Luxury Infotainment Overview

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In-vehicle infotainment systems have a profound effect on the way we interact with our cars. They connect us to the outside world, richen the driving experience, and help mitigate distracted driving -- or at least that's the idea, for the only means by which an infotainment system can deliver on these promises is with a human-machine interface that's equal parts responsive and intuitive.

Now that the average consumer has become accustomed to tinkering with virtually every aspect of their cell phone, television, or tablet, vehicle customization plays a significant role in the automotive space as well.

For the better part of a decade, ordinary car buyers largely based their purchasing decision on four key pillars: price, design, fuel economy, and dependability. Today, that number stands at five, as in-vehicle technology becomes a major contributing factor in the purchasing process.

Here we've evaluated the current infotainment systems offered by several popular luxury automakers, a guide designed to help you figure out which system better suits your lifestyle, feature requirements, and skill level. If you're trying to decide between a Mercedes and a Lexus, for instance, weighing the relative strengths and weaknesses of their respective infotainment offerings might make the decision a lot easier.

Two emerging technologies are called out specifically:

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto project a vehicle-friendly version of your mobile operating system (OS) onto the audio system display. Both systems provide access to native navigation services (Apple Maps or Google Maps), hands-free text messaging, and a variety of music-related apps and functions.

Smartphone remote apps let you monitor and control essential vehicle functions from practically anywhere. After downloading the appropriate application from the Apple App Store or Google Play, you have the power to lock, unlock and start your vehicle while on the go. Some systems even let you control climate settings, view pertinent diagnostic data like fuel/charge levels and transfer a business listing or address directly to your car's navigation system.

Here's a look at your in-vehicle infotainment options among luxury vehicles, including how they perform in five important measures.


Cadillac Cue

Cadillac Cue infotainment overview

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: Standard

Smartphone Remote App: Available

One of the first infotainment systems to incorporate tap, spread, and pinch gestures, Cadillac Cue draws its design and engineering inspiration from the consumer electronics industry. Backed by a triple-core processor, Cue features an expansive conversational voice recognition engine that lets you speak to the system as you would a human being.

Cadillac Cue infotainment graph

The centerpiece is an 8-inch capacitive touchscreen with haptic feedback (confirms your desired input with a slight vibration) and industry-first proximity sensing, which redisplays hidden menu icons as your hand approaches the screen. Depending on task, response times vary from lethargic to swift. Thankfully, however, Cadillac has addressed these processing inconsistencies with a comprehensive update, which will find its way into select models for the 2016 model year.

In terms of extras, every console includes one-shot destination entry (allows you to speak an entire address at once while your vehicle is in motion), three USB ports, and 60 presets for destinations and radio stations.

 

Volvo Sensus

Volvo Sensus

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: Available in late 2015

Smartphone Remote App: Available

Making its inaugural debut in the second-generation Volvo XC90, Sensus is a tablet-style multimedia platform comprised of a vertically oriented 9-inch display, navigation by Nokia's renowned HERE mapping service, and an infrared touchscreen that can be operated while wearing gloves. Those already familiar with the pinch and swipe interactivity of a smartphone will feel right at home with Sensus. Rapid response times, large icons, and vivid graphics all amount to one of the least distracting touchscreen infotainment systems available.

Volvo Sensus Graph   

The advanced voice recognition engine allows you to verbally input a navigation address while on the go as well as adjust the climate. We recommend utilizing voice commands whenever possible due to the fact that Sensus' glossy display is a fingerprint magnet. In fact, the screen is so susceptible to smudges and fingerprints that every console comes with its very own microfiber cloth.

The home screen displays information for navigation, Bluetooth-connected phones, media metadata, and current audio EQ settings. Although the accompanying digital instrument cluster displays artist, track, and album artwork, the navigation system offers a handy split-screen function for those who want their map, phone, and media modules all in one place.   

BMW iDrive

BMW iDrive

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: Currently unavailable

Smartphone Remote App: Available

When the first iteration arrived on the scene in 2001, iDrive was broadly ridiculed for its wildly overcomplicated interface and sluggish response times. Since then, BMW has honed and refined iDrive into the technological powerhouse it is today. Of course, with great power comes great responsibility, meaning iDrive's learning curve is arguably the steepest in the business. While sophisticated tasks are handled with aplomb, simple requests like displaying current track info, returning to the home screen, or scanning for radio stations have become a multi-step process. To help allay some of these logistical shortcomings, the next generation of iDrive will offer both remote and touchscreen interactivity.

