Bluetooth in Cars: How Does It Work?

Cars with Bluetooth are the rule now, not the exception. But how does Bluetooth in cars work?

A car infotainment screen prompting to add a device.Shutterstock

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Bluetooth is a form of wireless technology that enables one electronic device to connect with another, and automakers have taken full advantage of this connectivity, allowing drivers to make phone calls, receive alerts from mapping applications like Google Maps, and even send text messages by voice.

Cars with Bluetooth are the rule now, not the exception, because they can provide a range of benefits for users, including fewer distractions with navigation, voice text messaging, audio, and phone calls.

To put it simply, Bluetooth in cars uses something called "frequency hopping" to pair one device to another; that way, the devices can connect, and enough frequencies are available so you don't have to worry about exceeding their full capacity. It's all about pairing devices within about 30 ft. together.

How Do Cars With Bluetooth Work?

A new car with Bluetooth will likely include some standard applications. Once you've paired your phone, select pieces of your phone's information will appear on your car's infotainment screen. You should be able to navigate using your app of choice; receive, listen to, and send text messages using voice controls; make phone calls; and listen to audio streamed from your phone. The goal of Bluetooth in cars is to enable hands-free connectivity, so you don't have to hold your phone to call a friend.

To access these features, you'll first need to connect your cellphone to your car. This process can differ from car to car, but the general steps are the same.

  1. First, make sure you've activated Bluetooth in your phone's settings.
  2. Then, with your car on, navigate to your "phone" or "devices" menu on your car's infotainment system.
  3. Choose the "Add a device" option.
  4. Then, ask your phone to scan for Bluetooth-capable devices. You should see your vehicle is available for pairing.
  5. Next, tap on the car name on your phone. You may be prompted to input a password or code in your phone; many phones will automatically generate the code when your car is in close range.

Once you've put that code in, your phone and car should be connected. Most modern Bluetooth devices will then allow you to access your phone's Bluetooth features through the infotainment screen.

If you have a newer iPhone or Android phone, you may also choose to interface with your device wirelessly over Bluetooth via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, respectively. These smartphone-projection/smartphone-mirroring apps, which are built into your device, provide a streamlined interface where you can access certain features and special, car-friendly menus.

Wireless smartphone projection is growing more popular, but plenty of new cars still only feature compatibility with one of the two apps—or neither. Many automakers still require a "tether" to access Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which means you’d need to plug your phone into a USB port.

How to Evaluate Bluetooth Features

While many buyers expect some form of Bluetooth connectivity, it can be hard to determine if one vehicle's Bluetooth features are a good fit. So, before shopping for your next vehicle, make a list of features that are important to you. Do you need navigation, or do you just prefer audio connectivity? Do you want your vehicle to read your text messages out loud? Do you need to make in-car phone calls? These are all important things to know so you can find a vehicle with Bluetooth that aligns with your needs.

Then, during a test-drive, try out the Bluetooth connectivity and the features you want to use. If it's hard to sort out navigation, that could be a deal-breaker. If the Bluetooth calling has poor sound quality, you may want to try a different vehicle. If you can't figure out how to connect your phone, that's a red flag. These are things you want to know when trying to find the right car for you.

A Few Cars With Unique Bluetooth Features

While many cars adopt a standard take on Bluetooth connectivity, a few automakers out there are providing something new.

  • The Chrysler Pacifica's Bluetooth system allows you to connect two phones, so both the driver and the passenger can sync up.
  • The Ford Maverick is light on tech; however, the compact pickup is included on this list because its Bluetooth connectivity is so simple that even a technophobe could understand it.
  • The 2022 Lexus NX has a slew of great Bluetooth features, including individual driver profiles, a guest key provided through the Lexus app for a one-off driver, and remote start/stop and unlocking when your phone is in range.
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Elizabeth Blackstock
I’m Elizabeth Blackstock, and after growing up around the Detroit automotive industry, I’ve made it my life’s mission to make information about vehicles accessible for the average consumer. Whether you’re a hardcore auto enthusiast or someone looking for a practical machine for the daily commute, I’m here to help you make your most informed decision.