I’m not what you'd call an obsessive when it comes to in-car technology. And if you're not, either, it's good you've come here. When I’m driving my car, I use the radio presets and the AUX input cable and nothing else. If I need directions, I use my iPhone, or I guess (I’m a horrible travel companion because I love getting lost). If I’m in a new car and it takes me more than a few minutes to figure out the sound system, I just turn on my iPhone speakers and stick that sucker on the dash. Instant surround sound.
Recently, I was forced out of my comfort zone when I participated in a comparison test run by our sister publication, Automobile Magazine. It compared six different information and entertainment systems (three from luxury brands, three from mainstream brands) and two different user experiences: mine and that of Automobile Magazine associate web editor Ben Timmins. In the name of science, we tested each car in the same categories: voice and manual entry of a point of interest (we used a favorite nearby lunch spot, Zingerman’s Bakehouse), voice and manual control of the radio, voice and manual adjustments to climate control, Bluetooth pairing of a phone, voice and manual control of the phone, and voice and manual selection of a song from an iPod.
The Talking Car Is Real
The first system we tested was Cue, from Cadillac. With hindsight, I know that this system has by far the most intuitive voice commands. Unlike many other systems, Cue will understand if you use mild slang (“yep” or “nope” instead of “yes” or “no”) and thanks to the music database Gracenote, it also understands colloquial names for bands (“The Boss” instead of “Bruce Springsteen,” say).
Voice commands can feel intimidating. It often feels to me as if there is an endless secret menu of commands I could use, and it's hard to know which one to select. Some systems may have an extensive array of commands but will guide you to the correct command so you don’t have to hit the “voice” button and then drive around in silence for twenty seconds before deciding what to say. Usually, it’s best to start with the general category or device you want to use. If you’re looking for directions, commands like “destination,” “point of interest,” or “navigation” will usually set you on the right path. If you want to listen to music, try “radio,” “iPod,” or “USB.”
Will We Be Lost Forever?
Our point of interest was a little obscure for the Point of Interest (POI) databases – they usually look for restaurants with twenty or more locations, and Zingerman’s Bakehouse is one of a kind. However, this did give us the opportunity to test the versatility of Internet search functions. Of the six systems, Audi's MMI and BMW's iDrive were able to find the Bakehouse with an impressively low amount of fuss. MMI integrates an online search into the Point of Interest menu. Once we were online, it was smooth sailing. BMW’s iDrive doesn’t connect to the Internet, but it does appear to have the most extensive POI database. Toyota's Entune was also able to find the Bakehouse by piggybacking onto the Internet provided by my iPhone to search Bing. Internet connectivity runs about $30 a month for Audi owners, and Entune services cost up to $45 per month, but only after a generous and free three-year subscription. The other systems failed to find the Bakehouse, altough if you happen to be driving a Cadillac equipped with OnStar (we were), you can make a phone call and have directions downloaded to your car’s navigation system quite quickly.
I had my biggest battle on the navigation front with the beleaguered MyFord Touch system, which was able to find Zingerman’s Delicatessen (a sister restaurant), but stumbled on the final command. It then restarted the whole process and never found the Deli again even though I drove around our office park four or five times, having an increasingly testy exchange with the lady who lives in the dashboard.
Buttons to the Rescue
Luckily for those of us who hate listening to a car talk, you can always substitute voice commands for manual entry of any command you care to use. All but two of the systems we tested used touchscreens for control of the infotainment system, with Audi MMI and BMW iDrive using rotary dials (combined with a PDA-like touchscreen with MMI which allows you to spell out words using your fingers). I far prefer using the rotary dial to select letters and move through the system, which I found to be substantially easier and less distracting than the touchscreen. (Let me now take a moment to remind you that entering text into your infotainment system while driving is a horrible idea. I know most people do it, but you shouldn’t.) That said, most of the touchscreens were acceptably responsive and precise, so it’s really just a matter of preference.
For most of our other tests, the systems were all fairly competent. Audi MMI does not allow you to use voice commands to control an iPod or other music device, but it does allow you to select a song manually; if you fill up the in-car hard drive with music you can ask for a song by voice. I often had a hard time finding my way around the radio systems, but if you drove any of these cars every day you would become accustomed to its quirks quickly. Ford’s Sync system (separate from, but included with, MyFord Touch) and Cadillac’s Cue were particularly skilled at quick, seamless music selection.
All the systems had easy, reliable steps for Bluetooth phone pairing. Climate control by voice was only available in one system, MyFord Touch, and it was frustrating and, to my mind, would usually be unnecessary.
If I had to buy my next car based on the infotainment system alone, I would pick a BMW. It was the least frustrating and most intuitive to use, and it has a cool head-up display that displays your next navigation steps discreetly on the windshield so you can look like you know where you’re going even if you don’t. But the bottom line is that if your car is more than a few years old, any of these systems will be a huge upgrade. Just be prepared for a learning curve.
Availability: The model we tested, which included Audi Connect, is available in the allroad, A6, A7, A8, and Q7.
Cost: Varies depending on model; $3,050 as a stand-alone option.
Favorite feature: The rotary dial.
Least favorite feature: No voice control of my iPod.
Most useful: Point of Interest search using Audi Connect.
Availability: Available standard or as an option on 1-series, 3-series, 5-series, 6-series, 7-series, X5, X6, and Z4 models.
Cost: Varies with model, up to $2,350 as a stand-alone option.
Favorite feature: The head-up navigation display.
Least favorite feature: Very structured commands.
Most useful: The extensive Point of Interest database.
Availability: Available on 2013 XTS, ATS, and SRX models.
Cost: Standard for XTS and SRX, $1,350 option for ATS.
Favorite feature: Most flexible voice commands of the bunch.
Least favorite feature: Lackluster Point of Interest database.
Most useful: Intuitive music commands.
Availabilty: Available in the 2013 Genesis Coupe and 2012 Avenza, Sonata, and Veloster models.
Cost: Varies by model, up to $2,900 as part of the Sonata's technology package.
Favorite feature: Very easy control to control Bluetooth-connected phone through voice commands.
Least favorite feature: No voice selection of music from iPod.
Most useful: Attractive screen, larger than others in its class.
Availability: Available in 4Runner, Camry, Corolla, Land Cruiser, Prius, RAV4, Sequoia, Sienna, Tacoma, Tundra, and Venza models.
Cost: Varies by model, a $1,015 stand-alone option.
Favorite feature: Entune can piggy-back on your iPhone's internet to search Bing and make dinner reservations through OpenTable.
Least favorite: Buttons surrounding touch screen were a little confusing.
Most useful: The very long (three-year) free trial period.
Availability: Available on Explorer, Escape, Expedition, E-Series, F-150, Transit Connect, Flex, Edge, C-MAX, Fusion, Focus, Mustang, Taurus, and Fiesta models.
Cost: Varies by model, part of a $2,000 package in some models.
Favorite feature: Easy control of audio system.
Least favorite feature: Inconsistent responses to voice commands.
Most useful: Has more features and capabilities than many other systems in its class.