Motorola MA1 wireless adapter review

Motorola MA1 Wireless Car Adapter: a fiddly but helpful Android Auto enabler (review)

Setting up Android Auto in an older car – juggling USB cables, your phone, and messing with menus under menus on the car’s entertainment system – can be a pain. However, once you get it working, it provides a massive improvement across all but the very fanciest of factory-fitted AV interfaces, something the Motorola MA1 wireless car adapter enables.

For lucky owners of very new cars, wireless Android Auto is becoming more common, and if nothing else this highlights what a pain the wired system actually is. Fortunately, Motorola’s stop-gap solution comes in handy.

What does the Motorola MA1 wireless car adapter do?

The adapter is a compelling, if basic, upgrade for your ride. It’s in the spirit of those long-ago tape adapters: think the plastic cassette attached to an aux cable that goes into the player, and connects to your CD Walkman for instant digital music in your early 1980s station wagon!

Motorola MA1 wireless car adapter review product

Thankfully, the MA1 is a lot better than that, with no noticeable drop in audio quality, or responsiveness of the interface, but the awkward cable and weird dongle thing remain.

Motorola MA1 wireless car adapter first impressions

Plug the dongle into a USB port and perform a somewhat arcane first-time setup ritual and your phone’s Android Auto app connects wirelessly, and automatically, each time you fire up the beast. By which I mean the car.

Of course, this assumes you have wireless support enabled on the phone, and 5GHz Wi-Fi, and Android 11 or later, and… well, what I’m saying is that the ease of use of this thing depends on more than a few factors.

Design and ergonomics

The Motorola MA1 wireless adapter takes the form of a matchbox-sized lozenge with a fixed USB cable. Also in the box is a double-sided sticky pad that allows you to attach the lozenge to a surface that’s a little more out of the way – the practicability of this will depend on your car.

I tested with a 2018 Ford Ranger and a Pixel 7 Pro. The Ranger has two USB ports below the AC controls in the front console, and the space is somewhat cramped for today’s larger smartphones. The MA1’s fixed USB cable is quite stiff, which bodes well for durability (a wonky USB cable plays havoc with wired Android Auto) but it’s too short to mount the dongle outside the little cubby where the USB ports are, and slightly too long to mount it neatly inside. Such is the Ford life – other cars will have an easier time of it.

Apart from this niggle, the MA1 pretty much disappears once you have it stowed away nicely. An LED on the front glows green when the phone is connected, but apart from this, you never need look at the thing again after you set it up.

Setup (a test of logic and patience)

Since I’ve been using Android Auto on this car for a year or so (and recently connected the new Pixel 7 pro) my phone was already “paired” with the car, in Android Auto’s somewhat inscrutable sense of the term.

This let me skip the first step in the instructions provided in a hidden compartment in the MA1’s box. You first need to get Android Auto working in your car via a USB cable and the phone alone, then, while the car’s ignition is on and Android Auto showing on the display, quickly pull the USB cable out and plug the MA1 into the same USB port.

Nothing will happen, because then you need to pair the MA1 with your phone, not via Wi-Fi (despite the requirement for 5GHz Wi-Fi and the MA1 creating a Wi-Fi network that will show up in your phone’s Wi-Fi list) but rather by Bluetooth.

After 15-30 seconds, Android Auto will then reappear on your car’s display and you can use it as normal.

Motorola MA1 displaying Android apps in car
The Motorola MA1 device connects to your Android phone wirelessly to display apps on your car display.

If you get this right the first time, congratulations, it means you’re some kind of gadget whisperer. There’s plenty that can go wrong. In my case, it was failing to check that the Android Auto wireless option was enabled on the Pixel 7 Pro (easily fixed) and stopping Ford Sync 3 from “stealing” the Bluetooth connection from the MA1 and connecting to the phone in regular calls/audio mode (fixed via unpairing the phone from the car).

Your mileage will almost certainly vary because Android Auto wireless is a complex dance with secret handshakes and other protocol shenanigans, that works absolutely perfectly as long as the combination of car and phone isn’t one where it… uh… doesn’t.

