Audi's MMI-Virtual Cockpit is a repeat winner BI's Infotainment System of the Year.
How good is Audi's MMI-Virtual Cockpit infotainment system? So good that it's our first repeat winner for Infotainment System of the Year in 2017.
Audi took the prize in 2016, and, if anything, the competition has stiffened since then. Consumers are demanding more than ever of the technology and connectivity features in their vehicles. If you aren't aiming for state of the art, particularly in the luxury realm, you're falling behind.
This year's finalist were:
Connectivity, apps, smartphone integration (for voice calls and texting as well as email), GPS navigation, and autonomous-driving features are beginning to define the auto experience in ways that mechanical features did in previous decades.
As our cars become more deeply integrated with smart, internet-based tech, we think it's essential to provide our take on the carmakers that are doing the best job of pulling together all these elements — and don't forget to throw in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto — under the rubric of infotainment.
As we explained last year when we first handed out the award, a great infotainment system makes car ownership a pleasure; a poor system makes it a chore. A year later, the pace of change has accelerated. A chore has become a potential deal breaker, and all the automakers with subpar systems are trying to fix or improve this weakness.
But rushing toward the transformation of the automobile into a rolling smartphone isn't necessarily a good idea. Car companies have to tread carefully with how they control the use of connectivity in vehicles. Consumer Reports has in the past recounted frequent owner complaints about balky infotainment systems. And distracted driving is just as big a problem in 2017 as it was in 2016.
Our methodology for choosing an Infotainment System of the Year hasn't changed from 2016. We consider a great system to be one that performs all its functions relatively seamlessly and with as much of an intuitive interface as possible. Right now, voice-recognition technologies are still at an early stage, but we certainly appreciate when a manufacturer's setup works as advertised and isn't clunkier than the more dangerous manual-entry-of-info modes. We also appreciate it if an infotainment system is part of a carmaker's business case for its vehicles and its technology.
For what it's worth, an impressive infotainment system isn't always like what you might get with a smartphone or a tablet. If it were, Tesla's massive touchscreen — which controls most vehicle functions and was a finalist last year — would win every year.
Reliability, ease of use, precision (especially when it comes to navigation), and the ability of a system to be operated while driving without endangering anyone were key criteria for our choice — which involved debate and discussion all year long among senior correspondent Matt DeBord, transportation reporters Ben Zhang and Danielle Muoio, and deputy editor Cadie Thompson.
Audi's MMI infotainment system is the gift that keeps on giving. It does everything well, from managing audio to providing superb and accurate navigation powered by Google Maps. It also has Bluetooth integration along with Audi Connect 4G LTE connectivity and a cluster of apps.
It isn't a touchscreen system. A central infotainment screen emerges from the dashboard, but you use a knob, buttons, and a touchpad to access the menus and features. In practice, it works just flawlessly as it did in 2016, from Bluetooth integration to the simple fact that thanks to the way it's organized, you won't be taking your eyes off the road as often as with touchscreen-style systems.
To be sure, the competition is catching up with Audi and in many cases ditching manual interfaces as much as possible and opting for as much touchscreen functionality as possible. But as we wrote last year, Virtual Cockpit continues to give the carmaker an edge.
Virtual Cockpit is an amazing technology that transforms the main instrument cluster into a customizable digital screen. It can, for example, display the navigation map and send the traditional gauges to the corners of the screen. This means that a driver's eyes are front and center much of the time, rather than darting between the road ahead, the infotainment screen, and the instruments (as well as the rearview and side-view mirrors).
There are three modes, according to Audi: Classic, Infotainment, and Sport. The first retains the traditional instrument-cluster layout, with additional info concentrated in between the tachometer and speedometer. The second valorizes information. The third — available in Audi's sport trims — goes old school and presents a basic instrument display.
Virtual Cockpit is managed using steering-wheel controls, so it's even more safety-oriented. In 2016, it was available only on the A4 sedan, the Q7 SUV, and R8 supercar. In 2017, it comes on Audi's A3 and A5 sedans and on its Q5 SUV.
In terms of the voice system, Audi's MMI is state-of-the-art. It can't match Apple CarPlay and Siri, but Apple's system wasn't quite ready to take over control of the car in 2016, and that remains true this year.
The overall Audi system is effective, advanced, easy to use, reliable, and dramatic. It was a worthy winner for our first-ever Infotainment System of the Year, and although it had more of a fight in 2017, it's an equally worthy repeat victor.
In 2016, we argued that 2017 finalist General Motors' MyLink/IntelliLink/Cue plus OnStar had come on very strong as the biggest challenger to Audi's MMI in the traditional automaking realm.
We still think that GM's system — which has different names across brands, but has essentially the same functionality — is set apart by the combination of 4G-LTE connectivity, available on every vehicle the company makes, and OnStar, GM's longstanding suite of communications, safety, and navigation technology, activated by buttons on the rearview mirror.
But Volvo's Senus system is getting harder to overlook. And in 2017, we couldn't. It's our runner-up.
The cool thing about Senus is that it isn't holding back. Volvo — now owned by China's Geely and in the midst to staging an all-out assault in the luxury segment — wants to stand apart and reinvent its stodgy reputation for making insanely durable cars that were loved by college professors and the safety-minded but lacked premium sizzle.
Sensus doesn't go quite as far as Tesla in consolidating nearly all vehicle function in a single, large, central touchscreen. But the large, 9.3-inch touchscreen is the closest thing any other automaker has to a tablet in the dashboard, right down to a "home" button that can return the user to the base interface. We'll be the first to admit that the swiping through screens required to navigate Sensus take a bit of getting used to. But after experiencing it in several vehicles, we've started to enjoy its quirks.
It handles Apple CarPlay and Android Auto well, and for the most part, the screen is responsive. As with all large touchscreen-style systems, there is a distraction factor — or, more accurately, a problem of having to engage the system and the screen to, for example, raise or lower the heat, while older system provide physical knobs and switches. Still, big screens are likely to define in-vehicle interfaces in the future, with consumers demanding them. And apart from Tesla, Volvo with Sensus is the automaker that taken the plunge — and taken on both the business opportunity and risk.
All the other infotainment systems that were in the running had the compelling merits. JLR's InControl presented a bug or two in our testing, but it's a new system and we found its design to be superb. Ford SYNC 3 has followed GM's system in combining a responsive touchscreen with ease of use.
Congratulations to Audi, though, for maintaining its daunting level of infotainment excellence in the face of fierce competition, continuing to innovate, and for making Virtual Cockpit available on additional vehicles in 2017.