FOUNTAIN VALLEY, Calif. -- Usually with a car, the more you pay, the more you get.
The launch of Google's Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay infotainment interfaces could upend that rule by giving cars from brands such as Chevrolet, Honda and Hyundai a better computer interface than most luxury cars have.
In May, I drove a 2015 Hyundai Sonata with a production-ready version of Android Auto that lets a driver tap into a smartphone for music, maps and phone calls. The system is better for most everyday tasks -- more powerful, easier to use and less distracting -- than basically anything you'll find in a luxury car today.
Android Auto works with smartphones using the latest version of Google's Android operating system. To start it, connect the phone to the car's USB port and press the Android Auto logo on the car's navigation screen. That pulls up a row of buttons along the bottom of the screen for music, phone calls and maps, plus a home page that shows directions to upcoming appointments and a weather report for the car's location.
Most impressive? It does almost all of that with voice controls. After driving countless vehicles with voice recognition too unreliable to be useful, I'd say Android Auto beats every in-car system I have used at understanding natural speech.
Here's an example. With a flight out of John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif., I pressed the "talk" button on the steering wheel and said, "Take me to John Wayne Airport." Android Auto quickly pulled up a route. I pushed the button again. "I want a different route." It gave me three options. I could reroute by pressing a single button. In some $80,000 luxury sedans, that would take several minutes and dozens of button presses.
For destinations with many possible locations, such as supermarkets, the system offers the nearest three. You can set a reminder for a location; the next time you're by that supermarket, your car will prompt you to buy milk.
Playing music is just as simple. I challenged Android Auto with an obscure Bob Dylan tune. "Play 'One More Cup of Coffee,'" I said, and the song played without further prompting, piped through the Sonata's speakers via the Google Play streaming music service. If you ask for Spotify or traditional radio, it can do that, too.
I have tested dozens of high-priced systems that can't easily handle those tasks, so finding such functionality in a humble Sonata is like getting a V-8 for the price of a four-cylinder or leather seats for the price of beige cloth.
Unless automakers hustle, their systems in luxury cars and high-end trim levels could soon feel terribly dated. Those systems are a key profit center, sold in bundles for $2,000 or more. Will customers pay that much once they have tried Apple's and Google's interfaces?
Android Auto isn't perfect. Because it taps into a mobile device, it won't work as well when cellular service is spotty. Heavy use of maps and streaming music could burn through a monthly data plan unless a driver is judicious.
Automakers must also give up some control of their vehicles, which is hard to accept. But if Android Auto and CarPlay allow humble family sedans like the Sonata to outshine luxury cars, that's a sacrifice Hyundai is surely willing to make.