Before You Buy a Vehicle, Take the Infotainment System for a Test Drive

You’ll interact with a vehicle's infotainment system every time you get behind the wheel. Make sure you can live with it before buying a new or used car.

Car infotainment systemShutterstock 

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The traditional test drive typically involves driving around the block a few times and cruising for a few miles on the freeway. The goal is to see if the vehicle turns, brakes, accelerates, and rides to your liking. However, if you are in the process of shopping for a new or a used vehicle built within the past decade, you’ll likely discover more interior features than ever, highlighted by larger and more complex infotainment systems. These systems, built around a central screen, typically control the audio system, adjustable vehicle settings, navigation, smartphone connectivity, and increasingly, climate control. How drivers interact with their vehicles — outside of accelerating, braking, and steering — has fundamentally changed now that infotainment systems have consolidated many buttons and knobs into one multifunction system.

The way these new systems work can impact the entire driving and ownership experience, so it’s important that you try the system and understand the basics before you buy a vehicle. What might seem like an odd system quirk in the showroom might end up being the feature that becomes a constant challenge for the next five years of ownership. With that in mind, in addition to the traditional on-road test drive, potential buyers should also familiarize themselves with the infotainment system of a vehicle. Here are some things you should evaluate when taking a vehicle’s infotainment system for a test drive.

Interface Issues Should Be a Dealbreaker

An infotainment system is only as good as its interface. To evaluate properly, sit in the parked vehicle and launch the features you’d most often use, such as audio controls, climate adjustments, and answering a call. If these actions require more than two taps to load or are difficult to switch between tasks, that could negatively impact your driving experience, and potentially pose a safety issue when on the move.

Infotainment systems generally fall into one of three categories. Touchscreen-based systems such as Ford Sync, Audi MMI Touch Response, and Tesla’s infotainment respond to taps, swipes, or pinches on the screen — much like a smartphone or tablet. Systems like Acura True Touchpad and Lexus Remote Touch Interface use a laptop-like trackpad. BMW’s iDrive and similar systems use a large knob-like controller to navigate the screen. Some vehicles with trackpads or rotary controllers also have redundant touchscreen capability, giving users a choice of how they interact with the system. You may find one type of interface more intuitive than the others, which may help you make a decision on which vehicle you want.

Don’t overestimate a slick-looking but difficult-to-navigate interface. A home screen with large, simple icons arranged in a grid is usually a safe bet, as is any system with dedicated physical buttons for switching between primary functions. Once you feel comfortable with the interface, take the vehicle for a drive and try the system out. If the layout puts items out of arm’s reach, check to see if the home screen can be customized so that regularly used items are easy to tap.

Focus on the Features You’ll Actually Use

A plethora of in-car features sound wonderful at first glance, but how many will you realistically use, especially if those features are only offered on top trims, require a monthly subscription fee, or are buried deep in the system? Will those extras be helpful or add more complexity? Navigation, playing audio, and phone integration are the features that most people will use regularly. Anything beyond that is likely a luxury. It may not prove useful to base a purchasing decision on a feature that doesn’t have an everyday use. Concentrate on the core features working well before being wooed by extras.

Make Sure Voice Control Speaks Your Language

Using your voice to control aspects of your vehicle can be great...when it works. Unfortunately, not all voice assistants are equal. The best on the market typically accept natural language commands like “navigate to Los Angeles” or “call Phil.” Some require the driver to adhere to a strict script, asking them to supply simple answers to a series of questions. Navigation systems like this will ask for a street number, then the street name, then the city, and sometimes even the state. These can be frustrating and tedious to use.

Even the best systems might have issues with accents or even just a person’s voice. Try the system both in the showroom and while on the road. Also, check to see if the system can recognize your voice with music playing or with a window down. If you catch yourself repeating the same commands over and over again, you might want to look elsewhere.

Check that Your Smartphone Is Supported

Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto smartphone interface systems have become the go-to for many drivers. Cars with these features allow drivers to plug in their phone or wirelessly connect to the car and use a familiar interface that mimics their phone. If you plan on using this feature, find out if the vehicle supports your device.

Plug in your phone and test to see if your smartphone system of choice works as expected. This is also a good time to check call quality via these systems or over a Bluetooth connection. If you plan to make frequent calls while on the road, check for poor audio quality or excessive road noise in the cabin being transmitted over the phone.

Watch Out for Latency and Buggy Systems

The greatest infotainment system in the world can be defeated by buggy, high-latency software. Latency is the time between when you tap the screen and when something happens. It’s important to check if the system is running at a usable speed for your needs.

Launch features with the vehicle parked and evaluate if they take longer than you expected to load or react oddly. Despite the dealer promising an over-the-air software update in the future, it’s possible that an update might not fix the problem; it may even make the system slower to respond.

Don’t Sweat the Set Up

Setting up the vehicle's infotainment system is often the least worrisome issue. Even if setting up the system or adding a Bluetooth device takes a bit longer than usual, remember you’re only going to do this a few times over the life of the car. When taking a vehicle's infotainment system for a test drive, it's the day-to-day issues to consider the most.

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Roberto Baldwin
Roberto Baldwin is an automotive and technology reporter based in Northern California. In addition to traditional car coverage, he has focused on the emergence of electric vehicles and driver assistance features in vehicles and the eventual launch of autonomous vehicles. Over the past seven years he’s sat in more autonomous test vehicles than he can remember but still reminds the average driver to keep their eyes on the road. He currently owns a Subaru BRZ, Hyundai Kona Electric, and a Vespa GTS 250.