Infotainment — a clunky but now industry-standard portmanteau of “information” and “entertainment” is the umbrella term describing the main technological interface of a car. This is where all core electronic functions, like stereo, navigation, HVAC, etc., are controlled.
Though simpler infotainment systems are available in many vehicles at all price points, but they are fixtures of premium cars. They offer bright, dynamic visual centers that perk up when you climb aboard, delivering elegant swooshes of sound and graphics and glittering logos before depositing you on the system’s home screen.
Thanks to advances in user interfaces, computational power and display tech, infotainment systems have become exceptional across the board. These, though, are the best of the best — the rock stars of the infotainment world.
History of the Infotainment System
In-car audio, navigation and vehicle-control centers have come a long way in just the last decade. At around the turn of the 21st century, onboard information systems in cars were bland, uninspired LCD interfaces limited as much by the quality of the display hardware as they were by the division of all the systems it aimed to control. In most cases, you had rudimentary graphics, little color — and little to control outside of primitive, CD-based navigation and audio systems. But throughout the Aughts, vehicle systems grew more integrated, and the interfaces used to access them more advanced.
Mind you, dashboard interfaces have always lagged behind other consumer electronics by several years. Smartphones — the gold standard for display systems and fully integrated technology — have far shorter development cycles and product lifespans, with new models coming out annually. Those devices are generally limited to one to two years of moderate use.
Systems designed for automotive use, on the other hand, take several years just to design and develop for a single car — especially when multiple vehicle systems are involved — and they have to perform to higher standards of durability and longevity. Cars need to withstand prolonged exposure to heat and cold, for instance, and they have to last 10 years or more. They also have to be exceptionally reliable and free of any and all glitches, which in a car can spell disaster. (“Can’t access your air conditioner? Too bad!” is not an option.)
For all of these reasons, infotainment systems are now very nearly military-grade technologies. But as those systems have achieved such performance, they’ve also brought numerous new capabilities along with them. In today’s systems, car owners can with a few taps on the screen make calls, search destinations, access vehicle cameras for easier parking or off-roading, control seat massagers, analyze track-racing performance, adjust suspension settings, dial-in audio performance and many other things.
Indeed, the infotainment center is increasingly becoming the car’s do-everything hub. Look no further than Tesla for proof — all of its models have central displays that handle every vehicle function, in some cases with the only physical buttons present on the dash being those required by law, such as hazard lights.
The Current State of Infotainment
When reading the descriptions below, note that there are variations within each manufacturer’s lineups. The top-end models — the Audi A8 sedan, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class — tend to have the most features, of course, but because all the cars are on different production cycles within each company, they may leapfrog each other in capabilities in order to stay the most current. So an entry-level model, for instance, may feel better equipped and more modern than even the top-end flagships, simply because its release date was more recent.
Also, packages vary even within individual models, with some capabilities coming standard (backup cameras, say) while other enhancements (head-up displays) are optional. And perhaps most importantly, because each infotainment packages can vary even within a manufacturer’s lineup, pricing varies widely from system to system depending on what features you select and what car you purchase.
The Best Infotainment Systems of 2020
BMW iDrive (as seen in: BMW 3 Series, M8 Gran Coupe, etc.)
BMW's iDrive pioneered the modern screen-based infotainment system when it launched in the all-new 7 Series back in 2001. The first version was largely maligned – partly due to some inherent flaws, but also in part due to people simply not understanding the idea behind it: the cars of tomorrow would have far too many controls to give each one of them a button, knob or switch.
The latest version of iDrive has long since burned off the bugs, though, and now ranks among the best such systems on the planet. Touchscreen functionality has been added to the now-familiar clickwheel controller, and optional gesture recognition makes answering phone calls, adjusting the volume or changing the radio station as easy as a wave of your hand.
The menus are clear and easy to understand, a hallmark of any good infotainment system; the goal, after all, is to minimize the time looking away from the road. And while most of its controls may be in a computer menu, iDrive hasn't given up entirely on physical buttons; BMW's hard preset buttons, which can save anything from radio stations to specific navigation destinations to phone functions, are the sort of handy feature you'll wonder why other carmakers don't copy.
