By on January 6, 2009

You may recall that TTAC reacted to the plethora of top ten automotve lists proliferating on the web by running a list of the ten best cupholders. Now that Forbes Autos has gone to the big cache in the sky, the number of top ten lists-makers has dropped significantly. But they’re still out there, somewhere. And they’re still annoying. All-Stars? Pretty much says it all. So we turn again, from the ridiculous to the sublimely ridiculous. We ask you, our Best and Brightest to name the best Heating Ventilating and Air Conditioning (HVAC) controls of any car sold in America as new. Please send an email with a jpeg to [email protected] Put “HVAC” in the subject bar. In the body of the email, please write your screen nic, which car’s climate controls I’m gazing upon and why they deserve to be honored as one of the ten best HVACuees. The winners will be chosen by Eddy and myself through the usual arbitrary process. Thanks for your help.

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44 Comments on “Ask the Best and Brightest: Who Has the Best HVAC Controls?...”

  • avatar

    Email sent… I’d like to nominate the
    1998-2007 Volvo S80 climate control

    Simple and intuitive design.
    Rotary fan speed with lighting for each speed, rotary temp control with numerical settings for both driver and passenger, first use of the Volvo vent setting showing the seating position with airflow on the relevant button. Large “auto” button placed in center for those in a hurry and for those that don’t mess with their fan and temp settings too often. Defroster buttons grouped together like they should be. And finally, with these basic functions so well laid out, an LCD readout is not neccessary.

    Newer Volvos have built on this design but have incorporated it too much or tried to over simplify and it’s not as intuitive.

  • avatar

    The Miata. Undo one latch. Flip roof back. All the HVAC I need. ;-)

  • avatar

    Definitely NOT the 2005 to recent Nissan Pathfinder with Auto Climate Control. It has the most confusing, convoluted, flaky HVAC control scheme of any vehicle I have ever seen. It’s still a great SUV, but that is the one thing they really screwed the pooch on.

  • avatar

    Let me add a second to TEXN3. The first thing I thought of when I saw the headline was by former boss’s S80. Quite likely the most intuitive HVAC interface I’ve ever seen (that has an auto mode, anyway. Hard to beat the dead simple fan speed and temp controls of base-model cars.)

  • avatar

    Not my 08 Ford Ranger.

    1. You can’t turn the fan off if you want to vent air.

    2. If you set the vent to dash and floor, it turns the AC on.

    3. There is no separate recirculate button.

  • avatar

    PT Cruiser. Yes, really!!
    Simple, intuitive, ergonomic, has worked great for 6 years and counting.

  • avatar

    Third for the late model Volvos.

    Or if you’re going to “slum” it – simple 3 knob manual systems, with 2 buttons only for A/C (that can be defeated when in Defrost mode) and Recirc control.

    Any other gimmickry is nonsense.

  • avatar

    My 2008 GTI and my 2004 Jeep GC have similar systems.

    3 knobs (big enough to turn with gloves on).

    1. Air temp

    2. Fan speed

    3. Output direction (upper or lower vents and defog)

    And a two push buttons, one for AC and one for recirculate.

    Nothing more is needed.


  • avatar

    Fourth vote for late model Volvos. Love the controls in my XC70 and S60.

    As an aside, the worst HVAC controls *ever* are in the VW Vanagon. Three separate fan controls (front, back, and A/C), vent controls some of which are closed when to the left, while others are closed when to the right, and dash vents which can only blow cold air. I think.

    So complicated, there’s a thread explaining how to use them:

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Who knows every makers’ HVAC designs anyway? I don’t. Qualities I look for are simplicity, legibility, ergonomics/logic, control of the a/c compressor in every mode, and dual-zone temp controls.

  • avatar

    I love the manual control systems. The one in my old Honda is perfection – Two knobs (fan speed and temp) and clear easy to read buttons for vent selection, A/C, recirc and defrost. Simple as pie and works better than the fancy electronic “auto” systems.

