Back in 1996, General Motors introduced OnStar, an innovative safety-and-information service available only on vehicles it manufactured. The company hoped it would induce shoppers to choose a GM car over the competition. It did. Fifteen years later, millions of owners of Chevrolets, Buicks, Chevys and other GM products are paying subscribers.
Of course, far more people have stubbornly gone on buying Fords, Toyotas, Hyundais and other brands that don't have OnStar. This summer, GM did something that was both gutsy and intelligent: it started letting the rest of the world in on the service, courtesy of OnStar FMV (For My Vehicle), a version that can be installed into existing vehicles from any company. And it did so in a really clever way, by building the necessary electronics into an aftermarket rearview mirror that includes most of the features of the version hardwired into GM vehicles. The company recently loaned me a Ford Explorer for a weekend so I could try OnStar in this new form.
GM says that OnStar FMV is compatible with more than 90 million cars currently on the road; a tool on the OnStar website lets you check if yours is among them. (One example of a notable model that isn't: the Jeep Wrangler.) Once an auto-electronics expert has installed the FMV unit into your vehicle, it looks pretty much like a garden-variety rearview mirror, except that it's a tad bulky and sports a few buttons and indicators on its front.
The FMV hardware lists for $299, but an instant rebate brings the price down to $199 until Oct. 31. Until then, Best Buy is selling it with "basic" installation included for $274.99, and it's also available at other retailers and from mail-order merchants like Crutchfield.
Over the long haul, the price of the mirror doesn't matter nearly as much as the cost of the OnStar service. It's not cheap: for $18.95 a month or $199 a year, you can subscribe to the Safe & Sound plan, a suite of safety-and-security offerings. If you crash your car, for instance, a motion detector in the mirror will notice. OnStar will contact you via the mirror which is, among other things, a cell phone and will automatically use GPS to determine your location and call an ambulance. A panic button lets you instantly reach an OnStar rep in case of other sorts of emergencies.
This plan also includes roadside-assistance options such as towing and flat-tire changes, and the LoJack-esque ability to use GPS to help the police track down your car if it's stolen. Sadly, it doesn't include one feature of the built-in version of OnStar which tickles me to no end: the ability to gradually reduce the speed of a stolen car, thereby befuddling the thief and eliminating the possibility of a high-speed chase.
In short, Safe & Sound is all about stuff that you'll experience only if you run into trouble on the road the stuff you hope you might be lucky enough to never need at all.
So once you've plunked down at least $199 for the FMV mirror, you might as well pay for OnStar's top-of-the-line Directions & Connections plan. It'll run you $28.90 a month or $299 a year, and includes everything in the Safe & Sound plan plus something you might use constantly the ability to push a button, reach an OnStar rep and request automated turn-by-turn driving directions to any location.
For a millisecond, I thought I might get to test out OnStar's accident-related features. On my first big excursion in the Ford, I was tooling down Highway 280 in Northern California when I suddenly saw a chunk of metal apparently a loose part from a car that had just been involved in a collision hurtling toward my windshield. Rather than causing an additional crash or other nastiness, it caromed harmlessly off the Explorer's front bumper. I was almost disappointed.