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Infotainment, automatics turn off buyers

Consumer Reports ranks features most annoying due to complexities

Published: November 27, 2016, 10:30 PM
Updated: December 7, 2016, 5:38 PM

MyLink connecting to Apple CarPlay

Good: Mercedes-Benz COMAND - A system that relies heavily on dials rather than touches, the COMAND system really is excellent. There is lots of haptic feedback through the dial itself, and in most of its offerings there are button backups. Higher-end models offer a small touchpad hidden by a flip cover that recognizes finger swipes and written letters.

According to the Consumer Reports 2016 Annual Auto Reliability Survey, consumers are particularly turned off by a couple of today’s hottest features — infotainment systems and increasingly complex automatic transmissions.

Infotainment systems are a recent invention, as vehicles get more sophisticated and more technologies are added and need controlling. In just about two decades, vehicles have gone from having a radio with two bands (and in many cases, optional FM) and maybe a cassette deck and/or CD player, to touch-screen displays or mouse-like knobs that exercise control over heating and ventilation, satellite radio, mobile devices, internet audio streaming, navigation systems, and even suspension settings on some systems. And now we’re experimenting with gesture controls and holographic images.

Hand gesture control in Mercedes-Benz F015

And that’s probably the main reason why they’re so annoying to some owners — they’re overwhelmingly extensive, and they don’t always perform the functions they need to perform seamlessly (or in some cases, even efficiently). And in some parts, the touchscreens don’t always work when the temperatures drop to sub-Arctic.

The funny part is that although many people find them frustrating at times, they’re a result of many people demanding more technology or ways to control the technology they bring along on their persons every day. The other annoying reason is that some things are included in on-board systems simply because they can be, not because they’re needed.

2014 Cadillac Eight-Speed Automatic Transmission

Automatic transmissions have also come on really fast in the past couple years, adding more gears so that the normal 4- and 5-speed of even 10 years ago has been supplanted by 6 and 7-speed versions, with some now experimenting with 8- and 9-gear units. It’s all meant to act closer to continuously variable (CVT) units that many view as contrarians to performance, while CVTs are adding software to make them act more like geared transmissions.

Neither is superior to the other overall, and each performs better than the other in certain circumstances. CVTs excel at fuel economy, while automatics are better at controlling acceleration. Sophisticated engine management systems perform all kinds of functions so much more quickly than a human can, but they also don’t always allow the transmission to perform at its best in certain conditions.

Audi Q3 CVT

Automatic transmissions allow manufacturers to lower the fuel ratings of their vehicles because they can be managed to make the engine act economically. The problem is that to allow drivers to drive the vehicles in a more aggressive manner, manufacturers are adding more features to make them act less economically (buttons to alter shift points, throttle sensors to allow them hold on to a gear or to match engine revs for smooth high-performance downshifts, etc.).

Ultimately, more complexity often translates into the possibility for reduced reliability, and that’s the mindset potential buyers have when looking at a vehicle with overwhelming connectivity and/or 2-digit speed variables.