  • avatar


    A lot of people rag on feedback control HVAC systems, but I think they’re great. The one in the latest Audi A6 works very well in the winter, heating the cabin up, and then keeping it warm without roasting the occupants. Plus it does a great job of preventing the windows from fogging up by automatically starting the A/C compressor to reduce humidity.

    Manual HVAC systems fluctuate wildly in terms of the actual temperature of the air coming out of the vents. Everything from engine temperature, fan speed, road speed, exterior temperature & humidity, vent setting, affects the delicate balance that results in a comfortable cabin. One which you must constantly readjust, every time you start the car and every time you reach cruising speed, which needlessly distracts the driver and surely results in countless deaths.

    My $0.02 .

  • avatar

    NOT the auto controls in my GTP. They’re perfectly simplistic and easy to use, except the programming for automatically turning on the A/C is way too loose, and it often kicks on for absolutely no good reason.

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    My ’08 BMW 118d:

    – temp knob
    – fan speed knob (not 1-2-3 but lots of positions – virtually analogue)
    – air distribution knob
    – AC on/off button
    – recirculation button not only on the HVAC panel but also on the steering wheel

  • avatar

    I’d rather talk about who has the best HVAC. IMHO, it’s SAAB hands down. Instant frigid air on the hottest days, instant hot air on the coldest.

    It’s the first thing I notice when I drive other cars (including brands like Lexus): How long it takes for the aircon to get cold and the heater to get hot.

    I’ve been spoiled, I guess.

  • avatar

    A while back, possibly in advance of the LS or GS, Toyota/Lexus did a study, enlarging, shrinking, changing and moving buttons and knobs depending on the frequency of use:
    * If a button was used more frequently, it became a slider or rocker
    * If a button was used extremely frequently, it became a knob
    * If a group of buttons performed a related function, they were clustered distinctly
    * The most common “cluster” was moved closest to the driver.

    This resulted in some pretty basic-looking, but very functional and elegant designs. If you’ve been in a older Lexus GS at night (or the current Camry), it’s amazing how quickly and easily you can pick out and change controls. It’s gotten worse as of late, but Lexus’ logic is still way, way above it’s competition in this space.

    The opposite end of the spectrum in the current Mini. The HVAC and other secondary controls are fashion victims to an extreme degree. It took me a good while to even find the HVAC on a Clubman.

  • avatar

    I nominated the ’09 Fit. The heater controls are a bit non-traditional; they’re vertical, to the right of the steering wheel. They have nice, large knobs that are easy to use when you wear gloves, and are just as easy to use with your bare fingers if it’s summer or you’re lucky enough to live in Florida. They’re simple and they’re functional. I love them.

    gaycorvette, instant heat is just a dream here. In the coldest Canadian prairie winter weather, it takes me 15 minutes to get the passenger compartment nice and warm. The only way to have instant-on heat is to keep your engine running at all times. :)

  • avatar

    I’ll add my 1995 USA BMW M3 to the list… much like the VW system described above except with one drawback: there are separate knobs for the left and right of the vehicle. (Apparently, there is an invisible barrier running down the middle of the car so that the left and right sides can be individually controlled?)

    Anyway, I’ll be so bold as to describe what I think are the perfect controls even if there is no car embodying my vision:
    (1) Mechanical control that you rotate or slide to specify the temperature; this control has a pointer on it that points to a temperature scale on the dash. No LCD, LED, or other electronic stuff. Can be adjusted when the car is completely off and the settings can be seen when the car is completely off.
    (2) Fan-speed control similar to (1). Actually, this could be more like “air volume” control: if not set to “max” and you are traveling quickly, reduce the fan speed a bit because lots of air will be coming through automatically. One position past “none” on this control sets air flow to “auto.”
    (3) Vent dial that can select between defrost, dash, and floor vents; I like the BMW dial that you can spin to any of the three places or position between any two of the places. Clever.
    (4) Mechanical push-buttons for defrost, recirculate, and A/C. These buttons push in and stay in (to designate their state) and then pop out when pressed again; a small LED dot on each button illuminates to show when the button is active (the pressed-in state only is sometimes not easy to see).

