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.
Scion xB: Let's do the Electric Slide to see the gauges?
This goes for any car that has its gauge cluster in the center of the dash: we hate you. Okay, we don't necessarily hate the whole car, but we definitely don't want to be friends with the bean counters who won the argument that it's cheaper to produce left- and right-hand-drive variants of the same car by producing only one dashboard with the gauges in the middle. So what? I'd pay an extra $200 on top of the Scion xB's quite reasonable base price to be able to see the gauges without having to move my eyes so far off the road. Besides -- $200 is less than my insurance deductible for the damage that I'll incur when I hit that curb because I wasn't watching where I was going.
Sorry, guys - but gauges belong in front of the driver. And while we're on the subject of the xB: it's not cool - ever - to rotate the tachometer so that the max engine speed points to 5:00. And don't get me started on the aftermarket-looking audio system with a motorized face that moves itself 0.004 inches further forward when you turn it on (why? I don't know either) and has a touch-screen so counterintuitive I want to stab it with a fork.
The Jaguar XF / XJ / XK Touch-Screen: Courtesy of Tandy TRS-80
As much as we hate iDrive, touch-screen systems are even less ergonomically friendly, because due to their lack of tactile feedback, they implicitly require the driver to take his eyes off the road. In the case of the Jaguar system, it requires the driver to have a lobotomy, too. So incredibly slow is the Jaguar system that one often wonders if it's crashed. And one often crashes (the car) staring at it, waiting for it to respond.
There is no reason for a 1-second delay after hitting every button, and no one cares if the menus swoop themselves out of the way when you select a button. Pretty, yeah, on an iPod. Not when you're trying to drive. And if - God forbid - someone touches the volume control while you're wading through the menu? You're in for another delay while the screen displays an arbitrary volume bar. Please. If the car can do 0 to 60 mph in 5 seconds, it shouldn't take 10 seconds to turn a heated steering wheel on.
Navigation Systems: almost everyone except the Germans
We all know the joke asking what you'd call a hundred lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, right? (A good start.) I have a law degree - and I like many lawyers (especially those keen on suing me), so I don't recommend drowning them. Except those who insist that no new destination can be entered while the vehicle is in motion. Okay, drowning is a bit severe, but a few head-first dunks in a public toilet bowl would do the trick. Yes, I know that we shouldn't be futzing with computers while we're driving, but guess what - if we can change radio stations, we can enter addresses. Especially on rural interstates.
So I'm in a rush to get somewhere and need help because I think I might be lost - so I get to pull over on the side of an interstate so I can get slammed into by a semi? Or have to drive 100 mph to make up for the time I lost sitting on the side of the road? No, sorry, Mr. Advocate, I'm safer entering the address while driving at a reasonable speed with lots of room around me. But that's not the real problem: the big issue is that all modern cars have a sensor on the passenger seat. It knows when someone over, say, 50 lbs is sitting there. That person can quite safely use the navigation system from the right side of the car. Even at autobahn speeds. Hell, even at NASCAR speeds. So why doesn't the system just say "Hey, we know there's a 200-lb passenger in the right seat. He can use the nav, but you the driver can't. Hit okay to say you won't sue us." Ugh.
Lexus GS: Blinded by the (lack of) light.
True, the GS has a whole bunch of buttons hidden in a secret compartment to the left of the steering wheel that no one ever knows is there - until they leave it open and it breaks their kneecap upon an attempt to exit the vehicle. But the GS has one much bigger problem: in an effort to be cool, Lexus outfitted the GS's interior with a bunch of LEDs instead of conventional light bulbs. Open the door in a GS at night, and you're treated to all the lumens of an influenza-riddled glow-worm taped to the headliner. Doesn't it get dark at night where the Toyota Development Center is? Seriously, I had to use the light from my cellphone to find my house key, which had fallen out of the center console and onto the floor.
Honda Civic: the Mafioso parking brake
Every time I drive a new Honda Civic, I wind up with a bruise on the outside of my right knee from the handbrake. It's in a nice place to reach with your hand, but apparently the Japanese engineers who drove it didn't notice that if you're over 5'8" tall, it's located in the same spot as your leg.
The rest of the car is thoughtfully laid out - the two-tier instrument cluster makes for great readability (hear that, Scion? It's mounted right in front of the driver) - but included in the Civic's base price should be a gauze kit for wrapping your knee.
Manu-Matic shift modes: everyone except BMW and Mazda
Sequentially shifted race transmissions work one way and one way only: forward for a downshift, back for an upshift. So why is it that most car companies get it wrong? BMW got it wrong for a year and then fixed it - so why hasn't anyone else? Next thing you know, someone's going to come out with a manual transmission where 1st gear is in the far right, bottom position. Just to mess with us. In the meantime, the rest of the car companies need to understand that sequential shifters have a right way and a wrong way. Steering paddles, same thing: left to downshift, right to upshift. We didn't make the rules, but we sure wish everyone would follow convention.
We could go on and on, complaining about volume controls on the right sides of the radio (you listening Mazda? And Mercedes, stop snickering - your S-Class has its volume control on the right side of the column, totally invisible to the driver), seat heater switches that you can neither see nor feel (Maserati Quattroporte), those effing electric tailgates and trunklids that take twelve minutes to open and won't let you manually override them, rear wiper controls on the headliner (Caddy SRX, that's you), cars whose seat controls are so close to the door that you have to open the door to get to them, and so on. But we're not one to complain.