BMW iDrive Graph

Then again, the control wheel and surrounding buttons are easy to use and can be operated without ever taking your eyes off the road after only a few days of use. Plus, up-market versions incorporate a handwriting-sensitive touchpad atop the control dial, enabling speedier text inputs than a traditional single-entry QWERTY keyboard.

The wide-angle LCD -- whose dimensions range from 6.5 to 12.3 inches -- features high-resolution graphics, optional Internet browsing capability, and a 3D navigation system with online points of interest.

 

Mercedes-Benz COMAND

Mercedes-Benz Comand infotainment overview

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: Currently unvailable

Smartphone Remote App: Available

As pleasant to look at as it is to use, Mercedes-Benz COMAND stands out for its ultra-high-resolution display (8.4 to 12.3 inches), Internet browsing capability, and ergonomically designed touchpad that recognizes single and multi-finger gestures such as scrolling, swiping, and zooming, as well as letter and number inputs. Nestled just below the touchpad lies a traditional rotary dial flanked by a handy "return" button and "favorites" shortcut.

Mercedes-Benz Comand infotainment graph

Although the layout might seem a bit overwhelming at first glance, COMAND's redundant control interface lets you operate core multimedia functions as you see fit. For instance, there are three distinct approaches to changing a track or radio station: (1) swiping to the left or right on the touchpad; (2) rotating the rotary dial; (3) pressing the traditional "track up" and "track down" buttons on the center stack.

Shortcomings include the absence of embedded speed limit data and a traditional map/media split-screen function.

 

Lexus Enform

Lexus Enform infotainment overview

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: Currently unavailable

Smartphone Remote App: Available

Depending on which vehicle you choose, Lexus Enform is currently offered with two distinct interfaces: a laptop-style touchpad and a mouse-like controller. Though both are difficult to use while in motion, the touchpad is undoubtedly the more frustrating of the two. Due to its limited surface area and slow-witted nature, accurate inputs with the touchpad are difficult to come by -- regardless of your skill level. Thankfully, though, newer iterations incorporate physical menu shortcuts for media, radio, track up/down, and play/pause.

Lexus Enform infotainment graph

Screen sizes range from a comparatively small 7-inch unit to a gargantuan high-definition 12.3-inch display with full-and split-screen functionality. Access to apps like Yelp, Open Table, Movietickets.com, and Pandora is also available once you create a user account online and download the Enform mobile app to your smartphone. By contrast, COMAND, iDrive, Sensus, Cue, and MMI all feature built-in mobile apps that work without a smartphone by leveraging cellular data from the vehicle's embedded modem. It should be noted that these integrated Wi-Fi hotspots typically carry a subscription fee of roughly $25/month for 1GB of data.

Audi MMI

Audi MMI infotainment overview

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: Available

Smartphone Remote App: Available

Despite the lack of a touchscreen alternative, Audi has mastered the art of developing a remote terminal that integrates seamlessly with its digital interface. The layout consists of a traditional rotary dial bordered by physical shortcuts for navigation, media, radio, phone, and submenus, along with the obligatory "return" button. After only a few days of use, most drivers will be able to operate the interface without ever looking away from the road.

Mounted high atop the dash in every late-model Audi is an MMI display, whose sizes range from an awkwardly small 5.3-inch unit to an 8-inch HD panel. Mid- to high-end systems equipped with Audi Connect include mapping data and local points of interest by Google, as well as an embedded LTE hotspot ($20/month subscription fee required) that drives real-time weather, travel, and fuel price information. Also on offer is a touchpad that recognizes fingertip scrawls.

Audi MMI infotainment graph

MMI is undergoing a thorough modernization in select 2016-and-newer models to include haptic feedback and Audi's new Virtual Cockpit. In a nutshell, the Virtual Cockpit is a 12.3-inch fully digital instrument cluster tied to the primary MMI system. This allows the driver to select and view practically every function available on the main display, such as full-screen navigation, Audi Connect services, and multimedia info without displacing pertinent driving information like speed, engine revs, fuel level, and outside temperature.

