Today’s dashboards can be fun to use…or ridiculously complex

It used to be that operating a car’s entertainment and information system was as simple as turning a radio dial. Such simplicity is becoming a thing of the past. Today’s cars often come equipped with computerized flat-screen control panels and voice-command systems.

These systems, sometimes referred to as “telematics” or “infotainment control systems,” typically operate the car’s audio, navigation and climate-control systems. They also might provide weather and traffic updates, Internet access and hands-free calling and text messaging, usually by linking to a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone.

This technology now is a standard feature on many models and an affordable option on most others—even economy cars.

But while advanced telematics systems can be useful, they also can be confusing to learn, frustrating to operate and even dangerous if they distract drivers from the road.

Telematics systems can be buggy, too. The 2012 Initial Quality Survey by research firm JD Power found that for the first time ever, car owners reported more problems with their audio, entertainment and navigation systems than with any other part of their vehicles. Reported problems in this area have increased by 45% since 2006, even as cars in general have become more reliable.

6 QUESTIONS TO ASK

Although some telematics systems are easier to use than others, they all have a learning curve—it pays to make sure that you are comfortable with whichever one is in the car you choose and to practice before you start driving.

Here’s what to check before you buy your next new car…

Are there easy-to-use physical buttons or knobs as alternatives to the touch screen for the most commonly used controls? It’s annoying to scroll through touch-screen menus every time you want to turn down the volume on the stereo or turn up the air-conditioning. Well-designed systems retain one-touch physical controls for the most frequently used functions, either on the dash or steering wheel, in addition to the touch-screen controls. Make sure that these include controls for the adjustments you make the most.

Does the voice-recognition system understand me? Voice-recognition technology has improved dramatically in recent years, but most systems still are far from perfect. It’s beyond frustrating to talk to a voice-recognition system that can’t figure out what you’re saying. Be sure to try out the system during or after your test drive.

How easy is it to read the display while driving? Telematics screens should be large, clear and positioned where the driver can obtain information without taking his/her eyes off the road for more than a moment. Confirm this during your test drive.

Examples: Screens positioned high on the instrument panel generally are better than those lower down…simple screens with large words and graphics are better than cluttered screens.

Can key information from the touch-screen be displayed in the cluster of gauges on your dashboard, too? Some systems allow certain touch-screen information—the next turn in the navigation system’s driving directions, for example—also to be displayed on a small screen in the gauge cluster. That makes checking this info as quick and easy as glancing at the speedometer.

Does the system have its own wireless connection—is it a “rolling Wi-Fi” hot spot—and how dependent is it on a smartphone? Many modern telematics systems connect with the Internet through a smartphone, reducing their value to car buyers who don’t have one.

A few systems also feature their own wireless Internet access. This eliminates the need for a smartphone and increases the amount of information that the touch screen can provide. You could obtain a street view of your destination from Google Maps, for example. In some cases, it even means the vehicle can serve as a rolling Wi-Fi hot spot, so passengers can use Wi-Fi devices. Wireless Internet access means paying a monthly fee, however.

Will the text-by-voice capability work with my smartphone? Many of the latest telematics systems will read aloud text messages sent to your smartphone and even allow you to dictate a response. These systems generally work well with Android phones and BlackBerrys, but they often do not work well with iPhones.

THE BEST

Telematics technology is advancing so rapidly that the latest systems tend to be the best. Today’s top systems…

Cadillac CUE currently is the best system available. It features an attractive, easy-to-read eight-inch LCD touch screen that provides tactile feedback—when you push a virtual button on the screen, it pulses slightly to let you know that you’ve successfully pushed it. The lack of such feedback is a common complaint about other touch screens. CUE also has a very strong voice-recognition system that is relatively intuitive to use. www.Cadillac.com/cadillac_cue.html

Available in: 2013 Cadillac XTS and ATS sedans and the 2013 SRX crossover. It’s standard on some models and an option priced at $1,350 on others.

Chrysler Uconnect Access features the best voice-recognition system I have ever used. It doesn’t just understand a few words—it processes complete sentences. It didn’t get a single word wrong during my entire test drive. The touch screen is well-designed, too. www.DriveUconnect.com

Available in: 2013 RAM 1500 pickup truck and SRT Viper sports car. It will be offered in both as an option.

Helpful: The prior generation UConnect system, available as an option in the affordable 2013 Dart sedan, among other vehicles, is very good, too.

AN ALTERNATIVE

GM OnStar isn’t a cutting-edge touch-screen telematics system, but it might be the best option for a certain type of car owner—one who dislikes dealing with computers. OnStar lets users request things such as driving directions and emergency assistance from a real human being at the push of a single button.

Additional OnStar features include remote unlock in case you lock your keys in your car…remote horn and lights in case you can’t find your vehicle in a large lot…and automatic crash response that alerts the authorities if you’re in an accident.

Available in: More than 30 different GM models…and it can be added as an aftermarket device to other cars for about $100. Cost: $18.95 to $28.90 per month. www.OnStar.com

WEAK SYSTEMS

Systems to avoid if you are shopping for a used car…

Pre-2006 BMWs containing the iDrive system.

Pre-2006 Mercedes containing the Comand system.

These systems are poorly designed and—unlike today’s systems—cannot easily be updated.