The best and worst car infotainment systems
We put 20 cars’ infotainment systems and air-con controls to the test to see how distracting they are for drivers to operate on the move.....
The number of collisions caused by driver distraction is rising each year.
The number of collisions caused by driver distraction is rising each year. It accounted for 15% of accidents in 2018, compared with 13% in 2016 and 14% in 2017, according to Department for Transport data. And when you focus on fatal collisions, distraction of some sort contributes to 25% of incidents.
Against this backdrop, the safety of in-car touchscreens has been questioned by safety campaigners, while Highways England has also raised concerns about the use of them. You operate them in a similar way to smartphones, yet nothing has been done to restrict the use of them while driving.
So, should we be worried that most car makers have swapped traditional dashboard controls and infotainment systems with buttons for touchscreens over the past five years? While digital instrument panels can be a boon because they allow a wider range of information to be displayed directly in front of the driver, the same can’t be said for touchscreens, which are generally more fiddly and time-consuming to use on the move.
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"Eight times as long..."
To find out just how distracted a driver can become while performing six common tasks, we filmed two people driving 20 different car models that encompass the majority of the different types of infotainment systems and dashboard layouts on offer. Our results only relate to the specific system tested, because more and less sophisticated systems are often available with different trim levels of the same model, or as optional extras.
We analysed the footage of our two drivers – both of whom were familiar with each system – doing each task to see how long each spent looking at dials or a touchscreen. Our results reveal that it can take more than twice as long to adjust the heater fan in a car with this function on a touchscreen rather than a dial or physical switch. It can also take more than four times as long to zoom out on a sat-nav map and eight times as long to scroll down a list of radio stations.
So, here we take a look at the most and least distracting infotainment systems currently available:
1: Turn up the temperature by 2deg.
2: Increase the fan speed by two settings.
3: With a 20-mile route programmed into the sat-nav and the infotainment screen on the home page, go to the map screen and zoom out to see the entire route.
4: Cancel route guidance.
5: With the radio tuned to Virgin Radio DAB and the infotainment screen on the home page, go to the main list of DAB stations and switch to BBC Radio 4.
6: Using the voice control button on the steering wheel (where fitted), ask the car to find the nearest service station.
Most distracting car infotainment systems:
20: MG ZS EV with 8.0in touchscreen
While the ZS finishes last, it’s not all bad news, with the air-con dials (for temperature and fan) being large and easy to operate.
Touching the screen easily gets you onto the sat-nav map page. However, three steps are needed to end guidance and the map isn’t accurate when you try to zoom out with your fingers. To make matters worse, the system is painfully slow to respond and crashes frequently, so you find yourself looking back at the screen repeatedly to make sure it has done what you’ve asked it to do.
Because the radio stations are in ensembles, you have to scroll to the correct group first and then search for your chosen station, although life is much easier once you’ve saved your favourites.
The ZS doesn’t have a voice recognition system, but you can activate a smartphone system via a steering wheel button.
19: Fiat 500X with 7.0in touchscreen and Uconnect Live
The 500X’s temperature and fan dials are big and simple, although it’s quite a stretch to reach them.
The touchscreen is also positioned quite a long way from the driver and the icons on it are small, so they’re not easy to read. And while you get an arrow icon that makes zooming fairly simple, the process is slow and you have to go through three steps to stop guidance. Nor is it obvious which button to press first. The radio stations are in alphabetical order, but the slow screen response makes it time-consuming to scroll through them.
It takes five steps to get voice control to navigate to the nearest service station and you need to say exactly the right command each time and confirm every instruction by saying ‘yes’. We were only offered one petrol station, whereas others systems showed as many as 60.
18: Skoda Citigo-e iV with colour screen and phone holder
The separate buttons for the fan and temperature control are easy to reach and operate. The dial that you use to scroll through the list of radio stations doesn’t make you take your eyes off the road for too long, but the readout is lower than is ideal.
In addition, there isn’t an integrated sat-nav system; instead, Skoda provides a cradle for your smartphone and you have to use that. Opt for Google Maps and it’s just one touch to end guidance. However, it’s a stretch to reach the screen and zooming in and out of the map can be fiddly on the move; the size of the problem is, unsurprisingly, linked to the size of your phone. There’s no voice control, either, and while you can use your phone’s voice control system, this requires you to select the radio station you want using the phone rather than the dashboard controls.
17: Peugeot 508 SW with 10.0in Connected 3D Navigation and voice recognition
The fan and temperature controls can be accessed only via the touchscreen, so adjusting them is slow. What’s more, the buttons for bringing up the air-con, radio, sat-nav and so on on the touchscreen come straight out of the dash like piano keys and have pale icons on them, making them quite difficult to read.