  • avatar


    If you’re in arctic Canada, I’m assuming you use headbolt heaters, as we do in Alaska, to keep the battery from dying while you shop for booze.

    I was raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is further north than most of the population of Canada lives. We had a SAAB that pumped out toasty warm air on start-up every time. Even in 60 below zero.

    Go team SAAB!

  • avatar

    Does that include GM and FIAT SAABs?

  • avatar

    We had a SAAB that pumped out toasty warm air on start-up every time.

    Assuming it would start, yes, I agree, the climate control is very quick.

    Related note: One thing I’ve always wondered is why there’s an electric rear defroster element for the rear window, but not the front? It takes for-friggin’-ever to chip ice off the front, but no time at all in the rear.

  • avatar

    Something I’ve always wondered…

    Ford tried something called Insta-Clear on the first gen Taurus and Sable. Don’t remember much about it, but I remember seeing it in the brochure when my dad bought an 89 SHO (it was off the books when he bought my mom a 91 Sable). I think the amount of strain on the electronics burned out alternators and batteries…which those cars did well without that option.

    I believe Ford is working on something new and will be shown on the Transit Connect. Forget where I saw the picture (maybe Jalopnik), bit it had very small elements that were clear but grouped pretty close together.

    Acura had a TL concept with air nozzles that would defrost the windshield and side windows.

    Found a link regarding InstaClear/QuickClear…

  • avatar

    I nominate the 08 Accord EX-L V-6. Yes, the same much-maligned, too complex center stack of this vehicle. I am pretty sure that where Honda missed the boat on this stack was with the stereo controls. Ignore them. I know why they contribute to the lion’s share of the too-complex tag, but that’s a separate rant.

    Instead, consider the single line of HVAC controls that has the most often used control – the temperature – closest to the driver. This is perfect for an auto HVAC system, as the user is most often than not simply going up or down in degree increments. That up/down lever is the most logical, easiest-to-use that I’ve come in contact with. I first used it on an 06 Odyssey and liked it there.

    Honda’s reputation for keeping things simple endures. An example with HVAC is their DUAL button. When lit, it indicates that there are dual or independent temps in use for driver and passenger. Turn it off and it synchs the passenger temp to the driver temp. No holding of any button for several seconds a la Audi.

    The MODE button toggles through the expected face, floor, floor/defrost type modes using an icon representation on the screen above.

    The Rear defrost/heated outside mirror button does exactly what it claims, as does the front defrost button.

    Simple stuff all. Not sure how you could make it any easier or more intuitive.

  • avatar

    As with everybody else, I don’t have a real wide database of experience in current cars from which to draw, except for my daily driver (BMW 328i) and the various rentals that I get. I know that everybody is tired of hearing about BMW wonderfulness, but there are some features that I like that I think are worth mentioning.

    It’s a feedback controled system so that you don’t have to worry about the outside temp. The temp controls are dials which are set to specific temps in degrees (your choice of F or C) and the car is heated or cooled as necessary to reach that set temp. You have dual controls so Ms. Lokki thinks she can make her side of the car warmer.

    The best feature though is that the heater vents stay shut off until the engine is capable of blowing heat – it NEVER blows [email protected]#@$% cold air on your feet. It doesn’t blow any air on you until it has something nice to blow. (This feature was on my 98 and 03 3 series as well). Once you notice this feature you really appreciate it.

    When you hit front defrost, it turns the fan to full blast and routes everything to the windshield.

    It has a MAX AC button that overrides the controls and blasts the AC at max fan/max cold until shut off and it then returns to the auto setting.

