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Column: Car cabin screw-ups

2009-06-23 07:45

David Donde

Columnist David Donde ponders the murky world of current "trendy" car designs and asks - "what were they thinking?"

I hold Subaru responsible. Carved from single blocks of steel, its performance monsters have dynamics to put those who should know better to shame. And interiors that any Japanese manufacturer would be proud of. In the ‘80s.

Or BMW-built cars that made me feel like a pilot after I got my licence. They still do, even if now I feel like the auto-pilot. iDrive mark 1? More like it drive.

Come on BMW, what were you thinking? Consider Jag or Landy that use touch screens. Their major feature? They are easy to use. The latest iDrive is much better, but guys, take a look at the iPhone - a touch screen can be done and it can be simple, intuitive and fun, even.

I spend more time inside my car than I do examining the sexy external design. I want to be seduced, captivated, wrapped in her sinuous charms and cosseted to motoring bliss. Sure, a sexy body with taut, sinuous flanks matters, but the body is what others look at. I need an interior that confirms my decision regarding automotive hedonism.

Hunting trees

Ugly is easy. Acres of ubiquitous cheap plastics and wood finishes. What in hell’s name is that? Wood panelling is not shiny and wood-like, it is textured and made from trees.  If you want traditional charm, go out and hunt a good looking tree, please.

And while we are on the subject, leather is made from leather and metal look should include metal. If it is rubber, let it look and feel like rubber. Let Kevlar be Kevlar. To the demi-gods who design cars, remember your parents’ advice when you started dating - just be yourself.

Have you heard about the guy who bought a brand-new Lexus LS 460? You know, the one that parks itself? Big shot insisted he didn’t need the two-hour lesson. "Throw me the keys," he said. Well, when he couldn’t even start the car he took the lesson in the end.

RTFM (read the f’ing manual) is not an excuse.

As for instrumentation? Gauges can be sexy, very sexy. Ask Breitling or Bentley; they got it right. Porsche has it right and has for the last decade or two. If you can’t come up with anything original then consider copying, but choose something good to copy.

Anyone remember classic Ferrari gear gates? Man, those were cool. Audi plonked one in the manual R8 and did I complain? Hell no! The gears go through the gate in a sexy snick-snick-snick of fulfilling sensory bliss. Someone once asked me if the R8 was partially carbon fibre. My answer? Partial wet dream…

More gadgets, happier drivers

On to feature creep. Let's add gadgets. Well actually I like this bit, let's keep adding them.

Electric windows and electric seats; cool! Cooled seats, heated seats, massaging seats, hugging seats, navigation and electric start, ABS, EBD, PDC, PTY LTD. Ah, look at all those wonderful buttons!

This partly explains why luxury car drivers don’t use those pretty Christmas lights installed on the corners of their vehicles that many call indicators. There's too much clutter, half of which cannot be understood.

Like audio controls. I do follow CD, FM, AM and even the arrows to move between channels, but we have shiny new ones, such as PTY. This I identify as the “pity” button, the symbol for all that has gone wrong. When was the last time you actually pressed this one and got a meaningful response? Bury it deep in a menu and give it a written instruction using whole English words.

But let me move my chair or reduce the air con's fan speed or swat the radio's power button off without taking my eyes off the road.

Here, in the land of the often-tweaked settings, switches, knobs and big obvious buttons rule. If anyone wants an example of how to make those button clusters disappear, look to the iPod. Its predecessors were sprouting new buttons by the second. See, it can be done.

As for Sat-nav? That's an article for another day, but simply put, why can’t a R20-R30K option compare to a damn off-the-shelf device costing a few thousand rand? The better cheap ones are constantly updated, easy to use and even warn about speed traps.

There is a simple and obvious answer. If the button has a simple label or diagram and I can understand what it does, I use it often. Give me buttons or levers or switches grouped nicely together, please. Real honest materials, sexy design, a space that reflects the design ethos of the car and a comfortable seat with easy memory adjustment; is it all too much to ask for?

There are exceptions, though. Look at Porsche, Range Rover, Audi, Volvo. But whether it's ugly, feature creep or just plain stupid, you need to get used to it, they say. Is that like an acquired taste? It usually tastes bad at first because it is.

Visit David Donde's blog: www.daviddonde.com/wp


Bullet: Name, set and match!

2012-04-16 16:47

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