(UPDATED WITH VIDEO) Detroit, Michigan — For all the improvements in performance of the next-generation GT, F-150 Raptor, and Mustang Shelby GT305R, Ford's next big thing in car technology has nothing to do with speed, power, or fuel economy. Or vertical doors—no matter how admittedly cool they are. The American automaker gave us a glimpse of the future at the 2015 North American International Auto Show or NAIAS, and it will soon find its way into the cockpit of every major Ford release, starting with the 2016 Mustang.
We're talking about Ford's SYNC 3 infotainment system, which is designed around the BlackBerry QNX platform. The company claims it has been built from the ground up with user experience at the forefront this time around, as evidenced by the shift to a capacitive touchscreen that supports smartphone gestures, such as "pinch to zoom" and "swipe from either side."
Older systems made use of a resistive display. That explains why SYNC 3 is only available to future releases; unfortunately, it's not backwards-compatible with existing Fords.
For anyone who's glued to a smartphone to stay connected and productive (almost to a fault), Sync 3 might be the most significant upgrade Ford has to offer at this point.
At the very least, it's more likely to keep you focused on the road while driving, thanks to a refined voice-recognition algorithm that understands natural speech patterns almost instantly. So instead of saying, "Three two," you can say, "Thirty two," which should make dictating addresses and voice commands a lot easier. In practice, issuing commands from the cockpit proved to be a cinch, even for us newbies. From our experience, that's rarely the case with any technology that supports speech recognition.
Of course, besides guiding you to your destination and receiving voice instructions, SYNC 3 can also manage the vehicle's climate and entertainment features, as well as connect to your smartphone for hands-free calls and text messages and remote access to select apps like Spotify.
Ford assures us that compatible apps (currently, there are more than 70) on your smartphone will automatically appear on the dashboard display and that third-party navigation apps will work with a future update to its in-car system.
Another standout feature is SYNC 3's built-in WiFi, which will allow you to upgrade the software from your garage or driveway, provided your network allows it. You can also tether your handset's mobile connection to pull down updates from Ford's servers. Either way, you can forget about driving to the dealership to bring the system up to date.
As for the interface, we found it to be SYNC 3's weakest point. It's responsive, yes, but it lacks the polish of modern software design that's found in alternatives like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. At the risk of sounding superficial, how something looks, as opposed to how it works, has a growing influence on consumer decision-making. And although we agree that in-car solutions need to be as straightforward and idiot-proof as possible, that doesn't necessarily mean manufacturers should back off on the eye candy in the same way Ford skimped on comfort and luxury to make "the most track-ready Mustang ever built."
Still, it's hard not to be impressed by Ford's efforts to create a smarter in-car system that can also act as a worthy extension of your phone. Naturally, your mileage will vary depending on which apps you rely on the most. There's also the question of whether developers will write code for SYNC 3, as opposed to doing it for Apple and Google. But from what we've seen so far, Ford got a lot of things right with its third attempt, and we're excited to see the product in action when it rolls out later this year.
Disclosure: Ford Motor Company paid for our travel and accommodations at the three-day NAIAS Digital Summit in Detroit, Michigan. We were not compensated in any other manner for our time. The opinions posted here are our own.
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