Installing a Modern Infotainment System in Virtually Any Car, New or Old
Almost all modern cars, minivans, sport utility, crossovers, and pickup trucks offer integrated touchscreen audio, navigation, and mobile phone systems. But what about if you own an older, pre-2015 vehicle or even a classic car? Are you out of luck?
The answer is no. Thanks to the automotive aftermarket, and suppliers in the Far East, there are dozens of systems designed to be installed in almost any vehicle built from 1980 on.
Here’s what I mean. Between 1999 and 2004, Jeep produced 1,416,845 WK Grand Cherokees for the North American market. So while the Wrangler is recognized as the icon of the brand, the Grand Cherokee is the model that is the brand’s true profit center.
I own one of those 1,416,845 second-generation Grand Cherokees. And when I was contributing to the now-defunct JP Magazine, I outlined how to install a comprehensive modern infotainment system in my Jeep.
While this story is Grand Cherokee-specific, the product, design, and installation principles apply to almost any domestic vehicle produced since 1980. And it includes many more manufactured all the way back to the mid-1960s when many European manufacturers offered a standardized 7-inch by 2-inch opening in the dash, often referred to as a single-DIN mount.
In my case, it’s been 16 years since the last WK was produced. Hundreds of thousands are still running providing everything from daily transportation to Rubicon-ready trail runners. While they remain serviceable, they lack some of the amenities of their 2020 counterparts, especially in the area of what we now call infotainment.
If you own an older car, how would you like to have virtually all of the current infotainment features — streaming and satellite radio, fully integrated GPS navigation, Bluetooth phone connectivity, a rear camera system, full engine monitoring through the car’s OBD II port, a tire pressure monitoring system, and so much more, for less than $500? Now thanks to a new generation of Android-based head units, it’s within your reach.
Head units based on the same Android operating system software that powers your non-Apple smartphone, is now available to fill that space just above or below the HVAC vents where your current head unit resides. (In the case of my 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the opening is 7-inches by 3-inches.)
Thanks to a number of Chinese manufacturers, mostly marketing Android-powered head units, some starting at less than $150 (at the lower end, these units use older, slower, less-featured Android 6, Android 7, Android 8, and Android 9 operating systems), the options on Amazon are virtually endless. And the most feature-packed units, provide uConnect levels of features, with the latest Android 10 operating system, are now priced at $500 or less.
There’s one problem. Most of these head units, especially at the lower end of the price spectrum, are double-DIN-sized units (7-inch by 4-inch front panels) that simply don’t easily fit in a 1999–2004 Grand Cherokee (or most cars built before 2000) without costly custom installation.
There are solutions that fit, the best providing a gigantic tablet-like 10.1-inch touchscreen (the standard iPad screen is 9.6 inches measured diagonally) which feature a removable screen that can be hidden when your vehicle is parked. Some of these units feature a chassis 7-inches by 2-inches wide that with an appropriate mounting kit (available online, at a mobile electronics specialist, or retailers like Walmart.)
These units, which use your smartphone’s WiFi hot spot capability to access features like built-in navigation, are mostly available on Amazon or the Chinese e-commerce site Alixpress and sold directly from companies you’ve likely never heard of; Atoto, Dasaita, Eincar, Eonon, Seicane, Xtrons, Yody, and Joying, the manufacturer who supplied the full-featured unit for our 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee Larado (one of 300,031 WK’s produced that year).
This $450 unit’s specifications reads like a top-of-the-line Android smartphone — Octo-core processor, 4 GB of RAM, 32 GB of onboard storage (for apps as well as content like music), a SIM card slot for a dedicated data plan, are Android Auto- and Apple CarPlay-compatable, and a gigantic, Tesla-like touchscreen. Best of all, its chassis is a traditional single-DIN (7-inches by 2-inches), meaning that it will fit almost every Jeep dating back to the 1980s, including Wranglers, Cherokees, and even Grand Wagoneers, without cutting in most instances as well as many cars dating all the way back to 1965.
If your vehicle suffers from a blown amp or speakers, you can upgrade the rest of your system at the same time. With our suggested upgrade path you can make your WK sound to rival the sound produced by the 2020 19-speaker Harmon/Kardon premium system. The cost? Less than $1,200, including professional installation.
(The design and installation principles will apply almost any car but for the purposes of this feature, will focus on my 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee.)
