by Gary James

When you’re in the market for a new vehicle and you think you would like to upgrade the basic audio system, be very wary of the auto manufacturers’ in-dash multi-disc CD changers. You can spend a lot of money and get very little in return.

Most people buy multi-disc CD changers for two key reasons:

  1. Convenience – to play several CDs without having to constantly eject and load every time you change to a different CD.

  2. Variety – to randomly play a variety of music from different CDs.

All in-dash CD changers can provide the convenience factor. If that’s all you care about and you don’t mind spending several hundred dollars to get it, you might be happy. But if variety in your music listening experience is important to you, you could get a nasty surprise after you take delivery of your shiny new vehicle and you sit down to read the owner’s manual on how to operate your in-dash CD changer.

Most auto manufacturers provide one or both of the following CD options for their audio systems:

  • an in-dash single CD player,

  • an in-dash multi-disc CD changer.

Generally, most auto manufacturers’ 2002 in-dash single CD players are quite similar in function and provide the type of repeat play and random play capabilities that the average consumer would expect and would assume to be present. However, in-dash multi-disc CD changers are another story.

Anyone who has shopped for home CD changers or for automotive after-market CD changers will likely expect that the basic minimum functionality would include “shuffle” mode, which has been pretty standard capability on those CD changers for years. In true shuffle mode, the changer randomly selects both the CD and the track to be played. When that track has been played, the changer then randomly selects another CD and track to be played. This continues, eventually playing all tracks from all loaded CDs in random order and providing the desired variety in the music.

Unfortunately, some auto manufacturers have chosen to supply expensive, limited function, in-dash CD changers that do not shuffle the CDs. This “quasi-random” mode, as I’ll call it, only plays all tracks on the current CD in random sequence. The changer then advances to the next CD and plays all tracks on that CD in random sequence. This continues, one CD at a time through all loaded CDs, providing no more variety than the single CD player. Except for the fact that you don’t need to manually change the CD to advance to the next one, it’s really just a glorified single CD player. It’s difficult to understand why the manufacturers would supply such deficient changers in 2002 when the cost of the additional logic circuit for true shuffle capability is likely to be pennies.

In my case, I discovered this “quasi-random” mode in my 2002 Dodge Caravan’s CD changer the same day I took delivery. The fact that the changer doesn’t shuffle was news to my salesman. Since variety in my music listening was the key reason I wanted a CD changer, I was willing to go to the after-market to get the functionality I wanted. However, repeated attempts to get DaimlerChrysler to agree to remove the changer, replace it with the basic AM/FM stereo, and refund the $635 (Cdn.) option price were refused by both Canadian and U.S. headquarters. Other manufacturers may have the same attitude, since the concept of “goods satisfactory or your money refunded” seems to be nothing but a source of boardroom levity in the automotive business. From my point of view, DaimlerChrysler’s “commitment” to my customer satisfaction stopped when I left the lot, I’m stuck with a CD changer that doesn’t perform as expected, and I’m left feeling totally “ripped off”. For $635, they have permanently lost a 5-time repeat customer.

As a result of my experience with my 2002 Dodge Caravan, I decided to conduct a small informal survey regarding several auto manufacturers’ in-dash CD changer capabilities. The information below was gathered through a combination of the manufacturers’ web sites and help desks, discussions with their dealership sales people, and actual tests of some units, and is correct to the best of my knowledge as of April 8, 2002. However, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information, so do your own research before you buy.

In-dash CD Changer Capability
Vehicle (2002 model year)
Quasi-random
True shuffle
Dodge Caravan
yes
no
Ford Windstar
yes
no
Honda Odyssey
yes
no
Mazda MPV
yes
no
Nissan Pathfinder
yes
yes
Pontiac Montana
yes
yes
Toyota Sienna
yes
yes

Because of the various ways that the manufacturers package their options, it isn’t feasible to provide directly comparable prices strictly of the CD changer options. However, to upgrade from the basic AM/FM stereo radio with cassette player to the AM/FM stereo radio with changer controls and in-dash multi-disc CD changer, you can expect to be paying in the range of $600 – $900 Cdn. That’s mighty expensive if the changer is just a glorified single CD player. Many after-market CD changers provide true shuffle capability plus additional functions such as custom programming at a lower price.

Manufacturers’ marketing brochures don’t tell you what the CD changer does, and you can’t count on the sales people. Many sales people use the word “shuffle” when describing the in-dash CD changer, but if you ask them specifically about the capabilities, they often don’t really know how it works. Ask for an owner’s manual and determine how the changer really operates. Better yet, take some CDs with you and do your own functional test. If my experience with DaimlerChrysler is any indication, the automotive manufacturers (with the possible exception of Saturn, if one believes their advertising) aren’t interested in your satisfaction with their product once they’ve got your money.”

Note: the opinions expressed by our readers are not necessarily those of www.Autos.ca and its editors.

Comments? e-mail gpjames@telusplanet.net

Connect with Autos.ca