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 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 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.
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.”
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.