5 frustrating car infotainment interfaces

2013 BMW 3-Series fitted with M Performance accessories2013 BMW 3-Series fitted with M Performance accessories

BMW iDrive

BMW could have changed course after its once much-maligned iDrive was introduced more than a decade ago on the 7-Series. But BMW stuck with it, and several iterations later it’s much-improved.

That said, iDrive still requires a steep learning curve, and for those who are first getting into a car with without having first watched a video on it, gotten a presentation, or perused an owner’s manual, it’s hardly straightforward. At the same time, others of us appreciate how the core interface of iDrive—involving first pushing the knob in a particular direction, then twisting it (with haptic feedback) to navigate the menus, hasn’t changed in many years. If you’ve learned it once, it’s familiar across their models.

Even on recent versions of iDrive, voice commands are limited while there’s still no physical way to shortcut the knob interface and hard keys.

Curiously—and against the very reason for its existence in the first place—BMW, in order to make iDrive more functional, has actually brought some buttons back.

Mercedes-Benz C250 CoupeMercedes-Benz C250 Coupe

Mercedes-Benz COMAND

Mercedes-Benz starts with a simple rotary or toggle controls for its so-called COMAND in-dash system. But almost anyone who’s used a smartphone or tablet will find that the menu system here is a confusing mess at times. Main menus appear up high, with submenus down low (sometimes additional options appear to the left or right); the screen doesn’t allow touch; and using voice controls to their best requires you to pre-record yourself saying a long set of commands. Some things like navigation place-name entry and phone pairing are more complicated than they need to be, too.

“COMAND is the worst interface of the modern crew, but one of the easiest to actually use,” summed one of our editors, who noted that despite its odd, unintuitive organization, nothing is more than a couple of levels deep in the menu structure.

Lexus ES350Lexus ES350

Lexus Remote Touch

We’re conflicted about this one, honestly. Perhaps in a nod to the older crowd that tends to consider the brand, Lexus has set up its Remote Touch system to be about as close to a simplified desktop computer as you’ll find in a car. The screen uses a simple, understandable menu system, nice large fonts and boxes, and takes advantage of color. And several of our editorial team do appreciate how the system has haptic feedback, allowing you to feel a little pull (or click) as you go from one screen option or area to another. Yet several of us see this system as one of the most frustrating of all, because even after you ‘learn’ the system you still need to keep an eye on the screen—and off the road—whenever making a selection.

Audi A8 audio systemAudi A8 audio system

Audi MMI

An editor called the latest iteration of Audi’s Multi-Media Controller (MMI), now used throughout much of the lineup, “half-brilliant, half-assed,” and much of our staff agrees. While we love the beautiful, very functional Google Earth maps and wide-screen displays, and the very cool scratch pad that lets you trace out letters for destination input, we find the structure of its menus—and how there aren’t just easy, ever-present shortcuts, presets, or bookmarks for frequent tasks—frustrating once you get to use the system more.

“The Germans, as a group, have decided we’re too dumb for touchscreens,” commented another editor. “There’s physically no way to shortcut the knob interface and hard keys.”

2014 Mazda6 interface2014 Mazda6 interface

Mazda TomTom Navigation

In an affordable car, the new Mazda system was the most frustrating system of any we’ve recently encountered. The top-level infotainment system in the new 2014 Mazda6 and CX-5 pairs TomTom navigation with integration for hands-free calling, media and satellite radio, and even Pandora music integration, provided you’ve installed the app on an iPhone or other approved handset. But maps and menus are laggy, voice controls are extremely limited, and the central-console controller, while it looks great, ends up feeling like an underdelivering iDrive knockoff.

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31 thoughts on “5 frustrating car infotainment interfaces

  1. Call me weird, but I prefer not to have a GPS tracking unit that Uncle Sam can track me down whenever he wants in my vehicle..

  2. If you don’t commit any crimes then there is nothing to worry about why would Uncle Sam is going to bother a good hardworking citizen.

  3. Throw away your cellphone, your computer, and anything else that can connect to the internet. Then go live out in the woods in the middle of nowhere for the rest of your life if you are worried about Uncle Sam finding you.

  4. “If you don’t commit any crimes then there is nothing to worry about why would Uncle Sam is going to bother a good hardworking citizen.”
    Ignorance like that is what causes a civilization to lose it’s freedom.

  5. because once the milage tax goes into effect they’ll know exactly how much to tax you. (it’s being discussed more frequently with more efficient and electric cars reducing gas tax profits.)

  6. I’ll take my chances on getting carjacked. When you have a 100% chance of having your every action monitored compared to a .000000000000001% chance of it actually benefiting your safety… YOU ARE A DAMN FOOL to sacrifice freedom for safety.

  7. I was just having a little pleasantry at your expense… I didn’t mean to upset you, I thought my sarcasm was more transparent then that

  8. Why can’t I get a car with a built in toilet seat? That’s what I really need when stuck in traffic. Work on that BMW!! Call it I-wipe or something.

  9. As someone who had to use a soda bottle once while stuck in DC traffic, I’m all for this one. Could help with getting people off your tail, too.

  10. It’s been tried, it was called a yugo (you-go), but it turned out to be more of a single use disposable diaper.

  11. I’m not sure who these car companies use as focus groups, but I could guarantee that if an auto manufacturer would come out with an inexpensive, plain – jane car, with no extras, It will sell like hotcakes. I would pile the miles on it during the week, and save the weekend for the “cool wheels”.

  12. As long as it was offered at a cheap price. Car prices keep going up because manufacturers keep putting in features as standard and raising the price to cover the cost of those features. Remember when electric windows were an optional luxury?

  13. chevy, couldn’t agree more. that’s how Hyundai and kia became as big as they are now. those two used to be the butt of everone’s jokes 10 years ago, now Hyundai sells a $90,000 car.

  14. It is now cheaper to do a complete frame-off restoration on any 25 yr. old car or p/u, convert to 4-wheel disc brakes, new engine, tranny, driveshaft, axle, upgrade to modern headlights, upgrade to modern suspension, steering, customize interior to whatever, than to buy new cars, and especially, pickups. Not to mention cheaper property tax, ins. premiums, and repair, maintenance costs.

  15. you could do all of that, but no one will give you a bumper to bumper warranty, or auto loan financing to do all of that work. Not to mention the time involved. Sounds like quite a project for a college student needing a reliable ride. I’ll bet that if you adjust for inflation an average sedan isn’t much more than it used to be

  16. @Chevy: Mechanical simplicity would be good also, but I guess that’s part of the “extras”. I’m too young to know, but I’m told there was a time when you could pull over to the side of the road and fix the car yourself if it have a problem.

  17. I don’t know; a few years ago, I bought a bare-bones new Corolla for 16k. It has none of that fancy stuff mentioned but it did have cruise control, alloy wheels and a modern engine. Computers are good for vehicle longevity, reliability and safety, but it’s only when they get into the entertainment realm in the car that it goes too far

  18. i have to agree, i love my little 95 geo prizm. i get about 35 mpg city, i have no power anything, i do have AC and a radio but not much else. if i need gps i bring the portable one with me, or plug in my mp3 player to the radio. there is nothing complicated about the car at all. when you start integrating all this computer #$%$ into the car it just becomes to much of a distraction for most people to use safely.

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