Review: Chevy MyLink loves your smartphone as much as you do

Copyright General Motors

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Kids these days: All they want to do is play with their phones and stream music, and drive a small, inexpensive car that won’t get in their way. Chevrolet aims its Techy Trio (Chevy’s words, not mine) of subcompact cars—the Spark, the Sonic, and the Cruze—squarely at this Millennial audience.

Copyright General Motors
Chevy wants its Sonic and other “Techy Trio” cars to appeal to Millennials.

These subcompact cars are relatively stripped-down and (at least usually) relatively inexpensive. The 2013 Chevrolet Sonic Hatchback starts at just $14,785 for the base model, for instance, while the Sonic RS Manual I drove costs $20,995.

The version of Chevy's MyLink infotainment system that comes standard on the RS model (and costs $595 as an upgrade) is similarly minimal, lacking some higher-end MyLink features such as voice recognition and a CD player. But that's okay, because the 'techy' part of the setup is that the 7-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth audio streaming, and app functionality are perfect for young drivers who already have everything they want on their phone.

The first thing you’ll need to do, then, is connect your smartphone via Bluetooth. We tried this with a handful of phones, including an iPhone, Android phones, and even an older Windows Phone. In about half of the cases, the process went smoothly, requiring simply an acknowledgment of the Bluetooth code on the MyLink display. In a few cases, we had to reboot the phone to get MyLink to recognize it.

Melissa Riofrio
If your phone pairing goes awry, go with the oldest tech solution in the book: Reboot everything!

Chevrolet says, “if something has gone awry in the pairing process, the customer should delete the phone from the MyLink system, delete the MyLink system from the phone, and power cycle both devices before attempting to pair again. Additionally, iPhones should not be plugged in to the vehicle with the Dock Connector or Lightning cable while pairing.” Also note that you cannot link a phone while the car is moving.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
The phone-call screen on MyLink has a dialpad or can upload your phone's contacts.

Once your phone is connected, you can stream audio, photos, and movie clips, call people, and use certain compatible apps. You can also use Siri Eyes Free (if you’ve got an iPhone) or Android Voice Recognition by pressing and holding the small voice activation button on the right side of the steering wheel.

Stream, stream, stream via your smartphone

You can stream audio located in your phone’s storage, or through an app using your phone’s data connection. If you want to stream audio from an app, however, you’ll have to open up the Smartphone Link screen. That's where you’ll find the apps that can be used through the car’s infotainment system. Currently, the supported apps are Pandora, Stitcher, TuneIn, and BringGo, but the ones you don't have on your phone will be grayed out. Pandora, Stitcher, and TuneIn are free for both iOS and Android. BringGo—which offers turn-by-turn navigation and points-of-interest searches—costs $1 for a 30-day trial and then charges a fee for purchasing the full app.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
The SmartPhone Link page shows the smartphone apps, which you must download to your phone before they show on the screen.

Apps on the MyLink system work smoothly and seamlessly, and translate nicely from your phone’s screen to the MyLink screen. In Pandora, for example, the MyLink screen displays the song title, artist name, and cover art, and features thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons so you can vote on the song.

The main issue with smartphone apps rather than car apps is that they rely on your smartphone’s data plan. This means that if you’re in the middle of the desert, BringGo’s turn-by-turn navigation may cut out on you. It also means that if you’re constantly streaming Pandora or TuneIn, you may be in for a rude surprise when you get your phone bill.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
Enjoy your apps via MyLink—as much as your data plan will allow.

But, of course, you don’t have to use the MyLink’s phone features constantly. You can also listen to the regular radio, or SiriusXM (available for a three-month free trial). A USB port in the upper glovebox ensures that your phone won’t run out of juice.

Melissa Riofrio
Audio features on MyLink include SiriusXM radio, but it's free only for a three-month trial.

While the Sonic RS Manual is designed to be a sporty hatchback, it doesn’t look as high-tech as most of the other cars we’ve tried. It has a surprising lack of buttons, both on the center console and on the steering wheel.

Copyright General Motors
The dashboard for the 2013 Sonic looks simple, with relatively few buttons on the center console and the steering wheel.

The MyLink screen is a 7-inch, matte-finish touchscreen located on the center console. When you're not using MyLink, the screen displays the time, date, and outside temperature.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
The 2013 Sonic’s main screen measures 7 inches diagonally. When otherwise unoccupied, it displays the date, time, and outside temperature.

The main menu has large, easy-to-read fonts and colorful icons. This menu has five options: Audio, Pictures & Movie, Telephone, Smartphone Link, and Settings.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
The MyLink main menu is easy to navigate.

Below this screen is a shiny black strip that features four touch-sensitive icons for volume (up or down), power, and the home screen. The power button is slightly indented, which makes it easier to find if your eyes are on the road, but the lack of physical feedback takes a little getting used to.

Melissa Riofrio
The MyLink system's touch controls for volume and power are hard to use, especially while driving, because of the lack of tactile feedback.

To turn on the screen, you’ll need to press and hold the power button for a couple of seconds. If you just tap the power button quickly, nothing will happen. This can be useful if you don’t want to accidentally turn on the touchscreen (which is, essentially, the radio), but it seems more of a distraction than instantaneous response would be.

Touch-sensitive controls are hard to use

If you’ve read my previous car reviews, you know I have a huge issue with touch-sensitive volume controls. The MyLink volume controls are no different: They’re difficult to use, hard to see if you’re driving, and inconsistent.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
The steering-wheel controls for the stereo volume aren’t much easier to use than the touch controls.

You can also control the volume using the touchscreen (which is even worse) or the steering-wheel controls, but it’s all pretty frustrating. Physical volume knobs would be far superior.

Just the right amount of tech

At first glance, it might seem like the Sonic is lacking in tech—especially compared with higher-end cars, which feature all sorts of advanced voice recognition, built-in GPS navigation, and in-car apps. The Sonic doesn’t even have a customizable instrument cluster screen (though it does have a noncustomizable instrument cluster screen, which displays the speed, fuel meter, compass, and odometer).

Melissa Riofrio
The instrument cluster isn’t customizable, but it’s partly digital.

But for most Millennials, who don’t go anywhere without a smartphone, the Sonic’s tech is just right. Chevy can keep this version of MyLink cheap because it mostly uses your phone to perform tasks such as connecting to the Internet, streaming music, and using apps—basically making your smartphone part of your car.

Unfortunately, the biggest blow to the Sonic’s tech usability is those darn touch controls. Seriously, Chevy, what makes you (or any other automaker) think that it’s ever a good idea to have touch-sensitive volume controls?

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