Importing a Car radio

I like the simplicity of my VW Polo’s standard radio unit, but I really need a bluetooth handsfree kit and iPod connectivity. I first tried an after-market kit that added the needed functionality to the factory radio, but after returning it for the third time (each time waiting more than a month for the replacement via normal postal service) and still having problems with the iPod connectivity, I decided it was time for a complete new unit.

Car radio’s are a lot more expensive in South Africa than in the States, so I decided to buy a unit from Amazon. I found a great touch-screen unit (Pioneer AVH-P3350BT) for a fraction of the cost of a similar unit in South Africa. I’ve had the unit now for more than a year and I’m very happy with my purchase. There was, however, a couple of issues. Here is a list of them to help prospective buyers thinking of going the import from USA route:

– The first problem I had was the supplied  routing harness didn’t fit my vehicle. Of course one cannot expect manufacturers to supply harnesses for all the different vehicles, but I thought I could source one from one of the local radio installers. No luck there – seems like they just cut and bind the wires to fit. I didn’t like that too much, as I would like the option to go back to the factory radio in case I sell the car.

Luckily I still had the after-market bluetooth adapter with the right connector, so I just soldered the wires onto that. First problem solved.

– Next problem was the fitting for the antenna – the connection on the radio needed a different adapter than the on I had on my vehicle. Luckily I was able to make an adapter  from spare parts i had on hand (mostly TV aerial fittings.)

– Ok, so now the radio worked, but to watch DVD’s the radio had to detect that the handbrake was enabled. This is due to a US law that prohibits watching movies while driving. The unit has a wire that you need to connect to your brake switch. Well, I really didn’t feel like searching for the brake switch wire hidden somewhere in the car, so I looked for a way to bypass it (we do not have such a law in SA, so I’m not doing anything illegal here.)

The unit needs to detect nothing on the wire when you turn the vehicle on, and then a connection to Ground (handbrake on) before enabling the DVD player. At first I tried to tie it directly to ground, but the radio was too smart for that. Luckily it was quite easy to bypass in the end – see this post for more details.

– So now everything worked, but the radio was much smaller than the opening. The unit came with a bigger cover (facia trim), but it was just a thin piece of shiny black plastic and it looked terrible next to the Polo’s dashboard. I used plywood to cut a new facia trim and managed to get a near perfect Matt finish by using a couple of coats of Blackboard spray paint (paint you can spray on anything to create your own black board.)

– Everything done, so how does the imported radio work in South African conditions?

The biggest problem is the tuning frequencies – in the US the stations are only on the odd frequencies (e.g. 94.1, 94.3, 94.5) so you cannot tune into a station like 94.2 (it skips all the even frequencies). For some people this would definitely be a deal breaker, but luckily I only listen to Talk 702 ( 92.7) when I’m not listening to my iPod, so it doesn’t matter to me, but be sure to avoid American-specific radios if you need all the frequencies!

The DVD player works well, but you may have problems with certain DVD’s, as it is a different  region.

The bluetooth connectivity is a great asset – it shows incoming numbers, phonebook, last dialled numbers, signal and battery strength and a lot more. I keep my phone’s bluetooth permanently on so I’m always ready to receive a call when driving.

The iPod interface also works like a charm. Only negative for me is the socket is in front of the radio, so there’s always a cable sticking out. To make it less visible, I use a black USB extension that goes to my iPod in the cubby hole.

Otherwise it’s a great little unit and works perfectly for me!