    Finally there is an air vent in the middle of the dash that you can control (via a roller control) that allows you to blow air on your face that is independently warmer or colder than the air coming from the HVAC in general. I like this as I can have cool fresh air on my face while having the rest of the car toasty warm.

    The recirc button has 3 settings – outside, closed and sensor decided – outside till something nasty is detected.

    If you want manual control, fan speed is stepped in approx 8 steps so you have a lot of choice. Fan speed is displayed in a led bar display. Easy to understand.

    Of course, while wonderful new, you don’t want to own a system like this out of warranty in a non-Japanese car…

  • avatar


    I agree about feedback control HVAC systems. My experience with my A3 is the same as your A6: it heats the cabin to a consistent temperature with a minimum of fuss (and without blasting cold air in your face before the engine is up to temperature), and even maintains a consistent temperature on summer road trips with the sun blazing in through the windows.


    I’ve never heard the term “headbolt heater” before, but I gather it’s the same thing I’d call a block heater. I live in the same (non-arctic) city as PhotoJim, and a block heater is certainly a necessity for vehicles parked outside overnight, but I don’t think I’ve seen anybody plug in just to go shopping. For the record, the temperature a couple nights ago was down to at least -36 Celsius (-33 Fahrenheit) around here; that’s my idea of fairly cold.

  • avatar

    Yet another vote for the Volvo S-60/70/80. Every function is straightforward and works! Best of all is the always available, independent ON/OFF for the A/C compressor. Toggling this function affects nothing else. What’s more, the selected temperature is properly maintained within a narrow range — no freeze/thaw cycles.

  • avatar

    Ford tried something called Insta-Clear…

    I remember that. It wasn’t quite the same thing, as it was functionally transparent, rather than being simple conductors as the rear defroster is.

  • avatar


    Every parking lot in Alaska has an electrical outlet attached to a pole for each parking space. You park, pull the plug-in cord out through your front grill, and plug the car in. You do this all the time, not just overnight. In 60 below zero (Fahrenheit, and ambient, not wind chill) your battery can die pretty quickly.

  • avatar

    I think Insta-Clear was a more complex setup with element wires or conductors with a timer. Just not quite as visible.

  • avatar

    Dodge neon and Chrysler PT cruiser.

    20 deflector settings, fan switch left for A/C, right for vents.

    You can set the deflector to the central position between settings and have 3/4 upper vents, and 1/4 to the floor– or the opposite. Or a little window defrosting, a lot to the feet.

    If ever I get into a car with hard selection-points, that I can’t customize to the point I can in the neon– I am not happy.

    It’s Mama bear’s porridge. 4 simple twist-knobs, clearly labeled.


  • avatar


    That is hilarious. All this time I thought my sh!t was broken. BTW it is a 2000, apparently fixing the damn AC in 8+ years is not “Job One”

  • avatar

    The last two cars I’ve owned have had auto climate control, and I have mixed feelings about them. My Infiniti G20 had some strange quirks, as does my current Mazda3. One of the drawbacks, for me, is how most auto HVACs revert to max blower speeds. Even when it’s over 100 degrees or well below freezing, I rarely use the maximum fan speed. Of course, things settle down as the interior temps stabilize.

    I also don’t like that the A/C comes on automatically when certain vent selections are made – I know why most systems are set up this way, but I still prefer full control. I rarely need to defog as my cars are garage-kept. On the other hand, I’ve heard that running the A/C through the winter is good to keep things running smoothly. My Mazda3 insists on having the A/C on quite a bit when in auto mode.

    I’ll have to submit Mazda’s HVAC systems for the list, though, since the layout is straightforward, the fan speed and temp selectors are large rotating knobs, and most everything is easy to operate with minimal focus taken off the road.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I hate the “automatic” HVAC controls on our two Honda products and I miss the excellent controls and plentiful vent options our 1996 Volvo 850 had. That car had the best HVAC system I’ve ever used.

  • avatar

    I’d say hands down the best setup is in the Nissan Altima for both single (simple) and dual passenger (auto) setups.

