(© Car Stereo Plus, Seattle)Click to enlarge picture

You can seamlessly add nearly any of the latest in-car technologies to your current ride. Our nav system upgrade (right), slotted in perfectly while providing the latest crop of in-car must-haves.

One of the sweetest perks of a new car payment is the latest technology and convenience options available with your new machine. But you don’t need to buy a new car to get the flashiest new functions. In fact, for the cost of a few loan installments, you can add nearly any craved-for electronic feature to your current machine.

These days, getting the slickest accessories in our cars, such as Bluetooth cell phone integration, is a top priority for many consumers. According to J.D. Power and Associates’ 2008 U.S. Automotive Emerging Technologies Study, nine of the top 20 features consumers are most interested in are gadgets such as backup assist (#2), navigation (#3), premium surround sound (#6), and satellite- (#14) and HD-Radio (#15).

Also huge is the desire to integrate a portable music device such as an iPod or Zune. According to the same J.D. Power report, half of all car owners use some form of digital music player in their vehicles, and more than 95 percent of new vehicle purchasers own a portable device, including a mobile phone or navigation system. "The penetration of these products has increased among all car buyers, young and old, budget conscious or not," says J.D. Power’s John Tews.

Luckily there’s no need for another 60-month tithe to access the latest in-car gadgetry. The most sought-after features (even HD-Radio and backup cameras) are all available via the aftermarket. We’re here to show how easy it is to add gadgets without trashing your ride or your budget. We’ve broken it down to three routes (a la carte, portable all-in-ones, and in-dash media centers), to tailor the tech you want to the car you already drive.

A La Carte

Depending on the model and year of the car you own, its electronics may vary from an AM crystal set to a 7-inch navigation screen. Sadly, no matter when you purchased your car, technology always seems to advance faster than you can get through a car loan. Even if your car is nearly new, some of the latest features (such as Bluetooth or iPod control) always seem destined for the next model in your driveway. Fortunately, if there’s a particular feature that your car lacks there’s likely a single-feature aftermarket solution for it.

For owners of portable music players, the options that let you connect it to your car’s stereo are legion. Wireless FM transmitters and lighter-socket chargers are available from a wealth of manufacturers, but true integrated control is far more appealing. Many dealers already offer cables that will integrate control of your iPod into your current car’s stereo and/or steering wheel controls. For those that lack an OEM option, products such as Soundgate’s CORE will help you charge and control your iPod or Zune with nearly any car audio setup.

If it’s navigation you seek, there are a host of inexpensive (under $200) portable navigation units from Garmin, Tom-Tom, Magellan, Mio and many others. Although these companies offer models loaded with extra features (see below), the basic navigation functions remain the same. Though lean on frills, TomTom’s One 130 ($150) features a host of slick nav functions, and a built-in EasyPort windshield mount.

One of the simplest ways to add Bluetooth cell phone connectivity to your car is with Motorola’s MOTOROKR T505 ($140). This slick little pod clips onto your car’s sun visor much like a garage-door remote, and allows you to take hands-free phone calls via its built-in speaker and microphone. If your GM, Toyota or Honda already has a navigation system, Scosche’s Blue Fusion ($299-$399) can add Bluetooth to your setup, including on-screen caller-ID.

If you want a satellite audio feed for your wheels, car kits for both XM and Sirius satellite radio start at just $40 (plus a monthly subscription). HD Radio, which is a new, free (over the air) digital broadcast format for AM and FM stations, provides higher fidelity and some funky new programming options. Depending on the radio already in your car, HD Radio kits start around $150, and consulting your local car stereo specialist is a sound idea.

What about backup cameras? If you’re looking to add just this feature, there are a number of wireless (no cables to run) options from Vialta, 4UCam and VR3, starting at just $99. Especially popular with RV owners, these units feature a small camera that clips to your rear license plate bracket, and a small display screen that mounts on your dash.

Portable all-in-one

One of the hottest car accessories in decades, GPS-based portable navigation units are an extremely easy way to add real-time maps to your dashboard. Though navigation is their primary function, the pricier units have a slew of extra features.

Poster child for this new breed of do-all GPS units is Garmin’s nuvi 775T ($799). The 775T is pre-loaded with maps of North America and Europe, includes “Lane Assist” to help get you in the right slot for intersections and interchanges, and can receive FM traffic data and MSN Direct content. It also serves as a hands-free Bluetooth receiver, MP3 player, photo viewer, world travel clock and currency converter. Don’t jet for Europe without it.

Several manufacturers, including Toyota, Volvo and Hyundai, have begun offering integration slots for several popular brands of portable nav units, which can make adding this feature to your car as easy as snapping a unit into your dash.

Perhaps the handiest thing about portable GPS units is that you can carry these capabilities from car to car, or when traveling. Though they don’t yet provide backup cameras or HD-Radio feeds, the only real downsides are keeping them securely mounted in your line of sight without running afoul of local motor vehicle statutes, and making sure you have the cabling safely routed to keep the units charged up.