Who has the best in-car infotainment system?
Our in-house infotainment expert tells you what to look for…
Car journalists tend to get bogged down in things that really don't matter to most people. For example, whether a BMW 3 Series feels more fun when you're seconds away from crashing sideways into a ditch than a Mercedes C-Class.
What actually matters, of course, is how they look, how they make you feel and, of course, how much crap you can fit in the boot.
That's not all though. Something that's increasingly important in these days of smartphones that can remotely pluck your cat's eyelashes is how good the infotainment system is. That's what we used to call the radio. The thing on the dashboard that has a screen on it and controls everything from your Spotify playlists to how hot your buttocks are.
Anyway, in a previous job I was in charge of testing infotainment systems of every car we had in for review. And these are some of the best ones in the business. Would I buy a car purely on how good its infotainment system is? Probably. Give me a comfy seat, an automatic gearbox, a 3.0-litre diesel engine and a kick-arse sound system and I'm there. Anyway.
How not to do it: Ford Sync3
I mean, it works admirably… it's just not as smooth a user experience as other systems
Ford's Sync3 system is what you'll find embedded in the dash of most of the brand's latest cars, from the Mustang to the Edge. It's a touchscreen with no physical controls beyond a volume knob, a radio-tuning knob and a few audio buttons. To flick between, say, the sat-nav and radio functions you have to prod a row a touchscreen buttons at the bottom of the screen, which makes it lose points because physical 'hot keys' are way easier to do without taking your eyes off the road.
The screen's also not as sharp as others, and the graphic designers clearly haven't given the operating system as much aesthetic love either. It's alright, but a bit of a fiddle to use. I do like the address input system for the sat-nav – you just type in exactly where you're going without having to work out if you're in the right bit of the menu to input a postcode, for example.
The 'this is so close to being perfect it makes me sad': Volvo Sensus
Looks like a tablet, works like a tablet. But you can't install Fruit Ninja on it
Volvo's portrait style 'Sensus' system has been in every Volvo since the new XC90 – which means it's in pretty much the most stylish range of cars you can buy. No arguments.
It's rare to see a portrait-style screen that isn't a little bit crap (sorry, Tesla), and the Volvo system is mostly well thought out. Again it loses marks for having only one physical button (think of it as the home button on your smartphone), no hot-keys and – like the Ford – having to use a touchscreen to adjust the temperature of the air-con is a mortal sin and just not as safe as having physical temperature controls.
That said, the graphics are nice and clear without looking plain, and I love the way Apple CarPlay only takes up the bottom half of the screen, so you can use the top bit to search through the millions of driver assist and safety systems. Like most manufacturers, Volvo keeps the controls for semi-autonomous driving functions on the steering wheel and digital dashboard, so you don't have to delve into the Sensus screen.
Oh yeah, it's pretty responsive to your touches and the screen's nice and sharp too. Finding where to start the process for pairing a Bluetooth phone can be a bit tricky though the first time you do it.
The 'yes, I'm still the Daddy' – BMW iDrive
Modern BMW screens are up there with the sharpest
So far we've only looked at touchscreens. And there's a bit of a problem with a touchscreen in a car, because when you're driving you inevitably have to take your eyes off the road for quite a while as you flail your appendages trying to hit the right virtual button. And inevitably you'll mess up and have to undo your mistake, find a back button and have another stab.
BMW, meanwhile, has realised that the safest and most natural way to control what's basically a computer while driving is to put a little jog wheel down by the gear lever. This means you can drop your left hand down by your side and fiddle away (steady), while glancing at the giant high-res screen which is higher up on the dashboard than a touchscreen would be – meaning you keep your eyes closer to the OH MY GOD THAT TRUCK IS STOPPING FOR THAT DUCKLING.
Other manufacturers use the iDrive-style control wheel too, such as Mercedes, but they've managed to make it more complicated than it needs to be, with touchpads and the like. Audi's hot on the heels of BMW too in this regard, but I feel BMW got there first so they're getting my love.
iDrive gives you shortcut buttons (or hot keys) around the boppy control knob thing, which you learn to use on the move quite quickly
With the latest BMW iDrive systems you can use the screen as a touchscreen too (but in practice you rarely will), and you can wave your hand around to turn the volume up and down without touching anything – a gesture control system that you'll use to show off to your friends once and then never use again.
Consider as well how naturally BMW ties in things such as a Deezer subscription (I loved this driving a 5 Series from Gibraltar to the UK in two days… you just press a button on the steering wheel and say "Play Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf" and it does so effortlessly using the car's internet connection), traffic apps and simple postcode input and you've really got the king of infotainment systems.
And I don't really see anyone stealing BMW's crown any time soon – they've got the mix of human input and usefully integrated technology completely nailed.
Which, by my opening rules, means that the best car in the world is a BMW 530d. Come at me.