    In Both Setups:
    1-Knobs for temperature and fan speed. Well labeled buttons for vent position- exactly where it should be.

    In the Single Passenger Setup:
    -The fan speed is almost continuously adjustable with lots of little intermediate ‘steps’ (too many to count.) Every car should be like this.

    -On super hot days you can press the “Max AC” button and it saves you from having to press recirc, A/C, and face vents. Best of all, simply pressing it again reverts to your previous settings.

    On the Dual passenger auto Setup:
    -Knobs for temperature and fan speed mean no tap-tap-tap like on almost every other auto setup.

    -The temperature readout is on the knob itself, meaning it’s less cluttered.

    -Off button is clearly labeled on the fan.

    Best of all, the actual HVAC system is the most effective one I’ve ever seen on any sedan in the past 10 years.

  • avatar

    If such a setup exists, the winning system should provide the driver with the option to leave the A/C compressor on or off in any setting and also allow any combination of defrost, vent, and floor settings.

  • avatar

    anything manual with 3 knobs and 2 buttons is ideal.

    i am not a fan of auto/digital display HVAC panels. yes they look better but can be so annoying

    pet peeves from cars i have had with auto climate control:

    1. i’m on fan speed 2, want to get to fan speed 1 & and i have to go fan speed 3 then fan speed 4 to get back to fan speed 1.

    2. a/c that automatically turns on when you change to windscreen demist & systems that don’t allow you to turn off the a/c when on windscreen demist

    3. push button temperature adjustment that takes 30 seconds to get from coldest to hottest setting

    4. airflow direction that automatically changes when you lower/raise the temperature

  • avatar

    I nominate the 2nd generation Honda CR-V and Honda Element (Manual A/C): The image of intuitive

    3 Large buttons: 1 for the Fan speed, 1 for the Temperature, 1 for the air routing (Defrost, dash vents, feet and combinations of the above 3) with 3 more inlaid on the inside: Recirculation, A/C and rear defrost)

    The 3 large ones can be turned and the 3 small ones pushed even with a gloved hand or by people with less than perfect coordination or hand mobility.

    As for the ’08-’09 Accord (I drive one)… it takes a bit of getting used to but once mastered, it’s amazing. Though it’s an auto system (Except for the base models), it allows you to control manually any part of the equation – fan speed, air routing while retaining the auto temp control. It also allows you to cancel the A/C compressor at the press of a button.

  • avatar

    subaru WRX with the three knobs. one for fan, one for which vent, and one for temp. set teh fan to auto and the vent to auto (or wherever you want) and then adjust temperature. good to go, i rarely touch the things

  • avatar

    Regarding Instaclear from Ford: My mother had that system on her Sable. It worked by allowing the alternator to run without full regulation, which gave a much higher voltage, hence the amperage draw was kept to a manageable level. The remainder of the car ran off the battery. After 10 minutes or so, the system shut off. We only had the car for three years, as it was stolen, but the system seemed to be well thought out, except that the glass looked funny from outside the car. When they looked at replacements, the system was no longer available. I remember reading in a car magazine that there were reports that the system screwed up police radar effectiveness. Then, all of a sudden, it was never mentioned again.

  • avatar

    My vote goes to the (my) 2005 BMW E60 with the dual-zone HVAC! It is extremely intuitive and capable; 1) Buy the car, 2) Press the Auto-button, 3) Enjoy! Seriously, even here in Scandinavia, where temperatures may vary from -20 Celsius to +30 Celsius, I never feel the need for manual fiddling!

  • avatar

    John Horner :
    January 7th, 2009 at 1:09 am

    I hate the “automatic” HVAC controls on our two Honda products

    Which Honda models? Why do you hate them?

    2. a/c that automatically turns on when you change to windscreen demist & systems that don’t allow you to turn off the a/c when on windscreen demist

    AC is used to dehumidify the interior (it shouldn’t be a noticeable source of cold air). It’s commonly on in the winter with auto HVAC systems in order to keep it this way.

