The new Volvo XC90, a well-appointed and high-tech SUV, supports CarPlay via cable into a USB port concealed in the centre console, where you can leave your iPhone (charging) as you drive. There isn’t room for an iPad (it’s not supported anyway – it needs 3G-4G for Siri and Map functions – but an iPhone 6 or 6s Plus fits easily. Supported models are iPhone 5, 5c, 5s, 6, 6 Plus, 6s and 6s Plus as long as they have iOS 8 or newer as their operating systems. CarPlay functions are displayed on the central 9-inch touchscreen.
This is one high-tech car. It seems to be festooned with cameras, although I didn’t actually spot any of them.
Start reversing and the centre touch-screen becomes an animated procedural (right) to show what’s behind you; stop parallel to parked cars and cameras spring in to life to assist you – or just tap the auto-parking option on the touch screen and let the car do it for you. In the model I drove, everything was matched cream leather, including the steering wheel.
My favourite XC90 feature by far, for just driving around, is relatively simple: your speed and the current speed limit are projected onto the windscreen very clearly even in full daylight. This means you always know what you’re doing without ever having to lower your eyes. Exceed the speed limit and the speed-limit indicator blinks. (Exceed it by a lot, apparently, and the car activates various warning devices.) I wish every car had this heads-up display.
Dashboard-wise, directly in front of you, Volvo has opted for another screen display instead of analogue dials. The speed, RPM and fuel/trip appear on this, with fuel given as how many kilometres you have yet to travel before you need a refill; the large space in between them is a seamlessly updating map.
To further ease your use, and improve your safety, there are thumb-tip controls on the steering wheel for Siri, music volume up and down and previous or next track on the right, with a Home button in the middle.
You’ll soon be using them without looking. A similar panel on the left side controls the adaptive cruise control: set your speed, nudge it up and down a few kph to suit surrounding traffic speeds and even set a distance to maintain from the car in front.
Various other cameras and sensors make themselves known in different ways. Driving up a fairly narrow road, the XC90 flashed warning indicators on the windscreen that a car was approaching. Over the top, in this instance, as there was room enough, but I appreciated the thought. There’s even a warning if you drift out of lane, for tired or otherwise inattentive drivers. There’s also cyclist and pedestrian detection, and forward collision warning. We used to educate drivers to be defensive – now the car takes care of it.
Volvo actually signed onto CarPlay back when it was announced in 2014, but this is the first real entry for the Swedish car firm. Volvo was thinking ahead enough to build the capacity for CarPlay into the Sensus console in this model – a software update has recently turned it on. Existing XC90 owners just need to take their car into a dealer for the approximately one-hour update to enable the Apple feature. Buyers of the new 2016 model need to specify they want it – apparently there’s an additional cost involved. Other Volvos will support it to, according to this Volvo tech note: Volvo cars built up to and including week 45 of 2015 require an update to the cars’ IHU Software and an application download. (For cars built from and including week 46 of 2015, Apple CarPlay is already prepared in IHU Software and can therefore be activated by just downloading the application.)
CarPlay in the Volvo leaves the top half of the Sensus display with typical car functions: radio, onboard navigation, time … The display even has the car manual in it – no more groping around in the glovebox.
This car has GPS and it’s always working, even updating local traffic info (which almost isn’t necessary in Auckland any more, as it’s just bad all the time, everywhere). But I have got really used to navigating with my iPhone and I like the interface, and I also like the tapped prompts on my wrist via Apple Watch.
Seven apps are supported on the CarPlay interface, in my case – you can search for ‘CarPlay’ in the App Store to see what apps support the interface, so it depends what you have installed – Spotify supports it, for example. In my case the apps were Phone, Music, Maps, Messages, Remote (‘Now Playing’), Podcasts (just in time for the new Serial series, yahoo!) and Audiobooks – and not Mail.
In the hot seat — Actually, I mean that literally. I turned on the seat heater by mistake – a simple tap on its indicator sorted that out but it took me a few minutes to realise what was going on. Those Swedish climes clearly appreciate some under-body thawing enhancements during their long winters. CarPlay was added into the car’s onboard capabilities via a software update. You plug your phone in – the cable means you don’t need to worry about Bluetooth dropouts and besides, it charges your iPhone. At the same time, you get much better sound quality than you would via Bluetooth.
The first time you plug in your iPhone, your iDevice appears on the screen, it pairs and you’re off. From then on it remembers it, so you can support several devices (your friends and family can fight over music rights on long trips). A round icon at bottom right is your Home button, as per iPhone, and there’s a hardware Home button too, underneath the screen, and in the middle of the steering wheel controls.
It’s awesome being able to drive to your own music – I got a couple of startled looks as I cruised down Remuera Road with Joy Division blaring out. This car has a really excellent sound system. When a call comes in, tap the screen to accept and the music quietens down. Call clarity is excellent and I’m not sure where the microphone is inside this cabin, but the other person had no trouble understanding me.
Siri works a treat too: ask for directions, if it’s raining at your destination or to make a call, since this is an entirely hands-free system. I tried to call my dad and it defaulted to his mobile. Since he was at home, he wasn’t answering that and it took me a few go-rounds to get Siri to dial his home line. Stupidly, perhaps, I asked Siri to dial ‘dad’s home line’ and ‘call dad’s home phone’. Finally, ‘Call Dad home’ nailed it – I guess if you do this a few times you work the correct language out. But note that it definitely pays to set your voice to New Zealand English in the settings of your iPhone! It does a much better job of understanding our virtually vowel-free Kiwi speech.
CarPlay can also read off addresses from text messages, contacts and dates and suggest destinations where you might want to go, in case you’re roving about the countryside trying to get to your friend’s batch, for example.
I really appreciated the calling – it’s no harder than chatting to someone sitting next to you.
You can reply to Messages too, telling Siri what to type. While this works, I think most people would just call people back rather than try and wrangle typos and mistakes while driving.
Maps is good though, since you can use it on the touch-screen the same as if it’s on your iPhone, without having to get the iPhone out at all.
To get out of any CarPlay app you have running, just swipe the entire screen; then you get all the XC90 functions to tweak: air conditioning, seat temperatures, radio etcetera.
Conclusion — CarPlay will obviously expand out in functionality as Apple hones the service and as more car manufacturers come on board. Just the other day, General Motors in America, which has rolled out support for Apple’s CarPlay iPhone integration faster and across more models than any rivals, stated its independent dealers report CarPlay draws in customers and helps them close deals in selling new cars.
If you’re wedded to your iPhone (as I am) it’s really wonderful having it at your fingertips in a car, and for me the biggest bonus was being able to listen to my music. I know lots of people can do this, but my own car is too old to splay anything from my iPhone through the car stereo.
Volvo XC90, NZ$97,900 for D5 Momentum through to $136,900 for the T8 R-Design.
All-wheel-drive, anti-skid system, numerous safety features, seven seats … And no, I did not buy one!