When it comes to enjoying your car, what's under the hood can be a lot less important than what's mounted in the dashboard. After all, a Ferrari and a Kia are usually stuck with the same speed limits and traffic jams. But the guy with the Pioneer AVIC-Z120BT in the dash can get GPS navigation instructions to work around the obstruction, make a hands-free call to say he's running late and stupefy the kids in the back seat into silence with a DVD while listening to an entirely different form of audio entertainment in the front. And thanks to an ingenious new feature, that musical entertainment can now include Pandora Internet radio, providing free personalized programming.
While the Z120BT ($1,599) accommodates all the usual AV options, including AM, FM, HD and satellite radio, it's the Pandora option that caught our ears, even if it does require an iPhone to work. Pandora lets you create "stations" by identifying your favorite artists, then streams a combination of that artist's music and others with similar styles, based on a sophisticated musical analysis system. In addition to computer
access, a free iPod/iPhone app lets you stream Pandora music cellularly (if it's not a word, it should be).
Pioneer has piggy-backed on this capability with an app of its own, allowing you to plug in your device and control it via the car AV system, with your choices plainly visible on the system's handsome seven-inch touch-screen LCD. You can create as many stations as you like, so with one touch you can jump from bombastic Ozzy tracks when you're doing 70 to soothing Sinatra when you're crawling along.
Above and beyond the slick new Pandora integration, the Z120BT delivers pretty much all the cool features you expect from a top-of-the-line head unit, and does it with considerable style. The voice- control system is flexible and responsive, which is just the thing when you have to keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel. The GPS system (which can also be voice-controlled) includes maps for the 50 states plus Canada, with more than 12 million points of interest. And if your musical tastes lean toward tree-hugging ditties, you'll appreciate the Eco Driving function, which analyzes the fuel efficiency as well as the environmental impact of your driving patterns. How did that old Randy Newman song go? "I'm guilty, baby. And I'll be guilty, the rest of my life...."