Feature Friday: Track pads and touch controllers

Feature Friday: Track pads and touch controllers
The touch pad in the 2020 Lexus NX is similar to a track pad on a computer, but doesn't work as well. (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

If you ever read car reviews, you've probably come across some cranky journalist (including myself) who's complained about being forced to use a rotary dial or touch-pad thingy instead of being able to touch the display screen on the center stack.

The most recent examples of pads and controllers we've encountered have been in the Lexus NX, Acura RDX and Mazda CX-30. And I've dealt with their substitutes for a touch screen with varying degrees of frustration.

The Acura "True Touch" pad makes sense in theory because the pad mirrors the screen, and while the four corners are always easy to hit accurately, the middle bits caused some confusion. I usually missed my mark when I was aiming for something that wasn't a corner, would end up on the wrong menu screen and have to back track. I didn't have time to get used to this system, but I have social media followers who said their parents have. So, I guess it's possible.

The Mazda system uses a rotary dial and a couple of menu buttons, and while I was initially frustrated by the system, it didn't bother me as much once I programmed my favorites and knew which buttons you had to hit to get the menu item you wanted. I have a friend who has a CX-5 with this system and he confirms it was confusing at first, but after a few weeks he liked it better than the touch screen and he could operate it without looking down.

The Lexus system, however, is nothing but frustration. It's kind of like a track pad on a computer, but it doesn't work as well. I'd slide the cursor and over-shoot my desired menu option, so I'd have to swipe back the other way and try again. The entire time the system was making a ping-ping-ping sound as it passed over -- and missed -- various menu items. Lexus' old systems used a joystick, mouse-like thing that was infinitely better than its current track pad.

Most manufacturers who move to something like this say it helps limit driver distraction once you learn the system. Ironically, Audi, which was (in)famous for its rotary-dial-controlled screens, is going to a touch screen with its new Multi-Media Interface system.

While I like the touch screen, some (like Volvo's and Subaru's) get a bit involved as they have you tap through screen after screen to get what you want.

So, which is the best way forward? <insert shrug emoji> But if you are in the market for a new vehicle, I strongly recommend that you spend some quality time with the infotainment system -- as well as the vehicle itself -- before you buy. People are often more concerned with the handling portion of the test drive, but if you get the vehicle home and you hate the infotainment system, it'll be like nails on a chalkboard every time you change the radio station.

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