The stereo system in my 2004 VW GTI wasn't exactly cutting edge when the car was brand new. It had a CD and cassette player, radio presets, and a few other features, but no line-in or USB connection. By standards, it may as well have an 8-track player. I wouldn't refer to myself as an audiophile, but I've had some experience with car stereos in the past, and I do enjoy a nice system in a car. The factory Monsoon system leaves a lot to be desired in sound quality, but even worse, it doesn't offer any of the modern conveniences I take for granted in today's cars.
Luckily for us enthusiasts, adding things like Apple CarPlay, navigation, Bluetooth, and everything else we are currently spoiled with is probably easier and maybe even less expensive than you might think. We decided to see just how difficult it is to update to current-tech electronics in our older car.
The first thing I should mention is that this is actually easier to do in older cars than it is to do in something more recent. The stereo system in the MK4 is a standalone system; it doesn't interface with anything else in the car. In more modern cars, the factory has started to tie in different systems. In my MK7, for instance, things like resetting the TPMS sensors and selecting the driving mode are all accomplished through the MIB system in the dash. While you might be able to get another aftermarket system to work, I think you would lose that functionality. So, please check with the experts before diving into your own dash to rip out the stereo.
I knew from the beginning I wanted Apple CarPlay in the new system. That narrows down the search to a few, but increasing number of brands pretty quick. I chose Pioneer for its reputation of high quality, along with a wide variety of features and additional add-ons if I wanted to get more serious later on. Pioneer offers Apple CarPlay decks starting with a street price of around $400 for an entry-level double DIN system. Double DIN is the large form stereo you see here; the smaller stereos in MK1-MK3 cars are referred to as Single DIN. I went with a Pioneer AVIC 8200NEX partly for its expandability. Not only does this unit feature navigation that rivals or even surpasses many current OE systems, but it also allows me to add things like a backup camera (I chose a Pioneer ND-BC8 unit) and parking sensors, if I decide to do that at a later time. The 7-inch touch screen is a capacitive touch display, which means it feels as responsive as your iPhone and looks nearly as sharp.
Installation of the head unit is fairly straightforward. It's basically as easy as sliding the old unit out and using a prewired harness to connect the Pioneer system to the preexisting VW plugs. The only difficult part is installing the wiring for the rearview camera and running the wiring behind the dash for the GPS antenna.
As long as the interior had to be disassembled for the rear camera, I figured we may as well put some new speakers in the car, or drivers, as the stereo guys refer to them. In the older cars, you would be lucky to have space for a 4-inch speaker, 5.25 inches if you were really lucky. The MK4 actually space for a 6.5-inch driver in the lower part of the door, with a separate tweeter at the base of the A-pillar. A-series drivers are Pioneer's mid-level and since this isn't the quietest place to build a stereo to begin with, they were deemed more than adequate.
As previously mentioned, the front units are 6.5-inch separates, while the rears, located in the side panels next to the passenger footwells, are 6.5-inch three-way speakers, meaning a 6.5-inch main driver with two other drivers housed in the main unit.
The front door speakers and the rear speakers both required spacer rings to be fabricated out of MDF board as the speaker depth was greater than the factory pieces. The tweeters easily attached in the factory position. The guys at Beach AutoSound in Huntington Beach, California, encouraged me to run the factory amplifier to give the speakers a bit more oomph. I kicked around the idea of adding a new amplifier as well as a subwoofer, but there isn't much space inside the MK4 to hide them out of site and I wasn't willing to compromise trunk or rear foot space to mount either. With the install complete, the only thing visible is the head unit, and when it's off, it just looks like a big, black rectangle in the dash and doesn't draw much attention.
The new head unit requires a little bit of setup, but with this much functionality I expect that. The Apple CarPlay functionality is just like factory. The Pioneer head unit also has built-in Pandora support, so using it on the unit itself is essentially the same as using it on your phone; you can thumb-up or down songs, change playlists, etc. all from the deck.
The backup camera is actually better looking than the unit in my 2015 MK7 GTI, but VW has updated later cars. The Pioneer navigation is also as good as just about any factory system out there. It offers lane guidance, speed limit info, and even auto-zoom features; it really does feel like a factory system, and that is what I like most about this update.
All-in, you are looking at a street price of less than $1,500 for everything, plus a good five or so hours of installation. Compare that to the price of an upgraded factory stereo and navigation in a new car and it's very reasonable.
My MK4 still needs loads of work, and the more that gets done, the more I find I need to do. Right now, I am looking for axles, headlights, and I'm still contemplating whether I should paint the car or just do a vinyl wrap. A lot of big decisions need to be made, but even I'm a little surprised at just how much better the addition of the stereo upgrade has made the driving experience.