There are a lot of benefits to owning an older car. Chances are, you don’t have a monthly payment. There’s no “instant depreciation” when you drive it away from the dealer for the first time. And anything that can go wrong with a particular model is often well known and researchable. The downside? You often have to deal with decidedly ancient tech.
Nearly every modern vehicle sports a head unit that’s more media computer than radio, with Bluetooth integration, touchscreens, even specialized Android and iOS control modes. I was tooling around in a rental car recently and was blown away by the cool tech (even if I hated the truck it was attached to). I always thought I was fine with my decidedly low-tech solution of using a cassette adapter to pipe my iPhone’s audio through the speakers of my 2001 Toyota Avalon. But after I saw what an integrated head unit could do, my dissatisfaction grew.
Having had luck in the past with upgrading stock stereos, I reached out to Pioneer to see if they had anything that would fit my aged Avalon. I was in luck and they sent over the AVH-4200NEX for me to install and put to the test.
The unit should fit any dashboard that has capacity for a double-DIN head unit. The 7-inch touchscreen hides a DVD player and SD card slot. In addition to the HD radio, it’s compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A Sirius Satellite radio adapter can be purchased separately.
First task was getting a faceplate and wiring harness. Those secured, I did some poking around on the internet (and ended up getting a handy PDF guide from Crutchfield) to figure out all the hidden latches and screws I needed to remove to extract my old head unit. A suggestion. If you take on doing your own stereo installation, invest in a set of soft plastic tools (like these). They’re flexible enough to fit into tight cracks between finish panels, but sturdy enough to apply pressure when needed. Being softer, they also won’t mar the finish of your dash (well, I suppose they theoretically could; but you’d really have to try).
After I pulled everything out, I grabbed my new stereo and matched up the wiring on it to the new wiring harness–this would plug in to the electrical system exactly the same way as the old stereo did. It’s convenient because then I wasn’t stuck in the car trying to figure out what wire goes where as the 100 degree Florida heat threatened to cook me. This is where I started to run into problems, though.
The last time I installed a stereo, there was a lot less tech (upgrading from a tape deck to a CD player was a big deal) and, somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot fewer wires to contend with. Not everything matched the way I thought it should and my Googling turned up contradictory advice. In the end, I went with what I thought was right, installed the Pioneer NEX in the bracket, plugged it in to the electrical system of my Toyota, and turned the key.
If you’re waiting for me to say “and then nothing happened,” give yourself a cookie.
Thank Primus for fuse systems, because all I’d done was cook the small 15 amp fuse that powered my stereo. There was definitely a crossed wire in my setup and I didn’t have the time, patience, or electrical acumen to figure out which one. I got smart and contacted a local shop with tons of experience. (And who works on cars that are much nicer than mine. I saw a Lamborghini that was so rare I couldn’t even identify it and a Model X while I was there. My Avalon was the stepsister at the ball.) Thanks to some expert installation from AutoMods, I drove away with a system that looked like it had always been there. (Tony routed the microphone and auxiliary input wires so that they were hidden and got a faceplate that nearly matched my old school wood grain paneling.)
Operation of the Pioneer AVH-4200NEX system is dead simple. There is a row of physical buttons on the bottom lip, with helpful nubs so that you can raise and lower volume and skip tracks without taking your eyes off the road. But for anything more involved, you’ll be using the crystal-clear 7-inch touchscreen. A row of icons at the bottom of the screen represents various operations, with the most used, like Radio, being right in the corner where you can easily find it without looking. The HD radio is clear and rather powerful and gives you all kinds of cool features (like being able to tap the station to cycle through the alternate HD stations available). There are also CD and DVD functions (though no movies while driving–the 4200 won’t play videos when the car is in drive for safety reasons). If you want to load up an SD card full of music, you can do that too, just have the faceplate slide forward and pop the card in. You can even sync your phone over Bluetooth to enable hands-free calling.
But when it comes to phones, you can do so much more with the 4200NEX. This Pioneer unit supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. I don’t have an Android phone, so my hands-on was all done with Apple CarPlay. It’s a perfect implementation of the system. Large, easy-to-identify icons, usually exactly the same as the ones on your phone, are displayed in a couple of screens. Siri is available for directions and interacting with your text messages. It’s important to note that your texts are never displayed on screen; if you want texting while driving, you’re going to have to use your voice. Another very convenient thing about CarPlay is that it will generally remember where you are in a podcast or audiobook and pick up where you left off the next time you hop in the car and hook up the phone.
But that cuts both ways. My few issues with the Pioneer system mostly stem from Apple CarPlay. Occasionally, the head unit will display a black screen at the start or boot into CarPlay, but not let you select anything to play. The fix can be as simple as dis- and re-connecting your phone; but I did have one occasion where I had to turn off the car altogether. Not ideal. A hard power button would be nice for those times when the conflicting software systems in your smart devices butt heads. And also, Apple, can you please let me rearrange the icons on my home screen? Having to dig for my Audible books every single time I get in the car is obnoxious. One thing that isn’t Apple’s fault though–if you don’t have a heavy tint on your windows, the touchscreen is going to catch glare something fierce when you’re driving away from morning or late afternoon sun. Even with the brightness turned all the way up, the screen can get washed out. This isn’t an issue at night (when the head unit will automatically dim, a very nice touch) or when angled sun isn’t an issue.
I’d love to try the 4200NEX out with an Android phone at some point, as I’ve heard Google’s solution to auto info-tainment is much more flexible. All that aside, I love that the Pioneer will let me switch between either ecosystem and has enough options on its own so that if I’m without my phone, I’m not stuck without music (or, being the news junkie I am, NPR). It’s the perfect upgrade to an older vehicle and it makes my daily commuting much more pleasant. If your car is mechanically sound, but the radio makes you want to scream, the Pioneer AVH-4200NEX is the perfect solution to modernize your ride.
Thanks to Pioneer for providing a head unit and installation assistance for this article. Opinions are my own.