Jazzing Up Your New Car For Less

Forget the dealer. Buy that killer stereo or DVD player from a retailer

If you bought a new car more than a few months ago, you might wish you had done some things differently. Maybe you would have opted for a CD changer or a DVD player to keep the kids occupied. Maybe you would have gotten satellite radio, if only the carmaker had offered it then. Or perhaps you would have splurged on that built-in navigation system the dealer was trying so hard to sell you. None of these omissions is hard, or necessarily expensive, to correct.

For one thing, buying new gear for your car in the auto aftermarket -- from an electronics chain such as Best Buy (BBY ) or Circuit City Stores (CC ), or a car-specialty store -- is usually cheaper than ordering it with the car in the first place. For the newest technology, it's the only way to go. Installation is extra, unless you're mechanically handy or you catch one of the frequent sales offering free installation. Otherwise, expect to pay from about $50 to install a new radio receiver, and perhaps $150 for a DVD video screen that drops down from the ceiling, not including parts such as brackets and wiring adapters that add about $20 to the price.

Lease your car? Don't worry. Today's aftermarket electronics are designed so you don't have to drill holes or splice wires. And most retailers will uninstall anything they've installed and put back the original factory equipment for free when you sell your car or return it at the end of the lease.

By far the most popular upgrades are tweaks to the factory stereo system. The best place to start is with the speakers. You won't have to spend more than $30 to $50 for a good pair of front speakers, and you'll hear the difference in the brighter, more lifelike sound they produce. Tip: The front speakers in your car are usually mounted low on the doors, so when you're choosing speakers in the store be sure to stand off to the side instead of listening to them head-on.


If you're missing the room-filling bass you've become accustomed to from your home-theater system, you can add a powered subwoofer to your car. Good picks include Infinity's BassLink models ($329 to $399) or Bazooka's Bass Tubes ($129 to $399). They're compact -- about the size of a briefcase -- and designed to fit in a trunk or behind the rear seats of a pickup or sport-utility vehicle.

Another easy add-on is a CD changer. Car companies want a lot of money for them as a part of their premium audio systems. You'll pay close to $1,200, for example, to get a six-disk changer on this year's Cadillac CTS. But a Sony (SNE ) 10-disk changer typically goes for about $160, or $200 for a model that also can play MP3 files from music CDs you burn on your home computer. One caution: These "universal" changers feed the sound to your car radio through its FM antenna, so what you'll hear is FM-quality sound. For full CD-quality audio, manufacturers now make adapters so that you can hook the changer directly into certain factory stereos. Ask your retailer if there's one for your car.

You may want to get rid of the factory radio altogether and swap in a "head unit" with all the features you want. If yours is an older car that doesn't have a CD player, you can get an in-dash AM/FM/CD model for less than $100. In the $150 to $350 range, you can get pretty much everything else you may want: MP3 capability, controls for add-on satellite radio tuners or CD changers, a display that shows song titles, and a removable faceplate so thieves won't be tempted.

Beyond that, the sky's the limit. Check out Kenwood's $2,500 KVT-915DVD. It's a premium audio and TV receiver with surround sound, a DVD player, and a motorized, retractable, 7-inch LCD touch-screen display.

You don't have to spend nearly that much to get video in your car (in the backseat with the kids, that is). For about $800, you can install a Sony or Audiovox (VOXX ) DVD system with a 7-inch LCD screen that drops down from a ceiling console that replaces the dome light. On a new Lexus RX330 SUV, the same thing goes for $1,840 -- and is available only on vehicles outfitted with premium or performance packages ranging from about $2,000 to $5,000. Another option: Get new front-seat headrests with video screens built into the back. With a DVD player that goes under the seat, they're about $1,500 a pair.

Some extras you're better off not permanently installing in your car. Take navigation systems. A $2,000 option on new cars, you can get stand-alone versions for $400 to $1,300 that hook on to an air-conditioning vent on the dash or mount on a gooseneck plugged in to the cigarette lighter. That way, you can use it around town but still take it with you on longer road trips in your spouse's car, or in rental cars on out-of-town business trips. Two recommendations: Garmin's StreetPilot 2610 and the Magellan RoadMate 500, from about $800 to $1,000 for either. Both have big color displays, touch-screen controls, and a voice to prompt you at turns.

Similarly, both XM and Sirius satellite radio services offer receivers that snap into docking stations so you can move them between cars or into the house. They're around $150, with extra docks going for about $50 to $70 each. The logic? Each receiver requires its own subscription, monthly fees of $10 to $13 that can add up fast if you have more than one.

Two good places for armchair shopping: crutchfield.com and bestbuy.com. Both sites let you type in your car's year, make, and model. That way, when you start dreaming about adding new toys to your car, you can be sure the stuff is going to fit.

By Larry Armstrong

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