Zombie infotainment screens…

Infotainment – a word that didn’t exist in our vocabulary as recently as 20 years ago, but that today stands for all the wonderful things our modern cars can do that have nothing to do with the driving itself. My first experience with an early infotainment system was in an Alfa Romeo 166 I was the happy owner of for a few years, a wonderful car with an equally wonderful, Italian six-cylinder engine, but with a far less wonderful infotainment system, the screen of which was situated so low on the centre console that the gear lever was in the way. At the time it felt very modern, although the navigation it provided was best used as a general indication.

Wonderful car, not so wonderful infotainment…

Things have indeed evolved which is of course a good thing, even if the current trend of increasingly giant screens is a bit of a strange one. It definitely has a connection with the general EV trend since it seems to be a given that any electric car should have as few physical buttons as possible and instead a more or less gigantic screen. Strangely however, even if the quality notably of navigation is far better these days than when I drove that Alfa 166, the first question in connection with these systems seems to be whether the Android Auto or Apple CarPlay connection is wireless or not, as everyone seems to agree that except for Tesla, all other systems are still inferior to Google Maps.

Be that as it may, this means that there is a whole generation of cars which are by now 10-20 years old and have infotainment systems we today consider useless to the point of using our phones instead. Usually you need to have your screen turned on for the USB phone connection to work, but I’ve heard several people say that the low screen resolution makes the whole car feel old and that they prefer leaving the system turned off and driving in silence, alternatively use a bluetooth adapter (a very good idea) or drive with headphones (a very bad idea).

I came to think of this a couple of weeks ago when I saw an old BMW 325i from the late 80’s, a wonderful car inside and out and with a dashboard in the style of old BMW’s: clean and driver-focused, with no infotainment screen to be seen. Contrast this with a 3-series from 15 years later, and now there’s a black square in the middle of the dash that isn’t of much use. Of course this wasn’t the case just with BMW. It was even worse notably in Audis from the same time where the screen was placed even higher, making it difficult to miss. Volvo had an innovative idea on the first generation of the XC90 of the screen slowly rising from within the dashboard when in use, meaning at least you didn’t have to look at it when it was turned off. It’s a shame more manufacturers didn’t follow that example!

If you have a car form this period and from a larger brand, there’s a chance of finding an aftermarket solution that integrates into the dash and offers a fully modern system. There are also solutions that are basically mounted in front of the old screen, looking more or less good depending on the car. If you’re thinking of this for any type of collector’s car, then definitely go for the external solution as rebuilding the dash for example on a 15-year old Ferrari will otherwise reduce its value. If on the other hand you’re thinking of buying an older car, you may want to go for the pre-infotainment generation instead. There are plenty of bluetooth connectors available, even those cassette-based, letting you connect your phone to most older cars’ pre-infotainment stereoes. That in turn lets you look out over a clean dash with no black square whatsoever, and actually enjoy the driving itself!

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