Just as the smartphone in your hand has become more capable—and more complicated—over the past few years, so have in-car infotainment systems. What is infotainment? It’s industry slang for a host of in-car features including music, navigation, phone integration, and voice recognition. And sophisticated digital interfaces are increasingly becoming standard issue in new cars.

“Consumers want cars that bring the communication and entertainment capabilities of their phones into their cars,” says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “And automakers are responding.”

More on Infotainment Systems

Well-designed systems can execute multiple complex functions using natural speech (“call Mom on her cell phone”). Badly designed systems can turn those same interactions into a dangerous and confusing distraction.

Consumer Reports has been asking owners about their audio and infotainment systems in our Auto Satisfaction surveys in recent years. And these systems routinely rank as the least satisfying feature for most car owners in our survey. We crunched the numbers for the more than 82,000 vehicles in our latest survey, which includes 2013 through 2016 model years along with a few 2017s. Overall, only 44 percent of the infotainment systems were given a score of “very satisfied” by the subscribers who use them.

Systems Owners Love

Owners are enthusiastic about big touch screens, and carmakers are moving to make these displays larger and larger. Tesla owners currently get the biggest screens in the business—the Model S and Model X have massive 17-inch touch screens. In our survey, Tesla’s customers were the happiest with their infotainment system: 83 percent said they were very satisfied. Larger screens usually bring bigger, easier-to-read text and buttons, making it quicker to find the function you’re looking for. The owner of a 2014 Model S said, “The onscreen controls are intuitive, easy-to-use ... all cars’ entertainment systems should work this way!”

Disappointing Duds

Lexus’ Remote Touchpad is an example of an infotainment system that hinders drivers more than it helps: Just 26 percent said they were very satisfied. An owner of a 2015 Lexus NX called it “terrible,” adding, “difficult to operate, confusing, distracting. The infotainment system is a nightmare.”

Some manufacturers seem to have learned their lesson, improving their systems and turning drivers’ opinions around. Only 44 percent of drivers with MyFord/MyLincoln Touch, Ford’s earlier system, were very satisfied, but 70 percent of those using the new and improved Ford/Lincoln Sync 3 were very satisfied. It was a similar story for Audi and its latest MMI All-in-Touch system: 74 percent of owners said they were very satisfied compared with just 49 percent for the older version.

These systems aren’t perfect yet, by a long shot. Complicated, unintuitive layouts and those with touch-sensitive features continue to distract, causing drivers to take their eyes off the road.

How to Shop Smarter

If you’re in the market to buy a new car, take enough time at the dealership to get familiar with the infotainment system before you write that check. It will be time well-spent if it saves you from long-term frustration. Remember: A good infotainment system isn’t the reason to buy a car, but an annoying system is a really good reason to avoid one.


Keep Safety in the Driver’s Seat

CR is critical of systems that force drivers to take their hands off the wheel or their eyes off the road.

Features can encourage drivers to take their eyes off the road. Taking your eyes off the road for 5 seconds at 55 mph is like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed. Multilayered interfaces can require drivers to tap screens repeatedly to dig down to submenus. The systems make it easy for an automaker to save space, but they make drivers divert attention to turn on the A/C or change the audio source. Using Volvo’s touch-screen system, a driver has to touch the screen at least twice to turn the A/C on and off.

They can be visually distracting. Big screens are a growing trend, and owners love them, but they can have lots going on. For example, some systems have navigation maps that can be “pinched” to zoom in and out like on a smartphone, or they have multiple screens that need to be swiped over to reach the correct submenu.

Touch-sensitive controls may be unreliable. The Cadillac Cue system, for example, often requires hitting the same button several times before the driver is sure the command has been received. Using the Lexus Remote Touch, drivers must carefully move the mouse to hit onscreen icons, and the normal movement of a car in motion makes that very difficult. That’s not only frustrating but also often forces drivers to look away to make sure they’ve hit the right spot.


Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.