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The Truth About OnStar

We all have heard of OnStar. Most automotive consumers are aware of what the company offers users and subscribers via the endless number of television commercials produced over the years. They range from humorous Tiger Woods examples to the more serious “We’ve-been-in-an-accident” spots.

I’m going to try not to bore readers a great deal on the specifics of OnStar. What I want to talk about is if this concept really works.

What Is OnStar?

OnStar came into inception in 1996 on higher-end General Motors vehicles and offered drivers hands-free communication as well as an innovative safety device in case the inevitable happens. Today, OnStar has over five million subscribers, is offered in over 50 different GM vehicles, and offers a vast array of options.

How OnStar works is, simply, the system utilizes both Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) as well as wireless phone technology to locate your vehicle wherever you may be and help you receive anything from turn-by-turn directions to vehicle diagnostics to emergency services in case the vehicle has been in an accident.

What Does OnStar Offer?

Surprisingly, a lot. Press the middle blue button located below the rearview mirror and the voice of a human person (not an automated machine) comes through the speakers and assists you with anything you may need, depending on your plan.

Directions to Grandma’s? No problem. Traveling and need to make overnight accommodations? OnStar can help you. Engine not running smoothly? OnStar can let you know what is wrong with the vehicle and direct you to the nearest dealership.

The system can even unlock your doors if the keys become locked in the vehicle as well as beep the horn if you forget where the vehicle is located. (If subscribed to both OnStar and XM satellite radio, users can access live traffic and weather updates for the city they are located in.)

Additionally, the button with the red cross offers emergency assistance if you are in an accident or need any sort of police/medical assistance. If the vehicle is in a severe accident where the airbags go off, OnStar will automatically call emergency services as well as call you to check on the occupants of the vehicle. If you are the unfortunate victim of car theft, OnStar can track the vehicle and can slow the vehicle down.

Onstar gauges

Finally, the button on the left controls your hands-free phone. If you so desire, the car’s cellular device can be added on to your Verizon Wireless cell phone plan and use the car’s system instead of trying to drive while trying to hold that little glowing piece of plastic to your face (i.e. much safer). (You may also purchase minutes directly from OnStar as well.)

What Does OnStar Cost?

According to OnStar, you can opt for a few different options. For $19.99 per month ($200/year), subscribers have access to all the safety communication features as well as navigation, vehicle unlock and Roadside Assistance. This is called the Protection Plan.

For an additional $5 a month ($24.99/month; $250/year), users can access everything listed above as well as Stolen Vehicle Assistance.

If you want OnStar’s turn-by-turn directions and their concierge service called AtYourService which allows subscribers to find the nearest hotels and have them book it for you, get tickets to an event, or check your mutual fund prices on the New York Stock Exchange, you’ll need to fork up $34.99/month ($350/year).

Please note, pricing is accurate as I write this article.

Is OnStar Worth It?

I have had a lot of time to mull this over, and gave the system a thorough test-drive while I was behind the wheel of Automoblog’s 2009 GMC Acadia test vehicle, and I have come to the conclusion that yes, OnStar is a worthy system, but there are some aspects which give me pause.

There are a lot of positives to using OnStar. For one, is so simple to operate. Instead of fumbling around with a GPS system, you simply press a button and let someone else do the work. You still have all the convenience of an everyday system, but it is much easier and much simpler to operate.

This is especially critical when you are traveling at highway speeds, where taking your eyes off the road for a split second to fumble with a navigation system, read a newspaper, dial a phone, etc. can lead to an unplanned disaster.

Onstar mirror button

Speaking of safety, the Emergency Services offered should make OnStar important enough to subscribe. Having the comfort to know that if you are involved in an accident, help will be sent whether you call for it or not.

In addition, if the car is stolen, OnStar can help you stop the perpetrators from getting away with your vehicle and get it back safely. That would certainly help lower car thefts as well as keep insurance premiums low.

Finally, in today’s world of email, text messages, and other forms of low human interaction, it is reassuring to know when pressing the blue button, there is an actual living, breathing person on the other end.

I actually enjoyed the idea of knowing that with one press of a button, someone will be there to help me with whatever I may need. No computers to type to, no automated voices with hundreds of sub-menus to go through.

OnStar graph

Don’t let these positives ensue this system in perfect. There are a few minor problems as well as one gaping issue.

First, the price. For a one-year subscription with OnStar, subscribers could purchase themselves a very nice, portable GPS unit, filled with hundreds of thousands of bits of information and technology which is displayed on a crisp color screen instead of on the tiny radio display. It’s not exactly what I would call affordable.

Also, there will be times when the tedious effort of dealing with voice-activated menus. For example, using the telephone feature requires the user to say the number or the pre-stored name, confirm the number/name, and then again confirm to call. And it’s the same if the driver wants to find out the traffic reports.