Motorola MA1 wireless car adapter performance

The good news is that once you have the MA1 set up properly, Android Auto suddenly becomes a lot easier to use. Some users report that it takes longer for the phone to auto-connect to the car each time you turn on the ignition, but in the case of the 2018 Ford Range / Pixel 7 Pro combo, I found the opposite – Android Auto comes up in just a few seconds.

Audio quality is not detectably different from wired mode, and everything moves and responds with Android Auto’s typical buttery smoothness, especially maps.

The “Hey Google” functionality works perfectly well, though as with wired mode, you need to wait a moment for the interface to show the phone is listening before you start speaking – overall it’s somewhat slower than using the phone directly.

Fiddles and niggles (an Android Auto tradition)

Android Auto remains something of a dancing bear – it’s not amazing that the system works well, it’s amazing that it works at all. After all, you can pair almost any Android phone with any compatible car AV system and get Android right there, on the car’s display! Amazing!

Perhaps, but it’s also fiddly and often frustrating. Wireless adds in a whole extra layer of potential hair-pulling aggravation, especially – at least in Ford Sync 3’s case – if you have multiple phones paired with the car, and the Android Auto you’re trying to use is on the second or third phone in the pair list.

The main glitch we still encounter is that the car will prioritise my wife’s Pixel 5 regular Bluetooth connection over my Pixel 7 Pro, and it takes way too many swipes and taps to disconnect her phone and reconnect mine via Android Auto.

The car also occasionally insists on using its own audio source (AM radio by default, shudder) even while showing Android Auto on the display playing YouTube music or a podcast. This is fixed by going back to the Ford Sync 3 interface and choosing Android Auto as the audio source.

Motorola MA1 wireless USB car adapter for Android Auto

And the final pain is when the Pixel 7 Pro is in range of the car, but not actually going along for the ride. The phone may connect, then as the car drives off, the connection will drop and the phone will show “looking for Android Auto” in the notifications panel until I cycle Bluetooth on and off. USB charging the phone on a long trip will depend on your car too – if all your USB ports are Android Auto compatible (some cars have a non-compatible port), the phone may ignore the MA1 and just connect via USB. Not that this is a problem, though it’s kind of annoying to think of the MA1 using up a USB port to do nothing… you can always yank its cable of course, but will it then work seamlessly when you plug it in next time? Adventure awaits!

GadgetGuy’s take

All of these niggles are just par for the course when it comes to living with these complex wireless systems that Google tries to make simple by combining multiple protocols (Bluetooth and an invisible 5GHz Wi-Fi connection) and automating everything.

Wireless Android Auto is, overall, much more convenient and easy to live with than USB-wired mode. Not least because it’s a rare USB cable that won’t degrade over time and eventually become super-sensitive to jostles and knocks – this disconnects Android Auto briefly and, worst of all, interrupts your tunes, you have to scrabble for the phone to jiggle the cable, you get distracted, you crash and die.

Wireless definitely solves this problem, but living with it will require at least some measure of zen, especially if you have more than one phone paired with the car via Bluetooth.

Finally, the price. The official RRP of $159 is tricky since it’s just high enough to keep the MA1 from being a “why not” purchase. Especially since as soon as you get that new car with Android Auto wireless built-in, the MA1 goes into the very bottommost of your bottom drawers, alongside that ancient FM transmitter and even more ancient tape adapter from the 1990s.

Motorola MA1 wireless car adapter for Android Auto
Once you get it working, the Motorola MA1 wireless car adapter is a good way to enable Android Auto with older cars.
Value for money
Ease of use
Brings wireless Android Auto to cars that only support wired mode
Compact size, and the included sticky pad lets you secure it out of the way
Quick start up… with the right phone and car combo
No annoying dropouts if you jostle the phone
Can charge phone on a separate USB cable… again depending on car
Price just a little too high to make it a no-brainer purchase
Set up may confound those who struggle with fiddly tech
Takes up a USB port, which may or may not be a big deal depending on your car
Smooth operation depends on which phone and car you are pairing
Instantly obsolete the day you upgrade to a car with wireless Android Auto