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Ford may soon lose a competitive Sync edge


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Ford may soon lose a competitive Sync edge



LOS ANGELES -- Ford may be about to lose a key competitive advantage as Chrysler's alliance with Fiat bears its first fruit.

Ford has made hay for three years with Sync, the sophisticated system for voice control of phones and audio systems it developed with Microsoft.

Sync has consistently rated as one of the top reasons people chose a Ford, Lincoln or Mercury over vehicles from other brands. It also helps Ford retain customers who grow accustomed to its simple and convenient operation.

Ford was the first company to offer the system in the U.S. Even after Microsoft began working with other automakers, Ford remained years ahead of the competition.

That lead just evaporated. Fiat has been working with Microsoft on voice control as long as Ford. It launched its version of the system in Europe before Ford did in the U.S. Chrysler offers a hands-free system called U-Connect on some models, but it's less user-friendly and sophisticated than Sync.

Fiat's system, which labors under the unfortunate name of Blue & Me -- score that one for Ford -- includes voice control of radio, phone and music players connected either by USB or Bluetooth. It also works with an optional portable Tom Tom navigation system.

Blue & Me got no attention when the 500 Fiat debuted amid hoopla at the Los Angeles auto show this month, but it's one of the car's key competitive advantages.

"Blue & Me will offer customers the ability to use their handheld and mobile devices while keeping focused on driving," said Joe Grace, vehicle line executive for the Fiat 500.

Blue & Me is part of a $500 option package that includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel with satellite controls for it and other features on the $15,500 base model of the 500. It's standard equipment on Sport and Lounge models that cost $17,500 and $19,500, respectively. The nav system is a $400 option on the 500 Sport and Lounge.

In addition to spoken commands for phone, music and navigation, Blue & Me lets drivers download data about their driving habits to a USB thumb drive. They can transfer the information via their personal computer to a Web site Fiat runs called Eco:Ville, for tips about how to save fuel.

Eco:Ville is an online community with thousands of participants in Europe. Users can compete for the lowest fuel consumption and emissions.

Ford doesn't have an equivalent to Eco:Ville, an amusing little "South Park"-style cartoon hamlet that borrows landmarks from Fiat's hometown of Turin, Italy.

Ford has mastered the art of voice control, however. Its latest models, the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX, combine Sync with other systems to allow drivers to use spoken commands for everything from setting the cabin temperature to programming an address into the navigation system.

Ford calls those systems My Ford Touch and My Lincoln Touch, proving that Fiat didn't corner the market on really bad names when it trademarked Blue & Me.

While a 500 equipped with Blue & Me and the Tom Tom nav system will be able to recognize and respond to about 340 spoken commands, Ford's new system understands about 10,000. That makes Ford's system easier and faster to use.

Fiat wasn't standing still while Ford moved forward, though. I'd expect the next generation of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles that hit the road in 2012 and '13 to further narrow Ford's lead in automotive connectivity and user-friendliness.



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