OnStar Reviews

The really big issue with OnStar comes from a worry about “Big Brother”. Many speculate that OnStar and GM can use the ability to know where your car is and where you are traveling to calculate data on speed and driving characteristics, which can be used by police and automobile insurance companies to issue fines and increase premiums, depending on the situation.

Back in 2008, GM’s financial branch GMAC announced it uses data received by OnStar which allows drivers to receive a discount on their GMAC insurance. What occurs is the driver signs up for the program, where they will receive an 11 percent discount.

Then, a monthly statement is forwarded to GMAC with a mileage calculation. The fewer miles you drive, the bigger your discount is, according to a General Motors press release. To some, this may be a great way to save money. Others see it as another way to pry.

Other OnStar reviews online show a huge problem with their billing practices and terrible customer service. If you read some of the comments on this article, you’ll see exactly how polarized this issue is.

Many customers are getting charged automatically for services they didn’t sign up for, or are accusing OnStar of not cancelling their service when they tried to cancel, even multiple times. Multiple customers have even claimed that they started being charged for their service without even providing a credit card number!

Like everything else in this world, nothing is perfect. There are always going to be concessions. How many, and how large, of a concession are people willing to take for a service that, in theory, works?

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  1. Dear Jake

    Next time your driving with the radio cranked, hopefully you will be able to hear the Fire Truck or Police car racing to help someone. If a person talking to you causes you too near crash, maybe you should take some driving lessons as you dont sound that safe on the road. Hopefully when you get in that crash the other car will have onstar so they can send rescue people to help save both of you. And dear sir, take a chill pill!

      1. They can kiss mine too! Just a big scam. I wouldn’t suggest OnStar to my worst enemy. I can’t believe how many of us they have fooled. It’s just a matter of time before they go they Go to 8 track heaven…They have lied to me taken my money made un kept promises . Karma will prevail. Mark my words!!

    1. The Onstar volume is independent of the radio volume – having music cranked will not make the Onstar too loud.

  2. If you want to disable it pickups remove trim around cluster and radio remove the cluster and take out the onstar box it will say motorola on the black box did it to mine (2004 silverado)

  3. Not a fan of On-Star, it was hit or miss with using the turn by turn. Sometimes they just could not find the location I needed when my trusty Tom Tom could…. And the phone service is a definitely a rip off!

  4.    I have a 2005 Buick LeSabre with On-Star. I did not want On-Star but an end of the year savings of over $8,000 on the car did sway me. I really have no use o interest in On-Star, but when it was operational I tried it in some locations that I knew cell service was poor. I found that I could drive ten miles from my house and On-Star was useless because the mountains cut off the cell signal. I live in Montana, and I can guarantee you that there are many places within the state that have no cell service. I tried it in numerous other areas of the state and again, On-star was useless. I knowa number of other people with On-Star up here and really nobody really wanted it. Only one out o over 40 people I talked to ever really needed it, and it ended up that again, where they were, On-Star was again useless.
       I ahve been buying Gm cars and trucks since I bought my new ’65 Corvette, and so long as I as I have no choice about On-Star, I will never buy another GM car. I sure can’t see paying for something that I don’t want. Others I know have the same feeling. I wonder how many sales GM is loosing over this ?

    1. Onstar only adds $85 to the cost of the vehicle (based on credit for fleet vehicles with Onstar delete). I understand not wanting to pay for something you won’t use – but it is only $85. There are other things on GM and other manufacturers vehicles that you don’t use and pay for. If you get a good deal on a vehicle you like – I wouldn’t think this cost would be a big issue.

  5. I had a 6mo free subscription with my new Canyon.. When it was activated, I was asked about minutes. I have a cellphone that I rarely use, and it currently has about 400.00 of unused time. However, I bought 60 minutes for 10 bucks just in case I needed it sometime.. At 5.5 months into the service, I got the email that told me my minutes were low and I only had 58 left.. ha.. In almost 6 months I used 2 minutes of cell time. I had previously asked them to remove the credit card info they had, and they did. When the free 6 mo. was up, and they wanted me to renew, I told them that I had never needed the system during the period, I had a bluetooth phone that worked well with the truck, a Garmin on the dashboard, and the truck info system kept track of oil change time and other required service, as well as 5 years of free roadside assistance, and seeing they do not offer the emergency response as a stand-alone feature, I could not think of a single reason to keep it. If the truck is upside down or on it’s side in a ditch the Onstar won’t work anyway. I wonder, if you have a accident, and push the blue button to ask for help, and they refuse because your subscription has expired, could you make a fortune on the lawsuit? ;=)

  6. I just bought a new Chevy and it came with Onstar free for 6 months. I got a come-on for 60 minutes cell phone minutes for $5 or $10 so I gave them my credit card number. They read the script but I don’t remember hearing anything about allowing them to auto-renew Onstar just because I gave them my card number. I came across this site, checked the on-star web site and sure enough they had me on auto-renew. There’s no way to ‘unsubscribe’ from the web site, either, so I had to call them.

