Nissan has a safer answer for texting while driving: Its Hands-Free Text Messaging Assistant lets you control these communications using voice commands, so you can keep your eyes on the road. The feature is part of NissanConnect, which is free for three years and then costs about $20 per year.
We tested it in the 2015 Nissan Versa Note SR ($13,990 MSRP), just the kind of entry-level car that the text-crazy youth of today might be driving.
My intensely blue car made me think of cartoon Smurfs, texting in Belgian. Hooking up my LG G Flex curved smartphone (running Android) was pretty painless: Just sync up and confirm a pairing code.
To test the texting while driving features, I posted a message on Twitter with my phone number, which is like asking people to send you spam. In about five minutes, a tiny envelope icon appeared on the 5-inch (non-touch) display.
Keeping my eyes focused on the road, I pressed the voice activation button on the steering wheel (it looks like someone's head). I said, "messaging," then, "read text." The car read the incoming message. Simple enough.
To respond, I hit the voice activation button again, said, "reply," and--still without looking at the screen--listened to the options: I could call back, hear the next text, or send back a text message.
I said, "send Text." The car gave me a few canned responses designed to fend off further communication, like, "driving, can't text." I wanted to be a little more friendly, so I pulled over and looked into the custom reply options.
It's a bit wonky. You can only pick a custom message that uses a previously sent text. So, I sent a text from another phone that said, "I'm driving the Smurf car, will call you back," and sent it to myself. Oddly, you have to go to the Bluetooth audio mode and press the Enter/Settings button on the dash to find the custom text replies. I found the setting for Custom Messages and created a new one using my previous message. There's also a way to set an auto-reply for everyone who sends me a text message--it can use the same custom message.
You could set up custom messages for any scenario--running late for a meeting, out for a joy ride, swimming in River Smurf with your other Smurf friends.
Eventually, about six or eight people sent me text messages, and I replied with a few canned responses. In one case, I decided to call the sender back.
One big complaint: The feature does not work with the iPhone. It will work fine with most Android phones (I tried both an LG G Flex and a Samsung Galaxy S5).
Here's the important bit: It is really tempting to look at the display. If you are stopped or parked, you can look at the prompts; however, you can't select anything with any of the buttons. The Versa Note SR will show text messages on the screen only if you're driving below 5 mph.
To avoid looking, it's best to experiment in your driveway and make sure you know exactly how the Nissan Versa Note SR handles texting. Then, you have to force yourself to listen and respond only by voice.
Setting some of the options for the Hands-Free Text Messaging Assistant was a bit confusing. Still, it took less than a week to become a skilled, non-distracted texter. I anticipated the voice prompts and hit the voice activation button once, then again to issue my command quickly. When I noticed the tiny envelope in the touchscreen before driving off, I was able to listen to my text messages and make better, safer use of my commute time.