The Best And Worst Automotive Technology
Automotive technology has evolved significantly over the past decade. While there were plenty of mechanical improvements, such as the use of aluminum and high-tensile-strength steel, better suspension layouts, and sustainability-oriented manufacturing changes, the most eye-grabbing features rely heavily on electronics technology. This goes beyond knick-knacks in the center stack. We're talking about fundamental alterations to the powertrain, suspension, safety subsystem, and even steering. No matter how mechanical the automotive space remains, technology is what determines how you and your next vehicle interact with each other.
We've been covering the tech in cars, trucks, and SUVs for a couple of years now, driving everything from entry-level sedans to brutally-fast sports cars. At this point, I'm pretty familiar with each vendor's approach to technology, inside and out. A lot of companies already embrace next-gen features and successfully deploy them in ways that complement their products. Some still don't "get it", complicating simple tasks.
So follow along as we highlight the ten best and ten worst automotive technologies encountered since we began our coverage.
General Motors' Head-Up Display
Head-up displays take the top spot. They're my favorite feature enhanced by technology's steady march forward. Nothing about them is new (they've been around since the 80s). However, early systems relied on CRTs, whereas today's systems employ LCDs, resulting in a much better-integrated experience. The latest HUDs are color projections, rather than monochrome readouts reminiscent of Oregon Trail on an Apple II. And they're awesome because they project useful information right on the windshield at eye level, keeping your eyes from wandering to the gauge cluster.
A number of vendors offer HUDs on their higher-end models. But General Motors makes the capability available on everything from Buick's LaCrosse to the latest Corvette. The company's implementation shows the speedometer of course, but also lets you choose what other data you want. Pick between the tachometer, radio, compass, navigation directions, temperature, and the forward collision alert system. My preference is showing the tach any time I'm driving aggressively. Unfortunately, GM's HUD doesn’t remember your last display choice, so you have to reconfigure your favorite view every time you start the car. Think you could changes that behavior, guys?
Chrysler SRT Apps
I've enjoyed seat time in the latest Dodge Viper and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. While those cars have tons of power, and are fun to drive, this is Tom's Hardware, after all. I have to mention the tech I enjoyed in both vehicles. They feature Chrysler's Uconnect Access system and seven-inch gauge cluster display, which we covered in 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee: Refined Just Right; Raw Where It Counts. But the SRT vehicles get even more functionality, such as data-logging apps for recording 0-60, quarter-mile, and 0-100 MPH runs, along with other performance metrics.
The software is accessible through the seven-inch gauge cluster LCD and as a dedicated app within the Uconnect Access 8.4N system. When you start the car, the cluster begins a continuous log of performance, reporting your best times (so that you can beat them, as if in a video game). Or, you can manually launch the application in the Uconnect Access 8.4N display, which takes a couple seconds to start.
Sure, you could achieve the same capability with a cheap Bluetooth-based OBD-II adapter and your smartphone. But the integration just isn't there. Kudos to Chrysler for embracing technology and leveraging it effectively in its performance-oriented vehicles.
Mercedes Distronic Plus With Steering Assist
We’re big fans of adaptive cruise control, and I'm especially fond of systems able to stop a car and hold it in place. Distronic Plus is the name that Mercedes gives its version of this technology. It's a full speed-range implementation able to stop the car completely, which makes rush-hour traffic far less inconvenient.
The steering assist feature is what makes this one of the best systems we've used, though. By adding a stereo camera to read lane markings, combined with the radar-guided adaptive cruise, Mercedes' Distronic Plus with steering assist system can achieve semi-autonomy. The electronically-assisted steering system applies torque one way or the other to help keep the vehicle in a lane.
Mercedes naturally posts plenty of disclaimers. It even has hands-off detection so that drivers don't rely on its technology. My experiences with the system have been excellent, though. I love driving, but not everyone enjoys being out on the road as much. So, I'm perfectly fine with other folks using a little technical help to prevent them from plowing into me.
Acura RLX Krell Sound System
Branded sound systems are often gimmicks that allow automakers to charge more for equipment from renowned names in audio. Unfortunately, most of them are fairly disappointing. Take the $6300 Bang & Olufsen upgrade Audi offers, for example.
But the Acura RLX premium sound system by Krell Industries lives up to the expectations of this enthusiast, making it one of the best factory sound systems I've tested. Acura doesn’t charge much for the package, either; it's an extra $2500 if you were already leaning toward the technology bundle.
The Krell Audio package sounds fantastic. It offers plenty of detail from the highs, a punchy mid-range, and stout bass. My only gripe is with the subwoofer, which could serve up more oomph. Nevertheless, Krell’s freshman foray into automotive audio deserves praise.
Mazda Connect Infotainment System
The user interface of Mazda's infotainment systems typically lacks refinement. What you get in the Mazda 6 and CX5 is terrible. However, the company debuted its new Connect system in the latest-generation Mazda 3, and it's truly fantastic, starting with a seven-inch display mounted high and center on the dashboard.
