The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

23 June 2006

Cabin pressure

The Germans are getting their keisters kicked in the new J. D. Power Initial Quality Survey, and it's not because the cars are falling apart. (That comes later.) They're just incomprehensible:

It turns out that this year's IQS factored in a whole new set of data on design flaws, which included the usability of each car's cabin technology. And it will come as little surprise to those who have spent hours wrangling with the iDrive and COMAND (BMW and Mercedes's driver interfaces, respectively) that the results show the integration of many advanced technology systems leaving quite a bit to be desired. In the list of the "most troublesome design failure problems," BMW drivers identified the "difficult to use" and "poorly located" front audio and entertainment system as their number one complaint. Third on their list was the location and usability of the Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning (HVAC) system, with the inability of the voice-recognition system to understand commands and the placement and usability of cup holders rounding out the list of top five gripes. For Mercedes drivers, the top five complaints were excessive brake dust; a poorly located and difficult-to-use clock; poor visibility/usability of HVAC controls; troublesome cruise-control systems; and issues with usability and lack of accurate information of the navigation system. In previous IQS studies, which focused mainly on engineering defects and malfunctions, most of these complaints would not have registered.

Because I can, the major ergonomic failures of my last three cars:

Molly, 1993 Mazda 626:

  • Cupholders at the base of the center stack, and God help you if you have to use the shifter for anything.
  • What's more, the gripping surface, as it were, was barely a quarter-inch high, meaning that any turn whatsoever was enough to knock over your Not-So-Big Gulp.
  • Two tiny horn buttons at 3 and 9 o'clock. Not intuitive.

Sandy, 2000 Mazda 626:

  • If you got the automatic, you get no shift indicator on the dash; you're always looking down at the lever to shift.
  • Hand brake on the left side of the shifter serves as an unwanted seat bolster.
  • Weird door opening means almost everyone has to duck to get in.

Gwendolyn, 2000 Infiniti I30:

  • The volume knob for the Bose stereo and the temperature control for the HVAC are identical and too close together.
  • The "electro-luminescent" instrument display is beautiful, but its variability means that you can't tell by looking when you've left the lights on — which, if you're using the Auto headlight switch, you inevitably will.
  • The two dash-top tweeters seem to be positioned strangely, especially for a Bose system; there's little or no reflection back to the seating area.

Minor difficulties, perhaps. Still, I have to agree with the CNET guy:

[T]he message to the designers is clear: If you're going to install technology to make drivers' lives easier, start by making it easy to use.

At the very least.

Posted at 7:19 AM to Driver's Seat

My wife's Rodeo has a shift indicator on the dash, but I'm not sure any other floor-shifting vehicle either of us has owned, had one. My Bronco, being a Ford truck, is column-shift of course. Equally of course, it has no cupholders.

The only vehicle I ever had that I found the factory cupholders well placed and useful was the '93 Ford Escort wagon I drove in Alaska -- and even then I ended up putting an adapter in one of them so it would hold something larger than a vente. They were beyond the shifter, but there was plenty of room because there was no center "stack."

The tiny horn button problem seems to have been fairly endemic since the introduction of airbags. In my current Bronco at least the horn works; my two previous Ford trucks the old-fashioned horn switches were dead when I got them.

Posted by: McGehee at 10:36 AM on 23 June 2006

The whole steering wheel on my '98 Contour is a horn button. We bought it used, so for all we know, the airbag compartment is full of Cheez-wiz.

The left cupholder is fine. The bottom of the right cupholder is 1 inch higher, so it's just a cup platform. I can only guess they did this because the car gets thirsty and needs drinks spilled on it periodically.

Posted by: Dan at 10:13 PM on 23 June 2006

I sorta miss the old chrome horn ring that used to glitz up the hyperskinny steering wheels of yore. Not that you could ever have such a thing today: the crash-test dullards would icily inform you that sorry, you can't have a cheese cutter at the wheel.

Or something like that.

Posted by: CGHill at 10:31 PM on 23 June 2006

Makes me wonder what would happen if Apple teamed up with a car manufacturer to create an intuitive auto interface. The iCar?


Posted by: Luke at 2:05 AM on 24 June 2006

It might be something to see indeed.

On the other hand, there's the old joke about how a pre-OS X Mac-powered car has only two positions on its nav system: My Way or The Highway.

Posted by: CGHill at 5:27 AM on 24 June 2006

"Two tiny horn buttons at 3 and 9 o'clock. Not intuitive."

As you know I now drive a '97 626. Recently someone started to drift into my lane and I couldn't find the durn horn to warn them! :( My guess is with correct hand placement the two little buttons could easily be "thumbed". Who (especially not me) uses correct hand positioning on the wheel though?

Posted by: ms7168 at 9:18 AM on 24 June 2006

Mazda redid the wheel for '98, and thereafter you could punch it anywhere in the center — but not too hard.

Now who was it who stuck the horn in a button at the end of the turn-signal stalk?

Posted by: CGHill at 9:37 AM on 24 June 2006