    I’m surprised at the number of responses that prefer manual control of HVAC. That is something that I’ve never missed. Every auto HVAC system I’ve used, even when not ergonomically the best designed, has still been preferable to having to fiddle with those controls. Better to concentrate on driving. A pet peeve of mine is being a passenger in a vehicle driven by someone who doesn’t have a clue about keeping air flowing through the cabin and/or keeps the fan too high/low for conditions. Auto is usually a lot smarter than these drivers.

  • avatar

    I sent my vote in for the Dodge Dakota but really all the manual systems with 3 knobs and 1 or 2 buttons. I also prefer when you grab the outside of the knob to turn it instead of the middle.
    Any love for the classic GM slider controls? I was going to pick that just because there’s so many cars I’ve driven with it. (even Volvos)

  • avatar

    I think I’d like auto HVAC controls if I regularly drove on trips where the temps varied such as driving from a valley (45 degrees) to a mountain top for snow skiing (below freezing) or if i drove hundreds of miles where the day’s temp climb or decline would occur.

    But we don’t. Most of our trips are 30 mins this way or that and the start and end temps are the same.

    I dislike the old controls with slider knobs on the dash from the 70s and 80s. Seems most of the old Detroit cars I have driven have had cranky slider controls. The first time I drove a car with rotary knobs I found the “perfect” design for me. I think that car was either an Opel, a VW, or a Peugeot an Italian friend owned.

    My current daily drivers are favorites. They are the 1st gen CR-V controls and the MKIII VW Golf/Cabrio controls. Both have a rotary knob for fan speeds. The Honda has about 30 different increments and the VW has three. Both have rotary knobs to direct the air to the vents of your choice. The VW wins here because the controls are “analog” (cable driven) and any increment between one setting and another can be chosen. The Honda has a motor actuated system so no in between but it’s been good for 170K miles. Any temp you like in either car. And finally a separate compressor on/off and recirc button.

    The cars which automatically switch on the compressor with no option for turning it off get a black mark from me. I wish my Honda did not turn the compressor on when the defroster was chosen even though I can turn it off. I understand why – just wish it did not come on.

    On a side comment I REALLY like the variable displacment compressor my VW Cabrio came with. The clutch locks in and it stays locked. Something in the compressor changes to allow the compressor to not cycle. Excellent with a small engine. The a/c is COLD in that car. In the Honda not as much which is a shame because there is so much interior space. It cools well when the vehicle is moving. The tough times are when we get into the CR-V when it has been parked in the summer sun and then have to idle in traffic for several minutes before we can really move. Yeah, its full of freon. Never leaked since new.

    I too will nominate the aircooled VW vans for having complicated controls. We also have a ’78 VW Westfalia. It has one lever for opening the cowl vent. That vent often leaks cold air in the winter. Fixed it, we’ll see how it works soon. One lever controls air to/from defrost. As I recall this same lever also controls the front/back seat mix. Another lever controls temp (air volume).
    It would work fine but the air volume is too low. I do like having the vent windows and being able to open the cowl vent while the heater is on.

    On our Beetle the volume/temp is fine but the driver has to manually open and close the front floor vents to get defrost. One lever between the seats controls volume (temp) and the other lever controls the mix front to back. Coasting down a mountain the heaters cool off. Climbing up a mountain they heat way, way up. At low rpms gotta open the volume lever way up and once up to speed on the highway gotta close them way down. Its good in a really basic way. I can drive and adjust without much thought. The Porsche 911 had a similar system that automatically adjusted itself. No booster fan on the Beetle and the bus has one – almost. Not enough boost to be helpful.

    Am going to upgrade both vehicle fan systems. Am waiting to see how much implanting a Corvair engine has helped the bus and the Beetle now has a larger 2.0L Type IV (think bus/Porsche 914) engine with 911 style cooling…

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