The navigation system sports a clean GUI, smooth transitions, and it's very responsive. Mazda supports streaming Internet radio services like Pandora, Stitcher, and Aha. Text messaging works as well, and the navigation function is quite good. The crown jewel of Connect is its control knob, though. It’s ergonomically placed between the shifter and cup holders, and has buttons for direct access to music, the home screen, navigation, favorites, and volume. Those cup holders are even recessed, so you can stick 32-ounce smoothies in both spots without sacrificing comfort or use of the knob. Clearly, Mazda put a lot of thought into ergonomics, and I appreciate it.
Mazda Connect doesn’t rely solely on the control knob. The seven-inch display still has touchscreen functionality, which works out well for typing text. Unfortunately, the knob doesn't have a corresponding rotary keyboard layout on-screen like the German manufacturers enable.
I really think that Mazda created the best infotainment system in its class. The Audi-like ergonomics, combined with a good graphical and physical interface, makes the Connect our benchmark for compact cars.
Audi MMI Touch With Handwriting Recogonition
We loved Audi MMI with handwriting recognition so much that we gave the A8L our Elite Award in 2014 Audi A8L: Nvidia Graphics, Wi-Fi, LED Lights, And Google Earth. The company does a great job combining interior ergonomics, control, input, and navigation software to create an infotainment system that is intuitive, responsive, and attractive. I haven't come across any competing solution able to deliver the same blend of technology with style.
Audi's secret sauce comes from Nvidia graphics and 3G connectivity, which, together, download and render beautiful Google Earth map overlays. The addition of Google Street View makes finding your destination so much easier by providing an actual image of what to look for, instead of a vague “your destination will be on the right.”
Inputting text on the Audi MMI is easy, too. The car exposes a control knob and touchpad for handwriting recognition. You can draw letters with your fingers, and the system does a phenomenal job recognizing them. If handwriting isn’t your thing, the knob is an excellent alternative.
Lexus F-Sport LCD Gauge Cluster
Lexus and Toyota aren’t exactly known for their emotion-invoking cars. But the LFA-inspired LCD gauge cluster available on Lexus' IS F-Sport is one of the few implementations that doesn't leave us missing analog gauges. That is to say it's really well-done.
Unlike other LCD gauge clusters I've used, Lexus customizes its solution with physical overlays. This adds a nice metal ring that conveys depth on the analog-looking tachometer, which itself employs color fades and a bright red needle to indicate engine speed. The speedometer is a simpler digital read-out.
Press a button on the steering wheel and the ring changes position, giving you a choice of driver-oriented display or comfort functions with access to the usual radio, navigation, trip computer, and other gauge cluster information. Both modes look excellent, earning Lexus our admiration for the first mass-produced LCD gauge cluster that's quite effective.
Chevy Sonic And Spark MyLink Phone Integration
Not everyone wants integrated navigation. Some folks would rather rely on their smartphones. Chevy recognizes this, and forgoes the navigation option altogether on its lower-end Spark and Sonic. Instead, check the box for the $595 Chevy MyLink upgrade, and you get a seven-inch resistive touchscreen that delivers familiar radio functionality with USB and Bluetooth support.
Rather than include its own navigation subsystem, MyLink integrates with the BringGo application from EnGIS Technologies. Android users can leverage Bluetooth, while iOS necessitates plugging into the car's USB port. BringGo is fairly affordable, costing $0.99 for a 30-day trial. Moreover, you can buy the full version from within the software. Expect to pay $50 with traffic information or $60 if you want three years of map updates.
My experiences with the Chevy MyLink system have been good. The resistive touchscreen is responsive, and the added phone-based navigation functionality works well enough. Using BringGo for iOS over a wired connection is quite a bit faster than the Android version via Bluetooth, for what that's worth. The system also supports Siri EyesFree, but the audio is lower-quality, suffering from occasional pops and crackles.
As an unfortunate side effect of each vehicle generation needing to be better than what came before, cars keep getting bigger and bigger. This is why we love 360-degree cameras. Give me a view all the way around a big boat like Infiniti's QX60 or Hyundai's Equus and I can confidently parallel park with minimal anxiety. I'd even give up an active park assist system for this easier way to park a car myself.
Nissan is one of the few companies offering a 360-degree surround view camera on almost every vehicle it makes. The company calls its implementation Around View Monitor, and exposes it on the affordable Versa Note up to the gargantuan Infiniti QX80. Bravo, I say. This is a great feature to make available, and every car north of the $40,000 range should armed with it.
Chrysler Uconnect Access 8.4N
I'm not very fond of pure touchscreen-based systems. But Chrysler's Uconnect Access 8.4N is also more compelling than most. Competing platforms typically employ 16:9 displays for infotainment duties, while Chrysler goes the old-school 4:3 route. This facilitates a wide screen area that changes according to the function being used, while maintaining dedicated screen space for the radio, media, seat controls, climate controls, navigation, phone, and apps. Chrysler also exposes physical buttons for music and climate controls for quicker adjustments.
Uconnect Access 8.4N does rely on the touchscreen for seat and steering wheel heater controls, but it smartly gives you direct access to them before the infotainment operating system is finished booting. All of those considerations show that Chrysler put a lot of thought into making its touchscreen experience as easy to use as possible.