 

Jaguar InControl Touch Pro

Jaguar InControl Touch Pro infotainment overview

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: Currently unavailable

Smartphone Remote App: Available

InControl Touch Pro (ITP) is built around a 10.2-inch touchscreen display with tablet-like pinch, zoom, and swipe gesture controls. While this might not sound like a game changer on the surface, Jaguar's flagship infotainment offering is bolstered by some impressive hardware, including a quad-core processor, graphics by Intel, and a 60GB solid state hard drive. These impressive specs yield one of the fastest and most responsive touchscreen infotainment systems we've ever tested.

Thanks to Nokia's HERE Auto services, ITP provides cloud-based maps (mapping data continuously updated via the Internet), street view destination imagery, and route plans that incorporate public transit. The home screen can also be customized to include user-defined tiles for the features you use most. Similar to Audi's Virtual Cockpit, ITP is linked to a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster that features a full-screen navigation mode and comprehensive metadata.

Jaguar InControl Touch Pro infotainment graph

Of course, InControl Touch Pro is top-of-the-line tech, and with it comes a hefty price tag of approximately $3,000. A more affordable alternative is the standard InControl Touch system, which shares almost nothing in common with its upmarket counterpart. HERE Auto, customizable widgets, mobile apps, and web browsing are exclusive to the Pro unit, meaning the entry-level platform is pretty much what you'd expect from a basic infotainment system. Although response times are a bit slower than we prefer, graphics for the 8" touchscreen are quite good and the conventional 4-box home screen (phone, climate, navigation, and media) affords a clean, simple interface.

 

Acura AcuraLink

Acura AcuraLink infotainment overview

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: Currently unavailable

Smartphone Remote App: Available

AcuraLink is a dual-screen infotainment center featuring a lower touchscreen and remote-controlled upper display. The touchscreen functions almost exclusively as a multimedia/climate control interface, and incorporates haptic feedback as well as access to mobile apps like Pandora and Aha Radio. Due to its dated resistive touch panel, though, the lower touchscreen requires a great deal of pressure to produce an accurate input. The icons are also small and cluttered, making it difficult -- and potentially dangerous -- to operate while the vehicle is in motion.

Acura AcuraLink infotainment graph

While navigation serves as the upper screen's primary function, it can also display phone, media, and vehicle info. Sadly, the low-res graphics, old-school menu controls, and awkwardly positioned rotary dial make it one of the least recommended navigation systems in the luxury sector.

That said, we were satisfied with the quality and responsiveness of the voice recognition software, and both the upper and lower screens do a good job of repelling sun glare.

 

Infiniti InTouch

Infiniti InTouch infotainment overview

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: Currently unavailable

Smartphone Remote App: Available

Similar to AcuraLink, Infiniti InTouch is a dual-screen infotainment platform comprised of a lower touchscreen and remote-activated upper display that doubles as a touchscreen. The lower screen handles ordinary tasks like phone access, multimedia, climate control, destination inputs, and connectivity to mobile apps like Facebook and Google Local Search. Since its debut in 2014, however, the smartphone app required to run said in-vehicle applications still suffers from a slew of stability issues. Thankfully, InTouch offers SirusXM's smartphone-free, subscription-based app suite, which includes such data services as fuel prices, sports, movie listings, stock prices, and weather, all for about $12/month.

Infiniti InTouch infotainment graph

Response times on the lower display are a mixed bag, with some functions acting without delay and others requiring 2-3 seconds for a reaction to occur. The upper navigation screen is much more responsive to both touch and remote inputs, though its mapping interface and graphics are a bit outdated. Aesthetics aside, the navigation system does contain a number of handy features, such as fastest, shortest, and most fuel-efficient routes along with a journey planner and advanced voice recognition with one-shot destination entry (lets you speak an entire address at once while the vehicle is in motion).

 

Where to Buy

So where do you get your hands on one of these high-tech, multi-talented systems? In many of the luxury cars and SUVs covered in our Small Luxury Sedan Buyer's Guide, Midsize Luxury Sedan Buyer's Guide, Small Luxury SUV Buyer's Guide and Midsize Luxury SUV Buyer's Guide.

 

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