Once upon a time, if you wanted the latest and greatest technology in the dashboard you’d head to a car stereo store after buying a new vehicle to yank out the factory radio and replace it with an aftermarket head unit with features that wouldn’t be available in production vehicles for a year or two. But the tables have turned as automakers now load their in-dash infotainment systems with features ranging from Wi-Fi to time-shifting radio tuners that the aftermarket usually can’t match. There are still exceptions, however, since automakers deal with long production lead times and the aftermarket can respond much faster.
That’s the case with Pioneer’s flagship AVIC-W8500NEX navigation receiver ($1,200), which offers features few new cars can match, namely wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability, along with lots of other cutting-edge technology. These include the ability to add dual cameras for rear- and front-facing views, WebLink for control of apps such as YouTube and Yelp, screen-mirroring of portable devices, and the ability to play high-resolution FLAC audio files. Of course, the Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX also has all the bells and whistles you expect in a high-end head unit, such as turn-by-turn navigation with traffic info, app compatibility, HD Radio, and Siri Eyes Free, earning our Editors’ Choice.
Design and Features
The Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX has a 6.9-inch WVGA (800 by 480) capacitive touch screen with a customizable main menu with five different display colors and 13 backgrounds and splash screens. The menu has been updated from the Pioneer AVIC-W8400NEX we tested earlier this year, with side-by-side layout customization, larger album artwork, and a Power Off mode if you prefer a completely dark screen.
Most of the front of the unit is taken up by the 6.9-inch touch screen, with several small controls along the button frame. These include (left to right) a volume up/down rocker switch; three buttons in the center for switching between the map/app screen, accessing the main menu, and mute; a rocker switch for back/voice recognition, and a button to fold down the motorized screen to reveal a CD/DVD drive and the SD card slot behind it. On the back of the AVIC-W8500NEX are two 1.5-amp USB ports, an aux-in jack, an HDMI input, and dual camera inputs.
The unit includes a DVD drive that can play CDs as well as a variety of digital formats burned on DVDs or CDs, and a built-in AM/FM HD tuner, while SiriusXM satellite radio can be added with an extra-cost receiver. It can also play high-res lossless FLAC audio files on a USB drive or SD card.
The AVIC-W8400NEX beats any OEM unit in terms of connectivity options. Wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability, which very few automakers currently offer, allows access to each platform’s native and third-party apps. A Lightning cable for iPhones and a USB cable for Android devices is supplied for physical connection and simultaneous phone charging.
Pioneer’s AppRadio adds on-screen access to phone contacts, calendars, and more on a USB-connected smartphone. The unit also has a built-in Pandora app, while a WebLink feature allows accessing apps like Waze, YouTube, Yelp, and others from the touch screen. It can also wirelessly connect with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi using a protocol called Miracast to simply mirror a compatible smartphone’s display.
In addition to the Apple and Google maps in CarPlay and Android Auto, the AVIC-W8500NEX comes with built-in turn-by-turn navigation that uses an onboard mapping database. The nav system also features three different view modes, 3D Landscape and City Map views for certain areas, and free lifetime traffic info by Total Traffic Network.
On the audio side, the AVIC-W8400NEX’s built-in power amplifier pumps out 14 watts RMS or 50 watts peak into four channels, while three sets of AV outputs allow connection to external amplifiers. An Easy EQ preset equalizer and subwoofer control allow you to tweak the sound to your taste and car interior.
A microphone can be discreetly installed for voice commands, hands-free calling, and texting, and works with Apple’s Siri Eyes Free. You also get a handheld remote for manual control from any seat. Using a third-party adapter, the AVIC-W8400NEX also allows maintaining a vehicle’s stock steering wheel controls.
Performance and Conclusions
We installed the Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX in a 2004 Cadillac Escalade ESV and primarily tested its Apple CarPlay capability using an iPhone 6. If you’re handy with cars and 12-volt electronics, you may be able to install it yourself using the detailed installation guide. But since this installation involved keeping the Caddy’s steering wheel controls, we had it professionally installed courtesy of Pioneer, which will add to your total cost.
Overall, we were exceedingly pleased with the Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX and discovered just a few small downsides. During a couple of long trips, the unit lost CarPlay connection and the touch screen froze. Unplugging and then plugging in the iPhone fixed this issue.
And while we like the built-in navigation, Google Maps became our default nav app thanks to its easy voice entry and connected search. Another nitpicking point is the way the Pioneer nav system constantly reminded us on the highway when we were over the speed limit. Finally, the AVIC-W8500NEX wouldn’t play our FLAC files on an SD card.
Otherwise, sound quality with the stock Bose amplifiers and speakers in the Escalade was on par with the standard receiver, if not slightly better with the Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX. We also found its touch sensitivity nearly perfect, making the display easy to operate on the fly.
Given the small buttons below the touch screen, we’re glad we were able to integrate the car’s factory steering wheel controls. It even gives you the ability to delete sources accessed from the steering wheel controls, such as AM radio, so you don’t have to toggle through each one.
There are also little conveniences such as the illumination of the radio tying into the vehicle’s interior display so that it automatically brightens at night or dims during the day, and being able to tilt the touch screen at an ideal angle. Unlike a lot of stock rearview cameras, with the Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX, we were able to turn on the camera even when traveling at highway speed—perfect for checking out tailgaters.
The Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX sets a new benchmark for high-end aftermarket head units and allows anyone to add the latest connectivity to almost any car. It easily earns our Editors’ Choice award for its near-flawless operation and pioneering features.