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Comparison Test: That's Infotainment!

Ben TimminswriterSandon VoelkerphotographerAnnie Whitewriter

It's becoming difficult to buy a new car -- even a cheap one -- without a computer screen in its dash. These systems promise to appeal to technophiles without sacrificing ease of use for less savvy drivers. But can in-car infotainment really keep everyone happy? To find out, we brought together six cars and two very different drivers. How we tested

We gathered six vehicles that cover the spectrum of infotainment systems offered today: three from premium brands and three from mainstream brands. Ford and Cadillac rely entirely on touch-sensitive controls, and Audi and BMW have click wheels. Each tester completed a series of timed tasks, including programming a point of interest into the navigation system, making a phone call with voice controls, and playing a specific track from a connected Apple iPhone. We also tested the simple procedures that trip up so many of these systems, like adjusting the climate control.

Meet our testers
The tech avoider:
Annie White, Associate Editor for JeanKnowsCars.com.
The power user: Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor and social-media expert for Automobile Magazine.

Cadillac Cue

Lots of promise, needs better execution.

Annie: The touchscreen is confusing and distracting. The "buttons" for volume and climate are kind of cool but are harder to use than the screen-based ones in some of the other systems. It does have intuitive voice controls and music functions.

Ben: Why doesn't the nav system's (not good) point-of-interest search integrate GM's (excellent) OnStar service? Haptic feedback is cool but slow. Voice recognition for music is flawless. Push the button and say "play DMB," and Cue finds Dave Matthews Band on your iPhone.

Best at 24 seconds, 1 step
Worst at 13 seconds, 16 steps

Ease of use 3 out of 5
Variety of features 3 out of 5

Audi MMI Touch

The all-arounder.

Annie: Cumbersome at first, but by the end of the test I was fairly comfortable with it. The rotary dial is easy and quick. I don't know that I'd ever use the writing pad, but it's fun to know that I could.

Ben: The feature that is supposed to set Audi apart -- the touch pad -- doesn't work as well as the rotary knob. MMI lags behind in iPhone integration. It's among the best in the business, though, at finding points of interest, thanks to its seamless use of Google Maps.

Best at 4 seconds, 2 steps
Worst at 23 seconds, 13 steps

Ease of use 4 out of 5
Variety of features 4 out of 5

MyFord Touch

Ready for a reboot.

Annie: What makes this system so frustrating is its inconsistency -- just because it does something once doesn't mean it will do it again. Climate-control entry was clumsy due to the touch-sensitive controls. You can set it by voice, but that's even harder.

Ben: Considering that Ford mainstreamed voice commands with Sync, it's disappointing how bad MyFord Touch is in this regard. Climate-by-voice is novel but not well executed. It's better at understanding commands for the audio system, but that is, again, a credit to the underlying Sync system.

Best at 21 seconds, 2 steps
Worst at 69 seconds, 10 steps

Ease of use 2 out of 5
Variety of features 2 out of 5

BMW iDrive

The first is finally the best.

Annie: This system is the easiest to use. As in the Audi, I like the rotary controller, which I would probably use instead of the voice controls. The command menus are logical, but it's easy to get lost if you're not paying attention.

Ben: Whereas most systems lean heavily on remote databases (Google Maps, Bing, OnStar, Blue Link) for finding points of interest, iDrive has lots of destinations stored locally and is thus quicker. It also integrates smartphone apps like Pandora and Mog better than many others.

Best at 32 seconds, 15 steps
Worst at 76 seconds, 12 steps

Ease of use 4.5 out of 5
Variety of features 4 out of 5

Toyota Entune

Good at the basics.

Annie: The voice commands are frustrating. If you don't say precisely what you're supposed to, the command won't work. It is the best of the mainstream brands at finding a point of interest -- straightforward and easy.

Ben: It can make you a dinner reservation. If that's not cool, what is? This affordable system does have some limits (for instance, there are only 33 total voice commands), but what it can do it does fairly well.

Best at 10 seconds, 1 step
Worst at 47 seconds, 18 steps

Ease of use 3 out of 5
Variety of features 5 out of 5

Hyundai Blue Link

Middle of the road.

Annie: The touchscreen is better than Toyota's -- it helps that it's bigger. The voice system is similar in that it has a very specific set of commands that it responds to and it doesn't work unless you've memorized them.

Ben: Hyundai has a very limited list of points of interest unless you pay to use the Blue Link service, which still isn't perfect. Voice recognition is the best in the test for making phone calls but can't select iPhone tracks.

Best at 19 seconds, 1 step
Worst at 58 seconds, 11 steps

Ease of use 3 out of 5
Variety of features 3 out of 5