Our System — Joying Android 8 head unit with Infinity amplifier, front and rear replacement speakers, and a powered subwoofer.
The replacement of the previously installed (before we purchased our WK) Pioneer single-DIN head unit was straightforward. We even were able to use the existing installation kit, the wire harness adapter, and the heavy 12-gauge power wire running directly from the battery to the replacement amplifier and powered subwoofer.
Things do get complicated upgrading the amplifier and speakers. In our installation, we bypassed the factory-installed Infinity Gold 6-channel amplifier mounted under the passenger rear seat. That amplifier powered 6x9 woofer-midrange speakers mounted in each front door and separate tweeters at each corner of the top of the dash, each individually powered. Two more full-range speakers are mounted in each rear door, powered by the factory-installed Infinity amplifier. The replacement setup will replace the 6-channel Infinity Gold amplifier with a traditional 4-channel Infinity Kappa Four 4x100-watt amplifier ($400). The front two channels of the replacement amplifier will power an Infinity Reference 9630CX 2-way component set ($250) featuring a 6x9 woofer/midrange for each door, a 1-inch tweeter for the top of each side of the instrument panel, frequencies divided by the included passive crossover instead of each speaker being individually amplified.
The remaining two amplifier channels will power a set of Infinity Reference 6532EX integrated 2-way speakers ($100) for each rear door. Standard RCA audio cables were run between the Joying head unit and the under-seat amplifier and the powered subwoofer in the cargo compartment.
In the 1999–2004 Grand Cherokee, Jeep never offered a factory subwoofer. Our replacement system addresses that shortcoming, with a simple solution.
The Joying head unit offers a dedicated line-level subwoofer output which is adjustable from the 10.1-inch touchscreen. A set of line-level RCA cables run from the back of the head unit, down the passenger side, under the carpet, to an Infinity BassLink M powered 8-inch subwoofer ($250) whose compact enclosure has its own dedicated 100-watt amplifier. As Jeep provided no factory-installed subwoofer for the WK generation, the BassLink M enclosure is mounted on the passenger side of the cargo compartment. It provides a level of bass performance that simply wasn’t available from the factory-installed Infinity Gold system.
Follow along our step-by-step installation tutorial and your 1999–2004 Grand Cherokee will surely rock while providing you just about every amenity you’ll find in a current 2019 WK2.
If you’re going to install the system yourself, before starting your installation, for safety, disconnect the negative cable from the battery.
Here’s our starting point, our 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee with an installed, single-DIN Pioneer aftermarket AM/FM/CD player.
Using a plastic tool available from Amazon or from most Walmarts as part of a tool kit (or very carefully with a flat-blade screwdriver), pry out the factory bezel surrounding the existing radio.
The open cavity will look like this. Then remove the two multi-pin grey and black plugs from the factory harness (if an aftermarket radio has already been installed) or plugs from the back of the OEM radio. If a factory-installed CD changer is in place, remove the circular plug from the back of the radio as well as the radio antenna plug. (If you have a non-amplified system or are not replacing the amplifier, an adapter — available on Amazon, from a local electronics, or car audio retailer— will allow access to all the speaker wires without having to rewire each speaker.)
Using factory-match plugs, match up the wires on the Joying harness to the aftermarket connectors, supplied by companies like Metra or Scosche. This will include the yellow wire supplying a constant 12-volt signal, the red wire supplying a switched 12-volt switched, and the orange illumination wire. If you need to trigger an external amplifier, run a blue wire from the harness.
After snapping out the panel below the instrument cluster, route the Bluetooth and USB cable antenna to the cavity underneath the instrument cluster. Because the Grand Cherokee’s instrument panel is mostly plastic, the GPS antenna can be mounted in the more permanent location later during the installation, possibly behind the right-side 12-volt socket.
If you want the best possible hands-free phone performance, having already removed the panel below the instrument cluster, snap off the A-pillar trim and route the microphone cable to the forward edge of the headliner. Mount the microphone to the dome light above the mirror.
After removing the four screws that hold HVAC control panel in place and pulling out the snap-in ashtray and 12-volt outlets (this makes the cable-routing process much easier), route three sets of RCA cables to the area below the glove compartment and under the carpet on the passenger side along with the rear camera cable, and a wire (typically blue) to serve as switched 12-volt output from the head unit to the area where the amplifier will be mounted, to turn on the amplifier if your amplifiers does not have a signal-sense capability.
