Moving Pictures

“Punch Buggy, no punch backs!” My arm hurts when I remember the way my sister and I would while away the long hours we endured on family road trips. The object of our favorite game was to be the first to spot any passing VW Beetle. This allowed you to smack the other player as hard as you pleased, without the usual repercussions (e.g., crying to Mom). Still, my sibling and I ended most trips with sore arms, numb butts and near-fatal levels of garden-variety boredom.

Today’s techno-savvy kids can enjoy a far smoother ride thanks to a plethora of onboard entertainment systems. Top-of-the-line setups let one kid watch Shrek while the other plays video games. Want a piece of the action? Vehicular entertainment comes in two price ranges:

Middle of the road

At $500, a portable “video in a bag” system is your most affordable option. You get a basic VCR with a small four-inch viewing screen and a set of speakers, all bundled in a carrying case. Installation is as easy as plugging it in to your vehicle’s 12-volt cigarette lighter.

We have two manufacturers to thank for this automotive innovation: Audiovox, whose Rampage VBP1000 is available at car-stereo dealers and online through sites such as Yahoo! Shopping (; and Steel Horse Automotive, whose Mobile Video Traveler is sold through Canadian Tire. While both cost about the same, Rampage’s system is the better buy for my money. The speakers on the Steel Horse system have such poor sound that headphones are a must for appreciating anything with dialogue.

Top of the line

For a basic video system that remains a permanent fixture in your minivan or SUV, prepare to spend $1,500 or more. Although some dealers offer free installation, you may have to shell out an extra $200 or more to get the system mounted in your vehicle. Individual viewing screens in seat backs cost more to install than a ceiling-mounted monitor.

Your payback for all that money is vivid picture quality that rivals many home systems. You can opt for a DVD system, which also plays music CDs. Some systems read MP3 disks, too. (Just make sure the model you choose has good shock resistance for bumpy rides.)

Audio performance improves in direct relation to how much you spend. Brad Skinner of A&B Sound in Vancouver says, “We can provide the high fidelity usually reserved for big-screen theatres” for customers with $10,000 to invest. His best-value bet, however, is the CLOM-FM from Clarion, which costs only about $1,200.

If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, Ford’s Windstar Limited minivan offers a factory-installed system as a $1,765 option, including VCR, pull-down 6.4-inch monitor, two sets of headphones with extra-long cords, and a Sony PlayStation video console.

General Motors ups the ante in luxury editions of its Pontiac Montana and Chevrolet Venture minivans with a DVD player, seven-inch widescreen monitor, infrared remote (so you don’t have to unbuckle your seat-belt to adjust the volume) and four sets of cordless headphones.

Priced around $40,000, including the video system and leather upholstery (you’ll pay $1,800 to have the system installed in your current vehicle), these theatres-on-wheels may be a bit rich for most parents, but Gus Gaucher at Beamriders Sound & Video in Coquitlam, B.C., predicts prices will plunge in five to eight years.

“When more of us want these devices, you’ll see them become more affordable,” he says.

And what do parents think? My sister, now a minivan owner and mother of two, hasn’t bought an onboard entertainment system yet, but she would consider it.

“Videos are not a substitute for playing games, reading stories or singing songs,” she says. “But I’d really like to take a trip where Snow White or Elmo are helping to provide the entertainment.”

From the March/April 2002 issue.

Subscribe to MoneySense magazine