The best and worst for in-car infotainment

    Some systems are easier to use and more reliable than others

    Published: November 14, 2014 12:00 PM

    Keeping your kids entertained during holiday travel isn't always a treat for parents. Never-ending chants of "Are we there yet?" can often be quelled with a dose of in-car entertainment or access to power outlets to charge personal electronics, such as a laptop, smart phone, or tablet. But our experience, and survey data, show that not all infotainment systems deliver on the promise of stress-free, cutting-edge entertainment on the road.

    The key to road-trip parenting? Distractions.

    Getting used to the multifunction cross-linked infotainment systems found in most new cars usually requires a fairly steep learning curve. Linking phones to the car's Bluetooth system, downloading apps to help with fuel economy or finding ways around traffic snarls, and even simple operation of a car's audio system sometimes require studying the car's owner's manual or online video tutorials.

     And some of you might even be wondering, "What's an infotainment system?"

    Basically, these systems and related electronics include the audio, navigation, and in-car communications that involve the touch screen, unified multifunction controller, portable music interface, Bluetooth pairing, voice-command system, backup camera, and so on. Clearly, these can be challenging systems to learn and as one might suspect, their complexity brings potential reliability concerns.

    In Consumer Reports' latest Annual Auto Survey, we've seen the number of complaints about these systems proliferate among new cars. Our subscribers reported problems that required repairs, such as unresponsive touch screens, a reluctance to pair phones, and integrated controls that don't function properly.

    The system that was the worst in our survey is the Infiniti InTouch, found in the company's Q50 sedan. How bad is bad? More than one in five owners reported a problem with it. Other systems that were buggy include Chrysler's Uconnect touch-screen system and Cadillac's CUE.

    Reliability aside, some of our test cars' systems are easier to use than others. Here's a look at some standouts—good and bad.

    Highlights from the better systems

    Chevrolet Suburban

    When you count USB ports, there are almost enough power sources in this large SUV to start your own electric company. You get a USB outlet inside the hidden storage spot behind the touch screen, two in the open bin near the cup holders, two inside the center console, and two more behind the console for rear-seat passengers.

    Inside the center console are also an auxiliary port and SD card slot. Passengers can also power up with 12-volt outlets in the open bin near the cup holders, outside the center console for those in the second row, and one more integrated into the armrest in the third row. Finally, you get a 115V/150W outlet behind the center console for rear-seat passengers.

    Hyundai Genesis

    For navigation, the voice-command system understands street addresses and cities all in one sentence as you would typically search Google, rather than go line by line. But the best testing moment came when we uttered one of the most dire phrases: "Find me a Starbucks."

    Within seconds, the system listed five of the nearest caffeine houses. And the system doesn't make you say things such as "points of interest," "restaurants," or even "coffee shops." It knew right away what we were craving. This voice command software is among the best we've experienced.

    Subaru Outback

    Pairing a phone is easy, and voice quality is clear and crisp. You can set the system up to read incoming text messages.

    We especially liked the availability of prewritten "replies" that come up on the car's center screen, such as "I'm on my way" or "I'm driving right now. I'll call you back later." Just touch one of the replies and you're done.

    And some of the most frustrating systems

    Audi A3

    For some reason, Audi thinks you need three ways to manually change the radio station, and none of them are simple. You can choose among:

    • Rotating the central controller (MMI) wheel and clicking on the station you see on the screen.
    • Clicking the left side of the steering wheel controls when in "radio" mode, which gives the station name/frequency in the driver's instrument panel.
    • Programming the "*" button on the right side of the steering wheel to change stations. (This button can also be programmed to switch among audio sources, say, from your phone's playlist to satellite radio.)

    Perhaps Audi lets you do this because the A3 doesn't have a traditional radio faceplate with hard buttons right in front of you. Even the single CD player is hidden away in the glove box.

    BMW M235i

    Using the voice command system for navigation is pretty good, but you have to speak very slowly and carefully. We could only find a coffee shop by using this sequence of commands: "navigation," "destination," "points of interest," and then "coffee shop."

    Mercedes-Benz S550

    Normally, pairing a phone to most cars is fairly straightforward. Not with the S-Class. Using a voice command term we've used to pair phones to lots of test cars, we hit the VC button on the steering wheel and said, "Pair phone." We got nothing. Pressing the phone icon on the steering wheel was also met with silence. Then we looked up the proper term for pairing a phone in the car's "Voice Control System" operating manual, where we found nothing on how to tell the car to pair a phone.

    We also tried using voice commands to find our local FM NPR radio station. Starting out, we pressed the voice command button on the steering wheel and said the words "tune radio to 90.5" which returned 92.1. Then we tried saying "radio 90.5," which produced 94.9. We tried a different approach and said "FM 90.5," which gave us 89.5. Finally, we said "radio NPR." That brought us to the satellite radio station "NPR Now." Close, but no cigar. Clearly, "luxury" and "convenience" can be mutually exclusive.

    Did you know that even older cars can be retrofitted with systems to help integrate your phone? Check out our experiences with Apple's CarPlay for a peak on how it works.

    All these systems are evolving—in functionality and reliability. We'll keep buying fully-featured cars and tell you which ones are worth buying and which ones we'd skip.

    Mike Quincy

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