Thanks to ongoing advances in new automotive technologies – and customer appetite for the same – the actual process of driving today’s latest cars is just part of the overall picture. How well a vehicle’s infotainment and driver assistance features work has become at least as important for many owners. It’s also the focus of the first-ever Wards 10 Best User Experiences competition.
Developed by the team at WardsAuto, the same site behind the prestigious 10 Best Engines and 10 Best Interiors programs, the “Best UX” rankings are an admitted spinoff of the latter. WardsAuto says the new list “drills deeply into the user-friendliness of vehicle systems designed to minimize distraction and frustration, prevent accidents, and improve safety in neighborhoods and on the highway.”
Specifically taken into account were factors ranging from ease of smartphone syncing to voice recognition performance to how comfortable the cabin’s materials are. Twenty-nine “all-new or significantly redesigned” vehicles were evaluated during a two-month period this summer for the Best UX awards, and several trends quickly became apparent. Let’s see how those were reflected in the 2016 class of winners.
Crossovers That Deliver Winning Infotainment Systems
The biggest vehicle category for the Best UX winners was crossovers, as four were on the list. It’s perhaps unsurprising, as increased customer demand in these segments has drawn plenty of investment from automakers. As a result, the top crossovers are known for offering impressive infotainment technology. Ford, for example, recently upgraded its infotainment systems, and that didn’t go unnoticed by Wards. According to editors, the Sync 3 infotainment system found in the Ford Escape is a major boon to its user experience, and the voice control has become “so fast we can barely get our words out before it performs a command!”
Yet Wards also discovered that, for certain functions, especially for audio and media systems, sticking with traditional physical switchgear can be less frustrating than either voice recognition or a touch screen. Voice control for tuning and volume often requires multiple steps, and screen-based solutions can be hard to reach and with varying amounts of feedback. So although the GMC Acadia was lauded for both touch screen and voice features, its prominent knobs and buttons also were vital to an award-winning outcome.
What it comes down to is that the fanciest infotainment tech in the world won’t make driving easier for owners if it’s too complicated to operate in the first place. This really comes into play with the more premium vehicles, too. For instance, the Lexus RX earned its Best UX trophy by serving up not only a host of sophisticated technologies, but also a console-mounted Remote Touch controller. It relies on a built-in, mouselike interface instead of a conventional touch screen, and using it quickly becomes “second nature,” according to the Wards experts.
Even for the luxurious Audi Q7, Wards was sure to list the premium crossover’s “much-appreciated redundant dials” as reasons for honoring its user experience. (The Q7’s mobile Wi-Fi hot spot, all-digital Virtual Cockpit instrumentation and navigation-enabled adaptive cruise control no doubt helped as well.)
Luxury Sedans With Innovative Touches
The Best UX honor roll also includes a trio of premium sedans. Backed by some noticeably up-scale content, these vehicles showcase the WardsAuto’s emphasis on “user experiences that surprise and delight.”
It’s exactly the sort of stuff you’d expect from an $80,000 flagship sedan such as the BMW 7 Series, which delivers nearly spa-like comforts, complete with seats that provide on-the-road massage functionality and a filtered climate system to waft scented freshener through the cabin to eliminate odors.
Cars such as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class take a similarly elevated approach to safety benefits. Now, to be clear, the E-Class, and all of the Best UX leaders, did excel in multiple testing areas. However, Wards’ seemed to be particularly impressed with Mercedes’ occupant-protection systems, since editors name-checked its parking assistance, semi-autonomous driving capabilities and an out-of-the ordinary bonus: The E-Class can generate white noise through its audio speakers to protect occupant hearing from the potentially loud sounds of a crash.
The entry-premium Infiniti Q50 then sets the stage for outstanding user experiences in more affordable entries, with a relatively low MSRP of $33,950 and an infotainment system that ups the ante with two “brilliantly lit,” full-color capacitive touch screens.
Mainstream Models With Exceptional Value, Capability and Usability
Closing out the 2016 Wards Best UX competition were three very different vehicles from three of the high-volume mainstream brands, each of which shows how “the user experience is fast becoming the great equalizer” in the industry.
Thus, the all-new Chrysler Pacifica minivan meets the unique challenges of its segment with a user experience that “treats occupants of all ages, especially the young, like royalty.” It also checks off the boxes for user-friendly infotainment and driver assistance technologies, along with one of the highest-rated infotainment setups. Indeed, WardsAuto writers lauded the system for its ability to recognize natural voice commands and provide “one-step” audio functionality.
Supplying a unique surprise-and-delight function was the Honda Ridgeline, which is completely redesigned for 2017. The Ridgeline’s in-bed speaker setup proves the extent to which automakers will go when looking for an edge in the most competitive segments. An available option for the Ridgeline audio system, this features incorporate extra audio speakers into the walls of the truck’s cargo bed, creating the perfect outdoor audio system for tailgating, the job site and other outdoor scenarios.
Finally, the “value leader” in the Best UX ratings was the compact Hyundai Elantra. As pointed out by WardsAuto, the Elantra furnishes levels of functionality that are missing from more expensive vehicles, including support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, as well as adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and additional high-tech driver-assistance measures.