Once you’ve located the map, you can at least zoom in and out accurately by pinching the screen, although it wouldn’t zoom out far enough to let us see our whole route. Meanwhile, ending navigation just requires you to press two onscreen icons.
There’s a navigation bar to the right of the main radio station list that helps you scroll through these more easily.
You need to know the correct command to get the voice control to respond, but you then need to go through just two steps to complete your task.
16: Lexus RX with 12.3in multimedia display
Although you can jump to the RX’s main navigation menu using a button on the centre console, you then need to use a touchpad to locate the zoom icon on the screen and press it repeatedly; this is really fiddly. There are two steps to end route guidance, and this, too, is tricky due to the touchpad system.
Similarly, you can use the shortcut button on the centre console to get into the main radio menu, but it’s then time-consuming to scroll using the touchpad. This is easier once you’ve input your favourite stations, and some Lexus models have a radio tuner on the volume button, making life easier still.
The climate control buttons work well enough, and after pressing a button to activate voice control, you just need to say ‘find the next petrol station’ to bring up a list of options, then tell it which one you want.
15: Honda CR-V with 7.0in touchscreen, Honda Connect and Garmin navigation
Honda provides dials for adjusting the air-con temperature and buttons for the fan, all of which are easy to locate and use.
You can zoom out on the sat-nav map only by pinching it with your fingers, and it isn’t very precise, although the screen itself is reasonably responsive, especially in the high sensitivity setting.
Ending guidance involves just two steps, but the radio stations are grouped in ensembles, so you have to come out of one and go into another to get to Radio 4. It also takes focus to hit the right area of the screen, and the touch-sensitive shortcuts are fiddly.
You need to say a specific command to get the voice control to go into the navigation menu, then choose petrol stations and then pick one. It doesn’t beep after you’ve spoken, so you can spend quite a bit of time glancing at the screen to see if it’s responding.
14: Nissan Juke with Nissan Connect
There are nice, big buttons for the fan and temperature controls, although they are tucked away under large vents. The main touchscreen buttons need to be prodded hard and are extremely slow to respond. You need to pinch the screen to zoom out of the map, and although this is fairly easy, you have to wait for the screen to react each time you resize it. At least route cancelling takes just one prod of the screen.
The radio station list is in alphabetical order, but if you don’t have favourites inputted, it’s a long and frustrating task to scroll through them. Voice control is also slow to react and you need to go through four steps to navigate to the nearest service station. You need to ask it to find a point of interest, then ask it to find petrol stations, tell it the one you want to go to and say “start guidance”.
13: Toyota Corolla with Touch 2 media system and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
Toyota provides a dial for controlling the temperature and small buttons for the fan speed; they’re all easy to reach.
You can either touch the infotainment screen or use a shortcut button down the side to access the sat-nav, while zooming in and out is easier – but still a little distracting – with the plus and minus icons; the sliding scale alternative is far too sensitive.
Once you’ve learnt how to access the correct menu, turning off guidance requires only two steps. However, you need to know the exact command to get the voice control to do what you want. While this requires just two steps, it doesn’t tell you it has understood each command and is slow to react.
You’ll want to set up radio station favourites, otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time scrolling through a long list of stations in ensembles.
12: Volvo S60 with Sensus
There are no physical buttons to change the temperature or fan setting; instead, you select a menu on the touchscreen or use the voice control, with the latter option being far less distracting.
You need to use your fingers to zoom out on the sat-nav map, requiring a lot of your attention, although the screen is at least responsive. Meanwhile, ending route guidance takes just two steps on the touchscreen, or via voice control.
In the main radio list, the stations are grouped in ensembles rather than in alphabetical order, so it isn’t easy to find your desired station, but the menu scrolls quickly and easily.
Using the voice control to change radio stations often doesn’t work, while finding a petrol station is convoluted, requiring four steps to select a destination and set the guidance in motion.
11: Jaguar XE with 10.0in Touch Pro Duo system
Jaguar’s Touch Pro Duo system gives each front occupant one large control dial; you twist it to alter the temperature, pull it out then twist to adjust the fan speed, and push it in and twist for the heated seat. It’s a clever bit of packaging and can be operated at a glance instead of you having to hunt for specific buttons.
Ending guidance is also easy, involving two steps on the touchscreen, but zooming in and out on the sat-nav map is fiddly, because you have to pinch with your fingers.
Using the touchscreen to scroll through the long list of DAB stations is also pretty distracting, although it still beats most ensemble-based menus.
After pressing a button on the steering wheel, the voice control is slow to wake up, then you have to give it three specific commands before it’ll guide you to a service station.