Mercedes-Benz MBUX (as seen in: Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class, etc.)
Mercedes-Benz and BMW have long been engaged in a game of anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better, so it certainly wasn't a shock when Benz whipped up its Comand system to rival iDrive.
The latest version, rebranded as MBUX (or "Mercedes-Benz User eXperience"), forsakes the clickwheel in favor of a touchscreen, touch-sensitive thumb pads on the steering wheel, a sensitive touchpad on the center console and a Siri-like voice command system that activates any time you say "Hey Mercedes." While it may take a bit of time to get used to, the system offers unparalleled levels of customization (and incredible screen resolution) and rewards users who take the time to get to know its intricacies.
Audi MMI (As seen in: Audi A6, A7, A8, etc.)
Of course, if BMW and Mercedes-Benz are doing something, you can bet Audi won't be far behind. MMI, which stands for Multi-Media Interface, also launched with a clickwheel controller and a centrally mounted dashboard screen (which, in case like the previous A3, could vanish into the dashboard for a less-cluttered appearance.
As with Mercedes's system, the newest version of MMI has lost its clickwheel controller; unlike the BMW or Benz systems, though, it's also ditched most physical buttons for a second screen, located on the lower part of the dashboard. The lack of buttons isn't as disconcerting as in some cars that have made similar moves, however, thanks to excellent haptic feedback that lets you know clearly and instinctively if you've successfully tapped.
Bentley Rotating Display (as seen in: Bentley Continental GT, Flying Spur)
Okay, the rotating display feature — which lets the driver choose between a screen, three analog gauges, and a smooth panel of wood veneer — is really more gimmick than valuable feature. But it's the system beneath that veneer and motors that warrants Bentley a place on this list.
The widescreen high-resolution touchscreen display is effectively a reskinned version of the Porsche Communication Management setup found in most new Porsches, but with a more usable layout than in the likes of the Panamera and Cayenne, thanks to an array of hard buttons and control knobs situated in an ideal location beneath the screen that handle many of the major tasks. The touchscreen itself reacts quickly and efficiently, with well laid-out menus that make manipulating it easy — once you learn where everything is.
Fiat Chrysler UConnect (as seen in: Ram 1500, Jeep Gladiator, etc.)
FCA's UConnect system is hardly the newest, flashiest or sexiest infotainment system on the market, but it earns a spot here by virtue of the same quality that Steve Jobs would often tout of Apple products: it just works.
Whether in simple bare-bones form like the UConnect 3 with 5.0-inch display found in basic Jeeps, the 12-inch portrait-oriented setup found in fancier Rams, or any of the versions in between, UConnect offers large, easy-to-read type, big buttons (both software- and hardware-based) and clear, simple menus. FCA's penchant for Easter eggs can manifest here, too; the backgrounds often embody traits of the car, like its logo or preferred environment (a drag strip, a desert, etc).
Honda Infotainment System (as seen in: Honda Accord)
Unlike the other systems here, Honda's doesn't have a splashy, catchy name that could easily be confused with a cellular phone company or a prescription drug. What it does have, however, is a simple, intuitive design that should be familiar to anyone who's used a smartphone before.
While some of Honda's previous infotainment systems were lacking (in both physical controls and response time), the newest version is quick to respond and easy to use, with colorful buttons on the screen and hard buttons and knobs surrounding it for important functions. Like UConnect, it's proof that good infotainment systems aren't restricted just to the premium segment.
Polestar Android Automotive (As seen in: Polestar 2)
Not to be confused with Android Auto, which is the Apple CarPlay-analogous system that lets drivers with Google-based smartphones mirror content on the infotainment display, the Android Automotive system appearing for the first time in the Polestar 2 is unique in that it was developed by Google, not the carmaker.
As such, not only does it offer the sort of seamless, quick-acting responses not seen in parent company Volvo's cars, but it offers unparalleled levels of Google integration and features not seen elsewhere. Saying "Okay, Google" brings up a voice assistant that can do everything from direct you home to turn on the seat heaters. You can project Google Maps directions directly onto your instrument panel. You can even log into the car with your G Suite account enabling it to share information seamlessly with your phone and computer. If you want to, that is; you don't have to log in to make the cool features work.