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Why can't I replace my car's factory radio?

Things that get in the way of radio replacement

M

any of today's cars have factory radios that either cannot be replaced or that we just don't recommend replacing. In this article, we're going to look at why those radios are the way they are, and what you can still do to improve your vehicle's audio quality.

And if you're shopping for a new (or new-to-you) car? Read this article. Skim it, at least.

Buik dash

Why don't we recommend radio replacement in certain vehicles?

Reasons can vary, but here are the top three:

  1. Dash design
    Certain dash designs, like the one pictured above, either don't accommodate the standard sizes of aftermarket stereos, or there isn't a dash kit yet that would look better than the factory dash.
  2. Integrated controls
    To save on dash space, consolidate control panels, and minimize the number of small parts that can break, manufacturers integrate climate controls and vehicle settings into the central touchscreen. That makes it less of a radio and more of a command center and it's difficult for a new stereo to keep up.
  3. Digital signal
    In addition to being a control hub for a variety of car features, some factory radios are tied in with other electronic communication systems in the vehicle to produce warning chimes, navigation prompts, and more. This deep level of digital integration often makes it impossible (or at least, strongly inadvisable) to replace the factory radio.

And sometimes the good reasons for not replacing a factory radio can be all three. We believe cool radio features can make a ho-hum drive into a great one, but not when you lose air conditioning, safety features, and the aesthetic that made you fall in love with your car in the first place.

How do I know if the factory radio can be replaced?

When you're ready for a new car and you plan to drive it until the wheels fall off, you should make sure you're happy with the layout and feature set of the factory radio. But if you are like us and have an eye toward radio replacement, here are some tips:

  1. Pay attention to the trim package.
  2. Use our vehicle selector to research your vehicle.
  3. Focus on the other things you can do to improve the sound.

Pay attention to the trim package

So, what do you need to know before you sign on the dealer's dotted line? In some cases, all levels of trim utilize the same style radio...but not always. Often, it's the top trim level you need to watch out for, especially if there's a step up in display size or to a "name-brand" premium audio system.

vehicle trim

You can often identify "premium" sound systems by the presence of branded badging on the speaker grilles

  • If you're stepping up the trim level just for the audio system, consider sticking to the lower trim levels and going aftermarket for the stereo.
  • If you're stepping up because you prioritize features like leather and push-button start, check out our solution suggestions at the end of this article.

Our Vehicle Selector can help you

Not every year and trim level make radio replacement impossible. If you're car shopping, be sure to use our Vehicle Selector and enter the exact year, make, model, and trim level of the vehicle you're considering. We'll show you the details about factory radio replacement and warn you if that version has a head unit that shouldn't (or can't) be replaced.

iDatalink Maestro RR interface

iDatalink to the rescue

You'll hear us mention something called the iDatalink Maestro in this article, on our site, and in person if you talk to our advisors. The Maestro is an interface module that lets you install a new stereo in vehicles that have complex electronics tied into the factroy radio. It's not available for all vehicles and doesn't work with all stereos, but when it's available for your vehicle, it's a game changer.

[Learn more about what the iDatalink Maestro can do]

Some popular vehicles with problematic stereos

Here are some popular 2016-up vehicles that pose problems for radio replacement. Don't worry, there are still other things you can do to improve the sound, we'll get to that below.

Honda Civic with the 7" touchscreen display

If you clock a lot of miles every day, it only makes sense that you'd narrow your sights on the historically reliable Honda Civic.

Honda civic 2016 dash

Honda makes a slick dash, but that 7" touchscreen will be difficult to replace.

The factory radio of this Honda Civic features a 7" touchscreen, and we don't currently carry a compatible dash kit that accommodates an aftermarket stereo.

Dodge Challenger with the 8.4" touchscreen display

American muscle is alive and well with the Dodge Challenger. This speed demon boasts classic curves, but its factory radio is anything but old-fashioned.

2019 dodge challenger dash

Many dashes consist of several removable panels, but the Challenger dash is one large piece.

Replacing a factory radio with a large touchscreen display isn't always a problem, but in the case of this display, there isn't a satisfactory dash kit that fits and matches this Challenger's interior. However, once there is, the iDatalink Maestro will allow owners of this trim level to retain factory features with no issues.

Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain

Tough people-haulers like the Equinox are everywhere, which means a huge range of factory options.

Chevrolet Equinox dash

Currently, there's no electronic interface available for the 2016-up Equinox/Terrain

A model's new generation can bring all sorts of changes inside and out, and in the case of the latest Equinox, new factory wiring requires a new integration solution. Currently, the iDatalink Maestro doesn't support some Equinox trim levels, but check back for updates soon.

Ford F-150 with the 8" touchscreen display

The toughest trucks on the road are now as comfortable as most luxury sedans, which means factory features can be just as swanky.

Ford F150 dash

Check back later with our Vehicle Selector tool to find out if integration options have changed

Many Ford vehicles feature a MyFordTouch 8" touchscreen factory radio like this one. There's finally a solution from iDatalink that will let you replace the stereo, but it's complicated and pricey. So while the option is there, you may want to read the next section of this article.

The good news — a problematic stereo doesn't condemn you to poor sound

So, you need to keep your factory radio... No problem. You can still experience a new level of clarity in your music by replacing the other components in your audio system.

  1. Improve your system's fine detail and clarity. Swapping out your factory speakers with a component speaker system can make a noticeable improvement in sound quality.
  2. Boost the volume. Adding an amplifier while you're installing those speakers will give you more power not only for extra volume, but also better sound at lower volumes. Check out our car amplifier buying guide for more info.
  3. Give your music some punch. A subwoofer makes a solid addition for filling out the depth and body of your music. And the good news is there's a bass solution for nearly every application, from big, loaded enclosures that live in your trunk to compact powered subs that tuck away under your seat.

For inspiration, check out this example of an audio upgrade where one of our guys wanted better sound but didn't want to replace his radio.

Need to talk out ideas?

Reach out to an Advisor, even if you're only in the early stages of making your next car purchase. We also have lots of other informative articles and videos to inspire you and clarify things.

Last updated 4/13/2020

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