High-tech automotive headaches

Drivers find infotainment systems complicated and trouble-prone

Published: December 2013
Most respondents said their infotainment systems were hard to learn to use.

Today’s cars are coming loaded with in-dash electronics that provide smart-phone connectivity, turn-by-turn navigation, multiple audio sources, and more. But for car buyers, the wow factor is often short-lived because of the complicated touch screens and troublesome control systems that come with those features.

In our latest auto-reliability survey, conducted last spring, in-car electronics generated more problems from 2013 models than any other problem area, with Cadillac, Ford, Honda, and Lincoln vehicles accounting for the most complaints. By contrast, Audi, BMW, Chrysler, and Lexus systems were relatively trouble-free. (See the "Electronic Troubles" section below.)

To find out what was going wrong, in October the Consumer Reports National Research Center re-contacted thousands of people who owned a 2011, 2012, or 2013 vehicle from one of the four most troublesome brands and asked about their specific problems and overall satisfaction with their infotainment systems.

The majority of the 3,148 respondents reported frustrations. Sixty percent said they had problems learning how to operate the system during the first few weeks of ownership, with little variation among the systems. In addition, one-third reported experiencing at least one system malfunction, such as an unresponsive touch screen or a problem with voice controls.

The survey also found that age played a significant role in respondents’ experience with their systems. Almost 70 percent of drivers who are 65 and older reported having difficulty learning to operate their systems. That number dropped to 52 percent for owners ages 45 to 64, and to 37 percent for drivers between 18 and 44.

On a positive note, almost half of the respondents who initially had difficulty said they became a lot more proficient over time. Still, a similar number said they became only a little more adept at using their system, and one in 10 said the systems had not gotten easier to use.

What went wrong

The MyFord Touch suffered from unresponsive screens, freezes, and Bluetooth pairing.

In our October survey, more than a third of respondents who owned a car with an infotainment system experienced one or more problems with their car’s audio, communication, or navigation functions.

Looking only at 2013 models, 32 percent of owners with the MyFord/Lincoln Touch systems reported problems, and 30 percent of those with HondaLink did. Only a fifth of Cadillac owners said they had problems with their Cue system.

The most common malfunctions for the Ford and Lincoln communication systems involved voice controls and Bluetooth connectivity, used for hands-free phone calls and streaming music. Other owner complaints centered around radio, CD and DVD players, and touch screens. Due to a smaller number of Cadillac and Honda respondents, we don’t have that level of detail for their systems.

Overall there were fewer problems reported for GPS navigation, backup-camera, and MP3 player systems.

The age curve was reversed for drivers reporting the most problems. In the youngest group, 46 percent of owners experienced some kind of malfunction, and only 36 percent of those ages 45 to 64 reported the same. That may be because younger owners are more tech savvy and likely to use and rely on more of their systems’ features.

Infotainment satisfaction

One in five respondents with the Cadillac Cue system reported problems

Overall, owner satisfaction with the systems is relatively low compared with other satisfaction surveys we’ve conducted. Among Honda owners, only 61 percent were highly satisfied with their car’s infotainment system. Similarly, only 56 and 52 percent were highly satisfied with the Cadillac and Ford/Lincoln systems, respectively.

If you’re considering a car with an infotainment system for the first time, one notable finding to consider is that your overall satisfaction may depend on how comfortable you are with technology in general. About 80 percent of owners who didn’t consider those systems to be initially complicated reported high overall satisfaction. That contrasts with only 10 percent of owners who found them to be very complicated. Ease of use does matter. And in the long run, so does reliability.

Editor's Note:

This article apeared in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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