the system has voice activation, how accurate is it?
  • Does the vehicle maintain your call history? If yes, is it easy to view the call history?
  • Does the vehicle display the battery level and signal strength for the phone?
  • Does the vehicle support text messaging? If yes, where is the message displayed? Is it easy to read? Does the vehicle convert the text to voice? Is it easy to understand?

Making Hands-Free Hassle-Free
The only safe way to use your phone behind the wheel is with Bluetooth hands-free technology. It's also the only legal way to do it in many states. Click here for a list of hands-free laws by state.

To make hands-free hassle-free, you need to make sure your phone and your car can communicate and that the Bluetooth system is easy to use. Otherwise, you may be tempted to just pick up the phone instead — and wish you had bought a different car with a better Bluetooth system.