OnStar: hot and high-tech option
A major radio and TV
advertising campaign and expanded availability to almost 70 vehicle
models have sparked a new explosion of interest in OnStar, an in-dash
system that can serve as a cell phone, roadside emergency service
and personal navigation assistant.
OnStar, a wholly owned
subsidiary of General Motors, has been around since 1996, but was
revamped into a hands-free, three-button dashboard system in 1999.
Currently, it is available in 52 GM models and in a range of vehicles
such as Audi, Acura, Subaru, Isuzu, Volkswagen and Lexus, under the
When first introduced, OnStar was available
only as an add-on feature. Now, it's available as standard equipment
and in some option packages, but you cannot purchase it as an add-on.
Pricing for OnStar varies with the model and options package it's
installed in. In the 2004 Pontiac Montana, for example, OnStar is
included in the Safety and Security package that also includes a theft-deterrent
system and garage-door opener. The cost for the package with OnStar
and one year's basic service is $500.
On the 2004 Chevy Trailblazer LT with four-wheel
drive, OnStar is listed as Option UE1. It carries an manufacturer's
suggested retail price of $1,235 and an invoice price of $1,062. On
the 2004 Buick LeSabre Custom four-door sedan, OnStar bears the same
UE1 designation, but carries an MSRP of $695 and an invoice price
Three service levels
In addition to the initial cost, there's a monthly service fee --
available in a range of service levels. The most basic, called "Safe
& Sounds, " comes with emergency roadside service options
and costs $16.95 a month. Popular features under this plan, upon which
all other plans are based, include stolen-vehicle tracking, roadside
assistance, remote door unlock and airbag deployment notification.
The midrange package, "Directions & Connections,"
adds the luxury of an OnStar adviser ready to provide you with directions
anytime, and will summon a taxicab if you're unable to use your vehicle.
This package runs $34.95 per month.
The top-shelf service, "Luxury & Leisure,"
goes for $69.95 a month, and offers all of the features of the midrange
package, plus "personal concierge" service, which can help
if you "want hard-to-get tickets or just remembered your mom's
birthday is today," according to the company.
All service levels provide the option of hands-free
phone calls, a feature added in 2001, dubbed OnStar Personal Calling.
According to Geri Lama, OnStar spokeswoman, the most
popular service among subscribers for July through September 2003
has been driving directions, with OnStar advisers responding to about
270,000 inquiries. Other popular services during the same time period
were remote door unlocks (28,000); roadside assistance calls (13,000);
emergency calls (6,000) and stolen vehicle locations (700).
More than a cell phone
Lama says OnStar can offer more security to drivers than simply a
cell phone and an AAA membership.
"A cell phone and roadside service are all well
and good, but if someone is in an accident, OnStar's global positioning
system receiver can calculate the car's location. If the airbag deploys,
OnStar automatically calls into the OnStar Center to report the accident
and location," says Lama. "The adviser then contacts the
nearest emergency-services dispatcher to relay the information, saving
precious minutes when they really count," says Lama.
OnStar's Personal Calling service, which has logged
more than 200 million minutes in the service's first two years, allows
subscribers to make and receive hands-free phone calls and to access
automated traffic and weather reports.
Personal Calling minutes are prepaid; there are no additional
long distance or roaming charges, no long-term contracts or recurring
monthly fees and no extra equipment to purchase. Time may be purchased
in chunks that are good for either two months or a year. For example,
100 minutes, good for two months, costs $29.99, while the same time
for 12 months is $39.99. Packages may be purchased for as few as 30
minutes or as many as 1,000.
Daniel Pace of Wenatchee, Wash., says that it has better range that
a standard cell phone. "I can talk on it even going over the
passes in the North Cascade Mountains," says Pace, who has OnStar
in a 2001 Pontiac Montana. "It's the best insurance policy I've
ever seen. When the wife is with our kids, if she has a problem, she
can call for help pronto."
Chris Barbour, of Fairway, Kan., is not quite the fan
"The service is too expensive and not flexible
enough to allow customers to select their airtime provider,"
John Weiksnar, of Buffalo, N.Y., says his father learned
the hard way that a cell phone might still be handy to carry. His
2001 Cadillac Catera died on the road due to a failed battery. "There's
no reserve power for OnStar, leaving my father stranded. A simple
cell phone might have been a better investment."
Lama says Personal Calling is not designed to replace
the cellular phone. It's embedded in the vehicle and can't be carried
around in your pocket, but can be much appreciated if the battery
on your cell phone goes dead; if it can't be reached or if you simply
left it at home.
Other criticisms centered on inaccurate driving directions.
"OnStar failed to locate a restaurant which had been in business
for years," says Rick Bangs of Rochester Hills, Mich. "The
concept is a good one, but the execution, in my opinion, is off target."
Josh Shea is
a freelance writer based in Maine.
-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003