Last updated on July 4th, 2021 at 10:15 am

Upgrading the factory stereo in most modern vehicles can be complicated. Many vehicles integrate features into the factory touchscreen head unit, including climate controls and factory backup cameras.

Replacing the factory stereo with a high-powered aftermarket unit is more difficult on these vehicles than simply finding a stereo that fits. Upgrading the stereo can cause the steering wheel buttons to stop working and may leave the owner without the factory integrated climate controls. Factory navigation systems often don’t work, and many other features may be affected.

To retain all the factory goodies and upgrade the stereo, aftermarket solutions are available for many makes and models. Absent aftermarket options, many solutions can be custom-built.

Where to Begin

There is no question that upgrading a modern factory stereo to an aftermarket head unit is more complex than decades past. The technology available today is vastly superior to those old head units. But with the advanced tech comes advanced installation.

The first thing to do is identify what equipment your car currently has. This means noting things like steering wheel controls, make and model of factory head unit, factory-installed AI programs, and the numerous features accessible through the factory system. When your vehicle has steering wheel controls or climate control functions on your touchscreen, you will need to take steps to keep these functions working.

Armed with this information, the DIYer can figure out what accessory cables will be necessary to retain the components that are important.

It is often easier to pick a head unit based on the availability of accessory plugs rather than pick a unit then figure how to get various features working. Crutchfield is an excellent place to begin searching for the head unit that fits your needs.

Do not attempt to install an aftermarket stereo in a modern car without access to high-quality wiring diagrams. A repair manual that details the interior and wiring will be of immense help.

Fortunately, many major aftermarket manufacturers offer outstanding head units that are compatible with accessory plugs made by companies like iDatalink. Using the available connecting plugs and rewiring can provide full factory-type access with the benefit of a superior stereo.

Common Solutions

Adapting factory controls to an aftermarket stereo may require significant disassembly of interior trim, but many companies produce vehicle-specific solutions.

Steering Wheel Control

Many of the most popular cars today have integrated buttons on the steering wheel for control of the stereo. In almost every scenario, an adapter harness will be required to allow the factory steering wheel functions to work with an aftermarket stereo head unit.

A popular solution is produced by Axxess Integrate. Axxess offers a steering wheel control adapter that is programmable. Installation is simple -power, ground, and one or two wire connections depending on the make and model of your vehicle.

Backup Camera

One of the most important safety features all new cars today have is a camera to aid in backing up. Unfortunately, adding an aftermarket stereo will often mean that the factory backup camera no longer works without an adapter harness.

Metra Electronics builds vehicle-specific adapter harnesses to link a factory backup camera to an aftermarket head unit. This allows for full functionality of the camera. The Metra backup camera adapter is a simple to install wiring harness that converts the factory signal to the aftermarket receiver.

Without an adapter, most factory backup camera systems cannot be used with many aftermarket head units.

Climate Control

The built-in functions for the climate control -also called the CCU- are frequently lost when drivers upgrade from a factory head unit to one of the amazing aftermarket stereos. For some cars, this is a deal breaker -who wants to listen to an awesome stereo on a 103 degree day without AC?

The iDatalink Maestro RR2 is the latest kit that enables climate control functions on an aftermarket head unit. This kit can be used to retrofit 3,074 models produced by 29 manufacturers. The advanced tuning capabilities of the Maestro RR2 make it one of the easiest solutions on the market. iDatalink products work with specific head units from Kenwood, Sony, Alpine, and JVC.

iDatalink provides vehicle-specific and product-specific installation guides online, including full color wiring diagrams to ease installation. A troubleshooting guide helps trim down possible problems, while an available support line is also there for help.

Navigation

Most often, factory-included navigation features will not be supported by an aftermarket head unit. For some drivers, keeping factory navigation is essential. For these drivers, it will be necessary to install an adapter harness.

Crutchfield is the way to go when you want to retain your factory navigation with an aftermarket head unit. A variety of companies produce vehicle-specific harness adapters, and the folks at Crutchfield can help you figure out what you will need. Frequently, iDatalink products or adapters from Axxess are designed to wok with your vehicle.

In most cases, aftermarket head units that are intended to replace a factory touchscreen system can utilize a variety of navigational apps, like Google Maps, Waze, or Apple Maps. Many drivers find these apps to be superior to factory navigation systems.

Fitting Aftermarket Solutions

Most cars and trucks these days use odd-shaped factory components. Conspiracy theories abound that this is a ploy to entice new car buyers to get the best factory option available. Whether that is true is unproven, but what has been proven is that when it comes to custom car accessories, the aftermarket will create a solution.

One of the best companies providing installation solutions is Scosche. The company produces dash kits for hundreds of vehicles that allow the installation of single-din and double-din aftermarket stereos in a factory dash.

Scosche kits can simplify the installation process significantly. The factory-quality dash kits and integrated brackets provide as close to factory-original appearance as possible. The company even produces integrated touchscreen kits that allow for the retention of climate controls in vehicles that otherwise would lose that functionality.

Picking A Head Unit

Aftermarket head units today are simply amazing. Many can connect wirelessly to your smartphone and provide voice control of tasks from getting directions to sending text messages all without physical contact. In theory, these systems can reduce driver distraction and provide a safer environment without losing connectivity to our daily lives.

A well designed system is one that can be operated easily and comfortably without unnecessary attention from the driver. It should perform all the necessary functions as the factory intended, but provide a better listening environment.

Single-din and double-din aftermarket head units from Kenwood, JVC, Sony, and Pioneer include built-in connectivity to iDatalink products on specific units. These units are often the easiest to install in complex cars where factory climate controls and other features must be adapted to the aftermarket unit.

Cost of Upgrading

Upgrading an integrated factory stereo to an aftermarket system is not a cheap endeavor, and DIYers should be suspicious of excessively cheap components.

Plan on spending in the ballpark of $300 and up for an aftermarket head unit that suits your needs. The iDatalink Maestro RR2 runs around $149.99. The Axxess steering wheel control adapter starts at around $15. Also starting in the $15 range is the adapter for the backup camera. A dash kit from Scosche can run from around $20 for a simple solution to more than $300 for complex solutions. Other adapters may be required for vehicle-specific issues.

Conclusion

Some vehicles are much easier to install aftermarket stereos into, but more complex installations are not impossible. Identifying the particular components needed may seem daunting at first. Companies such as iDatalink, Scosche, and Crutchfield go a long way to making the process smoother. Today’s vehicles can benefit from the amazing technology on the aftermarket, but DIYers should carefully plan each step of the process to avoid frustration when factory components don’t work after an upgrade.