Don’t Disappear the Hard Buttons


I recently bitched about touchscreens. Unfortunately, there are faults in many modern interiors beyond an iPad-inspired screen. I recently spent time with a McLaren 570S and while it too has a lackluster touchscreen, that’s not where I’m going with this. The mega-fast two seater needed topping-off with fuel while under my care, so I dropped by a local gas station. The particular location I chose is cursed with a very steep driveway, so I decided it would be a good idea to raise the front of the 570S. Unfortunately, there’s no button to accomplish this simple act with the optional lift system. McLaren buries the controls in a confusing menu operated by a stalk on the steering column. Why couldn’t the company fit a simple button on the dash like you find on a Porsche 918 Spyder and 911 GT3 or a Lamborghini Huracan? Its clearly a control that needs to be quickly accessible. After some understandable horn honking from other motorists, I decided that scraping the front of the 570S was preferrable to getting rear-ended. Sadly, there seems to be an ongoing trend to bury simple controls and it needs to stop.

Not to pick on the Brits, but I also had control-hiding issues with the Aston Martin DB11. The traction control can be intrusive on the powerful GT car, especially when fitted with the top-spec V-12 engine. Aston smartly offers a more laid-back ‘track’ stability control mode. Unfortunately, it’s buried in a menu that’s controlled by the steering wheel buttons. After some thumbwheel spinning and menu selecting, you’re able to sort the preferred ESP mode. Except Aston doesn’t allow you to activate cruise control unless you’ve fully enabled the default ESP mode. It causes a juggle that shouldn’t be as complicated as it is. The DB11 simply needs a dedicated, stand-alone ESP button.

Now, before you complain and tell me that the electronic architecture on the DB11 is from Mercedes-Benz so the cruise control quirk isn’t exactly a British issue, I will segue into complaining about the Germans. The latest Mercedes E-Class (and DB11) doesn’t have preset buttons or simple track forward/back buttons for the entertainment system. Why would they give owners simple controls when they can bury all in a menu? You’ve got me. Yes, Mercedes offers a shortcut button to the audio system that’s integrated into the (optional on the DB11 for $750) touchpad that sits over the standard rotary controller but it’s a cumbersome arrangement. Mercedes needs to take influence from Audi in this area. On models like the A5/S5 Sportback, the round volume knob can be toggled right and left to juggle presets or tracks. Slick.

BMW seems to get it too. The company fits dedicated track forward and back buttons and they also take preset buttons to the next level—they aren’t reserved solely for radio stations. You’re able to program nearly any function into the presets—your spouse’s mobile number, navigation to your home or work, turn on and off the split-screen map, etc. It’s very handy. Plus, BMW puts mode shortcut buttons for iDrive around the rotary controller. Mercedes seems to think you want those buttons on the dash, forcing you to move your hand from the dash to the rotary controller and back. Not smart.

Chassis adjustments also need dedicated buttons. I’ve spent a significant amount of time in various Mercedes models fitted with adjustable air suspension. It’s a good system but the softest ‘comfort’ mode is preferred at low speeds and the middle ‘sport’ setting is nicer at higher speeds, to tighten up the body control. Unfortunately, non-AMG models don’t carry a separate suspension button. You can setup up a certain level of quick adjustment via the ‘individual’ drive mode but it’s not nearly as simply as a hard button strictly for the dampers. BMW M and Mercedes-AMG understand this and fit buttons for more features. They should do the same for their more pedestrian models.

Funny enough, it’s not just the automakers going down the button-killing route. My flight home from Europe after the launch of the DB11 V8 in September reminded me of this. Delta Airlines’ Boeing 767 buries the volume, overhead light, and flight attendant call buttons in the lackluster touchscreen for its in-flight entertainment system. Not nice.

I don’t want a button-fest like what’s found on the first-generation Porsche Panorama but I do feel strongly that certain functions need quick, easy access. I understand that integrating optional features like front suspension lift into a menu is particularly appealing as it helps avoid blank buttons on lower-spec vehicles, but there needs to be some logic. As cars get more and more complicated and gain further features, engineers need to stop and think as they decide if it’s worth saving money to simply bury a function in a menu or touchscreen instead of fitting a dedicated hard button. Ford did a reset and started fitting dedicated buttons again after its MyFord Touch (and MyLincoln Touch) debacle. Let’s hope other companies do the same.


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