To run the cables and wires to the back of the car, the snap-fit door sills need to be removed along with the trim covering the B-pillar. (Remove the trim panel behind the shoulder harness to reveal the hidden screw securing the panel along with the Torx 50 bolt holding the shoulder belt in place at the bottom of the panel. This will make the process easier and faster.
Here is the factory-installed Infinity Gold amplifier installed under the passenger-side rear seat before it was removed, along with the evidence of a previous aftermarket amplifier installation (see the heavy-gauge red power wire, the heavy-gauge black wire, and all the spliced connections). In the case of our upgraded amplifier, speaker, and subwoofer system, most of the required connections will be made at this central location as wires for all six speaker locations (top of the instrument panel, front doors, and rear doors) can be accessed here.
The passive crossovers for the front component speaker set were pre-wired out of the car. We used color-coded wired from the amp and back into the car’s wiring to each of the six speakers (see wiring guide for the wires going to all six factory speaker locations). Cut your speaker wires longer than you think necessary. They will be trimmed after the system is installed and tested, cleaning up the installation.
Tan/Dark Green RR door -
White/Violet RR door +
White/Dark Green LR door -
Dark Green/White LR door +
Light Green/Dark Green LF door -
Light Green/Red LF door +
Light Blue/Black RF door -
Light Blue/Red RF door +
Yellow/Black LF Dash -
Yellow/Red LF dash +
Orange/Black RF dash -
Orange/Red RF dash +
(Note, 2002–2004 Grand Cherokees use a slightly different wiring setup although the speaker wiring is the same. We found that the most accurate wiring information along with any mounting kits and wire harness adapters required can be found at Metra Online. It can be accessed at metraonline.com. If you want to interface your Jeep’s steering wheel controls, a CAN bus adapter will be required, also available from Metra.)
With all the connections made to the new amplifier, things look messy. Once the connections are made to the powered BassLink subwoofer enclosure, the wiring will be cleaned up.
Continue with taking the rear camera cable, the third set of RCA cables and power and ground wires to the passenger-side of the cargo compartment. To make things easier to route the cables and wires, remove the screw at the hatch opening for the passenger-side and unsnap the large trim panel.
Unsnap the passenger-side D-pillar panel trim and continue to route the rear-camera cable to the headliner. Because the rear camera will be mounted above the license plate, this cable will be connected to the cable coming from the camera, in the headliner.
The rear camera is mounted to the tailgate above the license plate. After removing the trim panel the cables need to be run-up to the top of the tailgate so they can be routed back into the car. The license plate light was detached to start threading the cable back to the top of the tailgate.
For a factory-look, the cable from the camera is routed through the existing rubber tube running between the tailgate and the car. Using a straightened coat hanger, the cable coming back from the camera is pulled through the tube by taping the cable to the coat hanger, and pulling it through the tube.
Different rear cameras will have different connections, but typically the connections can be made as done here, above the headliner after running the cable up the passenger-side D-pillar. To gain access to this area, snap off the trim panel that secures the headliner.
Remove the passenger-side tail lamp assembly to gain access to the violet/black wire. This is what will trigger the screen to go to the rear-camera view when the car is put into reverse.
After reinstalling all of the interior trim panels, make the connections to the BassLink subwoofer enclosure. This includes the RCA signal cable, power, and ground. In our installation, the power and ground shares the same connection point, the power and ground terminals on the aftermarket Infinity amplifier. As the BassLink amplifier turns on when it senses a signal. The orange wire to trigger the amplifier is not used here but it could be if needed.
The BassLink enclosure is connected but not mounted as it will be hidden in an enclosure that will be built at a later date.
This view shows how the wiring connecting the amplifier is cleaned up. Note how the wiring from the two passive crossovers to the existing harness are routed using the existing framework above the front of the amplifier. Because we plan on future changes to the system, butt connectors were used. If this was a more permanent installation, we would have soldered all connections, covering them with heat-shrink tubing.
Using the factory-installed speakers, after reconnecting the negative terminal at the battery and power-up the system. If all your connections are correct, all six of the factory speakers (front mid-woofers in each door, the tweeters in the top of the dash, the full-range speakers mounted in the rear doors) will play. Ours did, confirming that all connections were correct.
