The new Mk8 Volkswagen GTI and Golf R hatchbacks — when equipped with a manual transmission — are brilliant to drive. The lone caveat to giving both cars a full-throated endorsement is the new digital cockpit. Used in the ID.4 electric crossover as well, the digital cockpit may be the most annoying and unusable interior offered in a modern car. It looks like VW is planning at least one change that could help.
As first spotted by Motor1), Volkswagen COO Thomas Schäfer recently posted on LinkedIn about several changes VW is making to its vehicles. One that he noted was bringing back push button controls on the steering wheel.
The COO elaborated to the media during the Los Angeles Auto Show. "We know what we need to do," Schäfer told Britain's CAR earlier this month. "We’ve got feedback from customers, we’ve feedback from clinics and from journalists… They say, “You know this is not good. You’ve got to improve this.”
Software changes designed to improve the user interface of current vehicles — which he described as "a tremendous step up" to CAR — should arrive as soon as this winter, according to Schäfer. Models with revised steering wheels that once again feature physical buttons will start rolling out around the start of 2024, he said, with the next VW Tiguan the first to benefit.
VW originally switched to haptic controls on the steering wheel for the new interior to look more tech-forward and (not coincidentally) cut costs. The switch negated the VW interior's simplicity and straightforward usability, which had been a strength even as the interior grew dated post-Dieselgate.
The haptic buttons are hard to press precisely and sensitive to inadvertent grazing as your hands move across the steering wheel. The heated steering wheel button, in particular, is perilously close to where your right palm rests on the wheel. It's hard to get the cars around a lap of a track without turning the heated steering wheel on, which we, unfortunately, found out on a humid 90-degree track day.
Swapping out the haptic controls on the steering wheel won't resolve the cockpit's broader issues. The buttons around the screen are not ergonomic, and VW's new infotainment system can be cumbersome and unintuitive. But switching in easy-to-use buttons on the steering wheel and incorporating helpful software tweaks — like making touchscreen climate controls easier to access — could mask the system's flaws better until Volkswagen can implement a more substantial redesign.