    I hate companies that think I have SUCKER written on my forehead. The script they read probably legally covers their behinds, but it’s phrased to mislead you into thinking it’s only on-file and nothing more. This is very dishonest and I will NEVER subscribe to this service, even if they lower the cost to $5 a month.

    Large corporations are NOT your friends.

    1. I ‘Specifically’ told them that my card number was for buying these minutes only, this ONE time, and still they put my card on Auto renew.. Just push the Blue Button, and TELL them to remove your card, or you will do a chargeback on any future illegal pillaging of your card.

    2. Yeah, that’s really sh-tty of them – I hope your comments help at least one person avoid this. Thanks so much for sharing

  7. I’ve found that in order to acquire turn-by-turn navigation, you must “HOLD” for nearly 10 to 15 minutes to tell them your destination… that’s ridiculous… I could guess my way in that amount of time… I’ll use it while it’s free, they can have it back when it’s done. They never got a card number from me – I’m no fool!

  8. I bought a used 2007 chevy silverado this past fall and the truck came with 3 free months of onstar. The salesman warned me not to give them my credit card number or they would automatically bill me

  9. Is there a simple way to unplug onstar on 2007 hummer h3? Satellite radio fuse, etc?

  10. If payment for plan stops, and the car is involed in a major accident does the Onstar still notify police of accident?

    1. No, it does not. My boss’s truck was recently stolen and the cops could not activate the recovery feature because he had not activated the service.

  11. Onstar Stinks. I’ve had 2 car with it & I HATE it. As long as GM builds Onstar into most of their cars then I’m buying Fords instead.

  12. I bought a new Chevy truck recently and it came with Onstar. It’s a nice gadget, but I’m not going to shell out $20 a month or whatever the fee is, mainly for going back and forth to work and running errands around town.

  13. A rep for onstar told me yesterday, that if I didn't renew with her, they would just charge me monthly on my credit card anyhow and that I couldn't opt out because it was a safety feature. I told them to kill the stupid onstar and I'll sell the lousy truck – (btw, my friend who bought his identical truck, the exact same day, had an electrical short and the stupid thing caught fire and burned from electrical problems (with less than 11k) and ours makes strange noises already and is barely 2 years old). The onstar directions are only right about 1/2 the time. we spent more time repeating town/street names than getting directions – sometimes it may take 5 tries to get the name of a street or town right and NO I don't stutter, stammer, or have any other speech impediments. OnStar is not worth the price or the headaches or the spying.

    1. Hi Valorie, thanks for the report, and sorry for all the problems you’re having. Needless to say, your next truck won’t be OnStar-equipped!

  14. I have had NO ISSUES with OnStar.. Maybe it’s those people that are talking bad about it, don’t know how to properly use it or tell the person the correct address that they need to get to. And as far as electrical issues with an automobile, every automaker has issues. In addition, if you purchased your vehicle used, you never know what was done to “rig” it up by the previous owner or dealership that sold it. I used to work for an auto auction & I have seen it ALL!! Simple repairs that could have been made, but poeple chose to rig up something to save money causing other problems to happen to the vehicle… There is also something called “Lemon Law” for new vehicles still under warranty. You would likely get a new vehicle if the manufacturer was at fault for something like an electrical wiring fire. Just an FYI.

  15. Is OnStar FMV (For my Vehicle) worth it? Starting to seriously wonder. I pay the same for FMV as regular Onstar, yet I don’t get: to review the route on the radio; ability to disable car if it is stolen; ability to open the car if locked out, or start it; the emails indicating status of the car like oil, air pressure; the only thing I get is turn-by-turn.

  16. my 2004 vehicle in the EU has a radio that even when shut off activates (or diverts from current programming) to announce traffic alerts ahead including inclement weather conditions like fog, icy roads, etc. as well as accidents & blockages… it works like a charm & is free… gps devices in the EU are bi-directional enabled so you can press an alert button (if yours is so equipped) which transmits to the GPS system about dangerous conditions …free …I have no seen on-star like devices in the EU, but cellular & gps fully integrated into the car, yes…

  17. Can one buy a new pick up these days without having the dealer activate the OnStar and the Sirius? I’m thinking of getting a new truck next year but not if they have to activate either of those money wasters.

  18. I am a multi-year subscriber. In 2012 my wife and I drove an extended vacation from Oklahoma City out to Seattle via Mount Rushmore. A long journey to say the least. The very first day we had a blowout while in a rural area of NW Kansas. We discover that we’re missing part of the tool that allows us to lower the spare tire. We tried to call AAA with our AT&T cellphones with no luck. No Service. My wife says “Why not use OnStar? Long story short after pushing the blue button we get emergency service operator immediately. After about an hour (we were 90 miles from the nearest service provider) we were on our way again. I’m a Fan!

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