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Uconnect #1 new, but later?

by Michael Volkmann on

FCA’s Uconnect infotainment system has been universally acclaimed, winning award after award for usability. Critics and car owners tend to find it to be the most intuitive, easy-to-use system on the market.

Still, with all its redundant controls, connectivity to mobile devices, and interface advantages, there are some issues that don’t show up until owners have had their cars for a while.

MAPS

The biggest complaint from Allpar members is the maps, which tend  to be around two years behind. Garmin releases updates every quarter, so why are factory stereos so far behind?  One reason is that Chrysler often uses Navteq for maps — and Navteq updates their maps every 12-18 months, according to Consumer Reports. An FCA spokesman also cited the need to review map data before using it.

Still, both the new-car maps and the updates — even the Garmin updates — are often behind by up to two years.  The charge to update to already-out-of-date maps is at least $150 plus local tax. That’s three to five times what it costs to buy a map upgrade for a standalone device (usually, $40 to $60).

The heavy markup and lack of current maps can leave owners angry and confused.  On cars with Garmin navigation, some have gone so far as to buy a Garmin handheld system (around $85) and move its maps into the car — a trick that worked on pre-2015 models. Garmin’s “lifetime map update” models start at around $129.

Uconnect update drive

The official method of installing upgrades is not much easier than the hack. First find the map update page from an FCA site; then go out to the car, get the device number, go onto the web, enter it, get a download, put it onto a USB thumb drive, bring it to the car, and run a program on the Uconnect system from a semi-hidden submenu. That puts a tiny XML-formatted text file onto the USB drive; the file includes the system serial number and unit type which you probably already typed in, and which may already been linked to your VIN anyway. The instructions say it must be an 8 GB USB drive, though it would be hard to find a drive too small for the file it downloads.

Then you can order your $149-plus-tax update. Wait a week or two, and you get a USB stick to bring back out to the car for the actual update. It’s a 5 GB file, which explains the USB stick, but in these days of fiber-optic service and cheap USB thumb drives, a download option would make sense (and perhaps reduce the “map lag”).

Why do we even care about maps, when we can use our phones? First, it’s more convenient to use the car. Second, the car doesn’t use up our cell data quota. Third, we get turn-by-turn instructions between the speedo and tach. Fourth, we get a huge 8.4 inch screen built into the dash, that we don’t have to hold up or put onto a holder.  Why else would FCA be able to charge $800 and up for a navigation system?

UPDATES

Uconnect recently rolled out an over-the-air update for many 2013 and newer systems. Owners of earlier systems can visit the Uconnect website to see if they need a software update or not; they don’t seem to be notified by FCA.

There is a disconnect between the Uconnect owner site and dealer service. For instance, FCA pushed a security update about a year ago where they asked owners to visit the Uconnect site and download the update to a USB drive to install in their vehicles.  If they did not have a USB drive, FCA would send them one with the update. That seemed fair, and it worked.

A few months later, my dealer said I needed the security update. There was no way for the dealers to know that the update may have been done, and that the tech should check the version (or ask the customer) before trying to update the system.

Other owners have not been able to download updated software because the Uconnect site is not intuitive or easy to use. The site  bounces owners back and forth unless they find the secret combination of fields and buttons to check and fill out and press.

Then comes the downloading part, which, since this is 1997, wants you to install an Akamai plug-in — to download a 79-megabyte file, which for most people does not take long at all.

Process from the Uconnect site: click on the “Siri Eyes Free” update button even if you don’t want that update. Enter your VIN. See the list of updates. Get started. Go to the direct download link. View available updates. Get a message that you can’t use Akamai with your current browser. Either View Available Updates again for an infinite loop or click on the update you want. That reveals the download button — ignore that and click on the “here” to download directly. You need a 16 GB USB drive for that 79 megabyte file. Download. Unzip. Copy to that USB drive (must be DOS formatted). Mac users, delete any invisible files before ejection. 

Once you get the file, put it onto a USB drive, take it out to the car, and leave the engine running (some instructions say the Run position is acceptable) for twenty minutes to an hour. Dealers will install it for $130 per hour, or around $98-$130. If you tried and failed, they might cover it under warranty or service contract.

Our publisher tried the updates. One update worked, the next one wasn’t recognized by the system; DriveUconnect.com insisted there was an update, but dealership tools claimed there was none. Eventually the dealership was able to install it after all, with just two service trips required. Total customer time spent on this upgrade: four hours. (The update was only sought to fix a rebooting issue.)

APPLE CARPLAY / ANDROID AUTO

Ford, like FCA, used to say its older systems could not be updated to have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.  Recently, they discovered that they could enable the function by replacing the USB module, so you can now buy that from a dealer for $30 to $50.  I recently helped a friend with a Focus RS do the conversion.  The update was done over the air; then we popped out the old USB module with some trim tools, and installed the new one in its place.

According to a FCA spokesman, third-generation Uconnect systems cannot be upgraded at a reasonable cost. It’s possible that Ford was simply more fortunate in their choices, and that FCA really cannot retrofit the older units. Either way, the fourth-generation systems have been updated with Siri Eyes Free.

HARDWARE SPECIFICATIONS AND OTHER INFORMATION

Diagrams, detailed information, and specifications for Uconnect systems are generally not available.  The Factory Service Manual says little about the systems, from the touch-screen to the speakers. Owners have dissected them, though, and posted their findings on web forums.

An FCA spokesman told Allpar that they had a combination of reasons for not providing full specifications, including proprietary secrets (making it harder for competitors), security through obscurity, and discouraging owners from making updates that could damage their car’s performance and security. The final reason is almost certainly the deciding factor, since competitors will already have taken apart the system and reverse-engineered it.

The company also does not describe how to upgrade hardware, essentially for the same reasons. Mopar does not have upgrade kits for owners of 4.3” or 5.0″ Uconnect owners willing to spend the money to upgrade their systems up to the 8.4” system.  Some do this anyway, following instructions and parts lists from web forums.

In fairness, most manufacturers have the same policies, since customers can do a great deal of damage if they are not careful and skilled (and sometimes, even if they are). The dealership and FCA itself then have an angry customer who blames the wrong party for a mistake.  It’s far easier just to keep it secret.

SUMMARIZING

FCA does provide video tutorials and other instructions, including a VIN-powered upgrade checker, via driveuconnect.com. That site may get lost in the plethora of marketing and information links on their brand sites and the owners’ site; but owners can learn about parts of their system they never knew were there. It’s worth a good look, because these are powerful tools for drivers.

It’s disappointing that FCA does not seem to be fully functional in its support of these systems (including the maps), especially considering how much infotainment and connectivity contributes to quality scores.

Though FCA (and Chrysler before it) has traditionally had the very best infotainment systems on the market, FCA could dramatically improve aftersales support of these systems.

Michael Volkmann, a mechanical engineer in the steel industry, autocrossed and road-raced Neons. Michael has drag raced his 1971 Duster 340, 2009 Challenger R/T, and Neons, of which he’s owned seven — one SRT4, three ACRs, and three Sport Coupes.


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