The biggest improvement in the system’s sound quality will come from the replacement of the front speaker set. We mounted the tweeters to panels made from foam core, using hardware supplied with the speakers in the original factory locations.
After removing the front-door trim panels (watch for that #3 hex screw behind the door handle), the factory speakers with the 6x9 mid-woofers from the Infinity component set are removed. In the case of our system, the lowest frequency of the door-mounted woofer will go will be controlled by the settings on the amplifier. Bass levels can also be controlled by settings in the Joying’s settings menu. (Not shown: the installation of the replacement rear-door follows basically the same procedure.)
The Joying’s screen is removable and with adjustable tabs on the reverse side of its 10.1-inch screen that can be adjusted up or down. In the case of the Grand Cherokee, the tabs were adjusted to the lowest position. This ingenious solution positions the screen to not obstruct the airflow of the registers below the head unit.
Once the system is tested, the head unit is reinstalled in the dash. Here’s what the start screen looks like. Now comes the fun part, exploring and activating all the cool features and apps into the unit. For maximum functionality, you must remember to use your smartphone as a WiFi hotspot. This will allow for the installation of many apps (some shown below) through Google Play, which gives these units a degree of flexibility that is not found on traditional name-brand, non-Android head units.
We were really impressed with the sound processing capabilities of the Joying unit. This is the sound control screen which gives access to the surround sound settings and control over the system’s bass performance. You can literally spend hours tweaking the system’s parameters, and combined with the settings on the new amplifier and subwoofer, it’s possible to rival the sound quality of the best current OEM systems.
Torque App (get the paid version for $4.95, it worth the difference over the free version). Torque accesses real-time vehicle information. This is provided via a Bluetooth transmitter that plugs into the OBD II port in your car. So when your check engine light comes on, you’ll know immediately what is causing the fault code. No need to take it to the dealer or to your mechanic.
While it’s easy to use Google Maps (or the included Sygic app) as your default navigation system, our preference is the Waze app. Besides its great navigation abilities. It warned us of a local speed trap, helping us avoid a potentially expensive speeding ticket. Like many apps, it uses your smartphone as a WiFi hot spot as your data connection some make sure you have a robust data plan.
If you use cable channel content GO apps on your smartphone, you already know how great they are. Here the Fox News GO app is presented and can run in the background when you are using other apps, like navigation. You can also run the SiriusXM app to access the audio of the SiriusXM channels.
The one shortcoming of many of these Android-based systems are the lack of printed installation and user manuals. If you run into issues, go online. Most manufacturers have help forums and YouTube videos will have answers to many questions. But a lot of the fun in having an Android-based system are the endless customization options, through the thousands of apps available.
This system was designed for sound quality, not boom. The functionality of the Joying head unit, especially for an Andriod-based system, was outstanding. One of the trade-offs for the ability to customize the unit is that the menu and icon-driven user interface, is the steep learning curve. This takes a while to get used to compared to a conventional head unit. But once you do, you’re not likely to go back to a traditional head unit.
And the sound quality of the Joying head unit was very good. We found it on a par with name-brand head units in the $300-$500 price class that have a fraction of its capabilities, especially navigation. The pre-amp section driving the replacement Infinity amplifier had sufficient headroom when the amplifier input gains were properly set.
The unit’s surround sound capabilities were excellent and very flexible, allowing you to adjust the size and height of the sound image. But use these adjustments in moderation for the most realistic sound. Otherwise, the results can sound like a reverb effect from the 1960s. And with the way we set up the system, the bass can be adjusted from the touchscreen, once we found the right sub-menu.
From the passenger’s seat, you can see how well the Joying Android 8 head unit integrates into the dashboard of any 1999 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Finally, unlike many Android-based head units, the Joying head unit boots up immediately, probably faster than your smartphone. As all Android head units use your smartphone as a WiFi hot spot, remember to activate this feature before entering your Jeep. For those of you wanting cutting edge infotainment technology in your now vintage 1999–2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Joying head unit, mated with our Infinity amplifier, replacement speakers, and the powered subwoofer upgrade, will bring your ride fully into the 21st century.
bit.ly/JoyingAndroid8 (direct link to featured product)
Metra (source for install information, mounting kits, harnesses)