We get into and out of hundreds of cars per year, and most of them are immediately intuitive to use. Some, however, have glaring mistakes that make us wonder: did anyone really think about this? We don't mind different layouts - Mercedes' multi-function left-side stalk works just as well as Toyota's right-side stalk - that's a matter of taste. The Honda S2000's left-side radio controls are neat. But there are some things in some cars that we just plain don't get.
Here's a list of award-winning head-scratchers - a bunch of ergonomic mistakes that make some occasionally great cars a little less great to actually use. In no particular order:
BMW 7-series: The Dreaded iDrive.
No list of ergonomic disasters would dare not include the dreaded iDrive controller as its first object of complaint. Though some newer versions of iDrive are much more user-friendly, it takes ten seconds behind the wheel of a 7-series to see why we all complain about this system. The iDrive controller can move in any of, oh, eight hundred directions, but you never seem to find the right one. So you go back and forth through menu after menu after menu - just to change the radio station. And then give up and drive home with static playing through the 40-speaker, 10,000-watt sound system. BMW isn't immune from ergonomic disasters since the original iDrive either - due to cost cutting, the newer, more intuitive iDrive system is being pared with controllers that no longer offer force-feedback. This means that you'll now definitely be taking your eyes off the road to see what you're doing. Oh, and the new automatic shifter that's been deployed on the X5 and 5-series feels great in the hand, but is quite difficult to get used to - one staffer almost drove through a garage wall trying to figure it out.
At least it has a Park button - that's something that's missing on the twin-clutch M3 M-DCT: it will only engage park when you remove the key. Let's see how long it takes for an M3 to roll down the street and kill someone because someone wanted to leave the key in it. Oh, and for BMWs with Comfort Access (keep-your-key-in-your-pocket RFID keys), you can switch off the engine by hitting the start button, but need to press the button a second time to turn off auxiliary devices like the radio and navigation system. If your foot is on the brake pedal, however, when you press the button that second time, the engine will re-start. Alternatively, you can leave the aux devices on until you exit the vehicle - they'll turn off when you lock the doors. But if you leave the doors unlocked, you could come back to a dead battery. BMWs are among the most intuitive cars in the world to drive - but the least intuitive to use.
Volkswagen Passat: the Frustrating Key
Journalists complain all the time about electronic keys. Some work really well (especially those that you don't ever need to pull out of your pocket), but some are just poorly designed. Take, for example, the VW Passat's key. It's a nice shape, but to start the car, you insert the key into the dashboard and press it all the way in. You release the key when the engine starts, and it stays locked into place. To turn the car off, you press on the key again, and it's then released into your hand.
The only problem is that if you stall the engine (and hey, it happens), you have to press the key in, let it release into your hand, pull it out slightly, and then push it back in to start. It's a long, cumbersome process for something that needs to happen quickly - like when you've stalled the engine in the middle of a three-point turn. Aston Martin uses a similar system, and we dislike it there as well.
Pontiac Solstice / Saturn Sky: the Broken Wrist Window Switch
It's tough to get the placement of driver's-door-mounted window switches right - in most cars, they seem slightly too far forward (so you tend to open the rear windows when you're aiming for the fronts) or too far rearward. We're talking a matter of an inch or two here. The Skystice twins, on the other hands, have the window switches placed approximately where your left elbow would be located on the driver's door arm rest.
You have two ways of opening the windows - you can break your left arm in three places and dislocate your shoulder, or you can wrap you right arm around your torso to use the switches. Neither is comfortable - and we wonder: did anyone at GM even test this? Then again, opening and closing the top on the Skystice takes multiple steps and requires getting out of the car, doing the hokey pokey, and, if the moon is waxing, doing that rub-your-tummy while patting-your-head thing.
Ford: Invisible volume control knobs and a redline that's, well, not red:
In our experience, people touch the volume control knobs in their cars almost as much as they touch the steering wheel. So why is it that Ford doesn't put an illumination ring around the volume control in most of its cars? All of the other buttons are illuminated - but try to find the most important one, and you're left to feel around in the dark.
And while we're railing on Ford, it's pretty obvious that painting a redline on a tachometer costs a couple extra cents - it is, after all, another whole color of ink. And when you offer three different engines on a vehicle, each of which has three different maximum speeds, it means that you need to have three different tachometer faces. That ain't cheap, either. Hey, sorry to break it to you, that's a cost of doing business. Ford doesn't bother painting a redline on many of its tachometers... Want to know what the maximum engine speed is? Well, you're going to have to rev it to the limiter. Come on, Ford, the red ink can't cost that much extra.