'The latest infotainment systems in some VWs aren’t fit for purpose'

Some infotainment systems are a mess and potentially dangerous, says Mike Rutherford

Infotainment screen

I know about, appreciate and welcome progress. My first second-hand car was a beige, air-cooled VW Beetle with two lap belts, an AM radio plus one speaker, bad brakes and an incurable drink problem. Five years later my first new car was a black, water-cooled VW Golf with five seatbelts, an FM/AM/LW radio-cassette plus four speakers, anti-lock brakes, and a tendency to drink half as much fuel.

How’s that for progress? The Golf – plus the under-estimated Polo – weren’t just spiritual/actual successors to the original Beetle; they were in an entirely different league in terms of improving the day-to-day lives of car occupants, while at the same time reducing road accidents, injuries and deaths.  

Wind forward three or four decades and VW-badged products – like the vast majority of new cars – have continued to progress at a deeply impressive pace. Even low-priced vehicles of the recent past have morphed from basic, often dangerous, unreliable upholstered skateboards to sophisticated motor cars boasting astonishing levels of comfort and reliability. In almost every way they’re better, safer, and higher-quality. Car design, engineering and production progress went far beyond the public’s hopes and expectations, and VW helped lead the charge. 

But lately I fear that progress has, in some respects, stalled – and maybe even gone into reverse. Absurdly complicated, user-unfriendly infotainment systems are the main reason – and the VW Group is a big part of this avoidable relapse. Most of its cars I rank as good to great, but the latest infotainment systems in some of them aren’t fit for purpose. They’re worse and less intuitive than those in some previous generations. 

Try to locate the ‘controls’ for the radio and heater, or sat-nav when you’re on the move in the current Mk8 Golf, then go back and do the same in the Mk7 or Mk6 – and you’ll discover that newest and most advanced doesn’t mean best or safest.

These problems are software and hardware-related, and to be fair, the group is understood to be working on software improvements. But what about the user-hostile hardware? It’s an integral part of the car. The ridiculous positioning of the heating/ventilation sliders and radio controls can’t be improved. These are inherent design faults, and they’re not just an inconvenient pain: they’re potentially dangerous, as they dictate that time that should be spent with hands on the wheel, and eyes on the road, is diverted. Concentrating on driving transforms into concentrating on how to work the damned infotainment; it’s a lose-lose situation. There are further losses when potential buyers like me walk away on the grounds that we love the cars, but couldn’t live with the tech.

This is not solely a VW Group problem. It’s a plague that affects several car makers, big and small. But just as it’s right that I single out Volkswagen in particular, and the VW Group in general, for delivering colossal positive change and welcome progress to real-world motorists over the last half-century, it’s equally right that I acknowledge and warn you of this unwelcome and unnecessary infotainment system mess.

Find the best sat-nav apps for your phone here...

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