Less distracting car infotainment systems:
10: Skoda Kamiq with 9.2in touchscreen, voice control and Amundsen sat-nav
Sharp graphics make the screen easy to read at a glance, and there are large, physical buttons to access the sat-nav. The screen could be more responsive when you’re using your fingers to zoom the map, but you can also do this via the steering wheel controls, and guidance can be ended by pressing just one icon.
To change radio stations on the main list, you have to scroll through them, but there’s a scrollbar at the side that speeds this up and, as in most cars, setting up favourites makes things easy.
The voice control system works pretty well, taking just two steps to find the nearest fuel stations. However, you have to select the station you want from an onscreen list and then press ‘go’ to start the guidance.
The temperature is controlled by a dial, but you need to use the touchscreen to adjust the fan; that’s more distracting.
9: Vauxhall Corsa with 10.0in Multimedia Navi Pro
While the Corsa’s infotainment software is very similar to the related Peugeot 508’s, you get conventional buttons for switching between menus, and these are more user-friendly than the 508’s ‘piano keys’. In addition, you get separate buttons and knobs to adjust the temperature and fan speed, making these tasks quicker and less distracting. Cancelling guidance is a fairly simple two-step process, but the Corsa is also like the 508 in that the map won’t zoom out enough to see the whole route.
Scrolling down the alphabetical list of radio stations can be frustrating, because the system is a bit laggy. However, you can access favourites quickly via the steering wheel controls.
The voice control is good at understanding an initial request to find nearby service stations, but it only found one and didn’t resize the map to show it.
8: Hyundai Ioniq with 10.25in touchscreen and Bluelink connectivity
You need to use the touchscreen to zoom in and out of the sat-nav map, but it’s responsive enough to minimise distraction, while ending route guidance involves just two steps on the screen.
Similarly, the only way to scroll through radio stations is via the screen, but you can move through the list swiftly without it glitching. Set your favourites and you can also scroll between these using the steering wheel controls.
The ‘buttons’ for adjusting the temperature and fan speed are actually touch-sensitive areas of the dashboard rather than proper buttons you depress, so you still need to look at them, but they aren’t overly distracting.
The voice control system understands the command to find the nearest service station, provides a list and asks you to say the number of the one you want to navigate to.
7: Ford Fiesta with Sync 3 navigation and FordPass Connect
The Fiesta has chunky dials for adjusting the air-con temperature and fan, while its touchscreen infotainment system has large, clear icons that are easy to see. It’s also fairly easy to zoom out on the map using on-screen icons or your fingers, because the screen is reasonably responsive.
Cancelling the guidance via the screen takes just two steps, or you can do it via the steering wheel; this takes longer, but you look at menus in the instrument panel, so your eyes aren’t so far from the road. The radio stations are grouped in ensembles and it’s time consuming to scroll through them, although this is much easier once you’ve added favourites, and you can switch between them using the steering wheel controls.
It takes four steps to find a fuel station using voice control, starting with ‘points of interest’.
6: Volkswagen Passat GTE with 8.0in Composition Media system
This system looks similar to the one in the Skoda Kamiq (which is from the same group), but it has some different features that make it easier to use.
For a start, you control the fan speed via a dial rather than through the touchscreen. And the voice control system – which understands different ways of saying commands – quickly provides a list of fuel stations, which you can then select verbally instead of having to use the screen.
Ending guidance does require two taps of the screen rather than the one of the Kamiq, but the Passat is still better overall.
The radio stations on the main list are in alphabetical order and it takes a long time to scroll through them, while doing it via the steering wheel takes even longer, so it’s definitely worth setting up favourites.
Least distracting car infotainment systems:
5: Mazda 3 with 8.8in colour display and Mazda Connect
Instead of a touchscreen, the Mazda has a rotary controller between the front seats for accessing the infotainment, backed up by shortcut buttons to the key menus. This allows the screen to be placed higher on the dashboard, near your line of sight – although the screen is quite shallow. Plus, you just have to twist the dial to zoom in or out and click it twice to cancel guidance.
Radio stations are grouped in ensembles rather than alphabetically, but the combination of the rotary controller and high-set screen minimises distraction. You can also change stations using voice control, but this isn’t foolproof.
The voice control is better when asked to find fuel stations, coming up with a list and letting you select one verbally.
There’s a dial for temperature and buttons for the fan; these are easy to reach and use.
4: Audi Q3 Sportback with Virtual Cockpit Plus
This is probably the most responsive touchscreen system around, so the map zooms in and out quickly and smoothly. There’s also an overview icon on the screen for when you want to see the whole of your route. Alternatively, you can zoom using a steering wheel controller, and a press of one icon ends route guidance.
Changing radio stations on the touchscreen isn’t as easy, because there isn’t a handy scrollbar at the side, but you can use the steering wheel controller to do this. You can even change radio stations using voice control, with this working well.
