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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 name LexusLink.

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 of $598.


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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.

Mixed reviews
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 Pace is.

"The service is too expensive and not flexible enough to allow customers to select their airtime provider," he says.

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

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