Best car infotainment systems
'Infotainment' is a word often bandied about when talking about sophisticated car media systems, but which makes and models have them?
Cars with infotainment systems can be something of a rabbit hole. This is due to the rate at which these systems are being developed, tweaked and improved. Plus the fact car manufacturers often have multiple different infotainment systems for particular models. The result is, there are oodles and oodles of different systems out there, which can make finding the perfect car for you all the harder.
The term ‘infotainment’ is a blend of ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’. These two words broadly describe the functions of the media systems normally mounted in the middle of cars' dashboards - however not all systems are born equal. Some offer simple control of the sound system and basic car information functions - such as connecting a phone for Bluetooth. Others go further, including sat-nav, air-conditioning controls and even bringing features tailored to the specific type of car. For example, there are performance cars that can show graphs of the g-force a car achieves when cornering. Nerdy, but cool.
Similarly, these systems can differ greatly in how they are operated. The majority use a touchscreen display but there is often a secondary method of control, such as a mouse pad or rotary dial on the centre console, which can be used to select buttons on the screen. Having a rotary dial can be a godsend when driving on uneven roads where using a touchscreen would be rather difficult, as your hand is likely to bounce around over bumps, making it hard to press a specific part of a touchscreen.
Although you would be hard pushed to find a relatively new car that doesn’t have an infotainment system, we have gone to the liberty of highlighting eight of the best cars with an impressive infotainment system. These include a range of different car types, from a people carrier, to family-size hatchback and saloon and typically vary in price from £6,000 to £35,000.
Cars with infotainment systems
The latest-generation Mercedes A-Class has been selling like hotcakes since it arrived in 2018. Part of this is down to the deeply impressive ‘MBUX’ media system. This stands for ‘Mercedes-Benz User Experience’ and consists of two large digital displays mounted on the dashboard. One is primarily for the driver, showing key information such as speed, sat-nav information and fuel level, while the second screen shows peripheral information, such as the song that is playing or who you are calling.
If we were to stop there, we would be doing Mercedes a disservice as MBUX is much more advanced than that. The system learns drivers' habits so that it can make predictions to improve the driving experience. This includes remembering your favourite song, automatically tuning into the radio station you regularly listen to on your commute and showing a faster route to work via the sat-nav if it notes that the normal way is congested. Clever stuff.
A few years ago, Peugeot radically changed the way it designed car interiors. The resulting layout is called ‘i-Cockpit’ and revolves around two key principles. The first is shrinking the steering wheel to be so small that the driver can see the dials for things such as speed and engine temperature over the wheel rather than through it. It may sound odd but doing this can also make the car feel more agile, with the small wheel providing a sporty feel.
The second part of i-Cockpit is a centrally mounted touchscreen media system. The screen takes care of the overwhelming majority of car controls - such as audio controls, heating and cooling and Bluetooth - with only a handful of buttons remaining on the dashboard. Some people love the fact everything is built into one display, while others are less convinced. It is well worth doing your homework to make sure you are happy with the format of i-Cockpit before signing on the dotted line for your next car.
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When Tesla launched the Model S, its iPad-style 17-inch touchscreen media system made established car makers' vehicles seem old fashioned overnight. While many have since caught up, Tesla has to be applauded for breaking the mould. Not only was the display bigger and sleeker than rivals, but it also operated much more like a smartphone than any other alternatives. Tesla has regularly updated its operating system, which helps keep it looking bang up to date and ensure it's as easy to use as possible.
While Tesla did not invent the technology, it has arguably been the most successful at implementing ‘over the air’ updates. This effectively means that the Model S can update its software from anywhere in the world where it has a Wi-Fi connection. These updates can range in their significance, from small tweaks to the styling of the graphics shown on the media display to major updates involving tweaks to the electric motor and battery software.
Although the XC40 is the smallest Volvo SUV of the range, it has a number of features that are shared with more expensive models in the Swedish brand’s lineup. One of these is the media system, which is fundamentally a carbon copy of that which is used in the larger XC60 and XC90. The display is portrait in orientation, which automatically makes it stand out, as landscape orientations are more common.
The graphics are generally intuitive and you can pinch and swipe as you would on a smartphone or tablet. While there is sometimes a small amount of lag between your inputs and the screen, it is still an impressive system. The interior overall is pleasingly stylish. It is simple yet cool, in an IKEA kind of way and clutter is at an absolute minimum. One thing to note is that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t standard on all XC40 models, so if you want to mirror your phone on the media system, make sure the car you are considering has the required tech.
Over the years BMW has honed its media system craft and now its system - called ‘iDrive’ - is one of the best in the business. Part of its success comes from how easy it is to use on the move. Touchscreen systems are quite hard to use when a car is moving as your fingers bounce about all over the place as you cross bumps in the road.
BMW overcomes this by providing drivers with a touchscreen display and a rotary dial, which you can use by feel, without having to take your eyes away from the road or prod away at the screen and hope you hit the right button. In certain models, gesture control is included too.
Gesture controls could easily be dismissed as a gimmick but once you know how to use the gestures you’d be surprised how often you find yourself using them to navigate the screen and control functions such as volume. BMW complements iDrive with a number of cutting edge features. One example is the ability to use your smartphone as a key via the MyBMW app. It is called BMW digital key and is currently only available with certain iPhones, but you can authorise up to five other people to be able to use their phones as keys.
The Renault Scenic doesn't have the most cutting edge media system, but what it does have, is a system that is sharper, more intuitive and more responsive than its rivals from the likes of Ford and Citroen. There are two systems available; one comes with a seven-inch display, while the other uses a larger 8.7-inch ‘R-Link 2’ setup. It is the latter that we recommend but both are solid choices.
Technically, the Scenic is a people carrier, although Renault’s designers injected a hint of SUV style into its appearance, making it look like nothing else on the road. This was partly achieved by using stylish oversized 20-inch alloy wheels, which give it a super-modern look, though they do make the ride slightly less comfortable than in alternative people carriers such as the Ford C-Max.
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The high-performance Hyundai i20 N means business. It has a pumped-up turbocharged petrol engine, sports seats, big brakes, grippy tyres and all manner of other go-faster technology. The ‘N’ in the name indicates that this particular version of the i20 has been modified by Hyundai’s in-house performance division and the result is that those engineers have created a car which is tremendous fun to drive - especially on fast 60mph twisty roads - and also sounds great.
Where does the infotainment system come into this? Cars from the N division come with an impressive raft of performance parameters that the driver can tweak. Doing so allows the driver to set up the car exactly how they like it. In the case of the i20 N, you can adjust settings for the engine, steering, exhaust sound and rev-matching - which makes gear changes smoother when going from a high to a low gear. Thanks to the slick touchscreen media system in the i20 N, adjusting these settings couldn’t be easier as it simply takes a couple of taps.
One of the main concerns for modern media systems is that they look great now, but what happens in 10 or 15 years when they are out of date, slow and may have glitches aplenty? No one knows. The answer could be to replace the entire system with a new one, but this will likely be costly and time-consuming. One of the ways around this is to drive a Volkswagen Up.
This cute little car does not come with a swanky touchscreen media system. Instead, it has a cradle to mount your smartphone. Therefore, as long as your phone is up to date, you will have the latest travel software, including sat-nav apps such as Waze. This isn’t the only impressive feature in the Up. There is seating for four, a range of peppy petrol engines and a comfortable ride. When shopping for a VW Up, also look at the Skoda Citigo and the Seat Mii as they are fundamentally the same car underneath, only with very subtly different styling and a different badge on the bonnet.
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