The voice control understands natural speech and lets you choose an option at any time instead of forcing you to wait until it’s finished listing options. The only slight niggle is that you need to say “line one” instead of just “one” when selecting a radio or service station.
3: Porsche Panamera E-Hybrid with Connect Plus and Porsche Communication Management
The two toggle switches for the heating on the centre console are really easy to use. What’s more, the infotainment touchscreen is very quick to respond to inputs, while you press a single icon to end guidance and you can zoom out on the sat-nav map with your fingers or by using a user-friendly dial below the screen.
Sadly, while the screen itself is large and quick to respond, shorter drivers have to stretch to reach the top left corner. And some of the icons are difficult to hit accurately; for example, when searching for a radio station, you can select the letter of the alphabet it starts with from a pop-up menu to reduce scrolling, but this is tiny.
The voice control system understands natural speech and will provide a list when you ask for nearby service stations. You then simply tell it the number of the one you want.
2: Mercedes-Benz CLA with 10.25in touchscreen
If you want to zoom in and out on the map, you can use a large touchpad between the front seats, a smaller one on the steering wheel or the touchscreen itself. The latter is a bit fiddly to use on the move (although great when stationary), but the user-friendly touchpads solve the problem. Cancelling route guidance can be done via all three interfaces and requires a single action.
Scrolling through the radio station list takes an age, but you can use voice control to get around this problem. The voice control system is really good at understanding speech and is activated by you saying “Hey Mercedes”. Among other things, it will provide a list of service stations, and you can choose one verbally.
Large rocker switches for controlling the temperature and fan complete a thoroughly impressive package.
1: BMW 3 Series with Live Cockpit Professional
The 3 Series has small buttons for temperature and fan control that aren’t quite as easy to use as knobs, but in pretty much every other respect, it sets the standard.
As in the Mazda 3, you access the infotainment by turning and depressing a large control dial between the front seats that’s surrounded by handy shortcut buttons. Zooming in and out is done by twisting the dial, or you can use pinch and swipe actions on the screen itself – preferably when the car is stationary. Ending guidance, meanwhile, requires just one click or touch.
One of the shortcut buttons takes you to the main radio menu, then the control dial lets you quickly scroll up and down the list. Voice control also works well for changing stations. This is activated either by pressing a button or saying “Hey BMW” and recognises natural speech.
Even though Audi has ditched its dial-controlled infotainment system, the replacement in the Q3 Sportback proves that touchscreens don’t have to be horribly distracting, as long as they’re quick to respond and combined with a range of other ways to access the car’s various functions.
Likewise, the Porsche Panamera’s combination of a responsive touchscreen and dial controllers impresses. However, it’s BMW’s iDrive that remains the benchmark for ease of use, particularly now that it’s backed up by one of the most effective voice control systems in any car.
Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile takes the runner-up spot, with its voice control system being every bit as good and its touchpad interfaces requiring only slightly more of your attention than the BMW’s control dial.
As for the systems in non-prestige cars, Mazda’s is the clear winner here, offering similar functionality to iDrive; only its voice control is significantly less sophisticated.
It’s also interesting to see the difference between infotainment systems that look broadly the same. The Skoda Kamiq is more distracting than the Volkswagen Passat GTE, because it requires the driver to use the touchscreen to alter the fan and the voice control doesn’t extend to selecting a destination and starting navigation.
Similarly, the Peugeot 508 has a large touchscreen and a high-resolution map, but the menu buttons aren’t easy to see and you have to use the touchscreen to adjust the climate control, so it finished well behind the Vauxhall Corsa, even though they’re from the same stable.
Although the Skoda Citigo doesn’t have an infotainment system and instead requires the driver to use a smartphone in a dock, it didn’t prove as distracting as the worst systems on test. That said, it is reliant on you having a phone with a large enough screen and all the appropriate apps.
The cars that are rated poorly either have unresponsive screens or systems that make it difficult to navigate around them or require too many steps to carry out tasks. The MG ZS and Citigo also lost marks because neither has an integrated voice control system, This technology will be crucial in making distracted driving a thing of the past.
What about smartphone integration?
Most car buyers own a smartphone and will want it to work with their car. So most new cars are now offered with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, both of which migrate functions from your phone to the car’s infotainment system so you can use them via the touchscreen and voice control system. There are two notable exceptions to this among the brands in our test: BMW and Porsche offer only Apple CarPlay, not Android Auto.
If you own an older car, or one with a poor infotainment system, using the apps on your phone for navigation, music, phone calls and text messages can be less distracting than using the built-in system. However, not all systems work seamlessly with the smartphone mirroring technology, so it’s worth trying it out before you buy.