Doug Drives: Reach Out And Touch Something … Screen or Knob?

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro
doug drives reach out and touch something screen or knob

I recently had the chance to test out the “new” Volkswagen Passat, which is so new that the designers were explaining to a whole group of journalists how the position of the rear reflectors has changed compared to the outgoing model.

Actually, I kind of like the new Passat. It was impressive in a lot of ways, right down to the new touchscreen, which finally sees Volkswagen catching up to some of the technology and features rival models have been using for roughly five years. As I was driving it, I couldn’t help but think to myself: I like a good touchscreen.

What I don’t like is a knob.

It seems that these are our only choices in today’s infotainment world: a touchscreen or a knob. Some cars have touchscreens. Some cars have knobs. And given that basically every new car has an infotainment system, this is an important choice. Do you want to control your screen by touching it, like a smartphone? Or by moving around a controller located on the center console, like a computer?

Automakers appear to be largely split on this issue. Most mainstream car companies, the Fords and Chevys of the world, offer a touchscreen. You touch, it screens. The benefit of this is that you touch exactly where you want, and the system does exactly what you want, unless you are in a Chevy, in which case it does what you want after it thinks for a few seconds/minutes/it’ll do it this weekend.

High-end brands tend to prefer knobs. Lexus has its famous Remote Touch Controller, which is sort of like a computer mouse in the sense that you move around a little arrow and you click on stuff, but not really like a computer mouse in the sense that you’re supposed to do this at 75 mph. BMW’s iDrive and Audi’s MMI both work similarly: you move a dial to control the infotainment system. You could touch the screen, but it wouldn’t do anything, and you’d just end up getting fingerprints on it.

Me, I personally prefer a touchscreen. Let me tell you why: because it’s incredibly easy to use. A button says “MAP.” I press “MAP.” The MAP comes up. This is very different than in, say, a BMW 7 Series, where a button says “MAP,” so you grab the little dial, and you move over to the button, and you’re about to click on it, but then there’s a bump in the road, and you accidentally click somewhere else, such as on a button that says “CLIMATE,” and now you have no idea where you’re going, so you crash into a bus shelter.

Of course, I am not saying that the BMW 7 Series is scary. What I am saying is that the BMW 7 Series is incredibly scary.

But the manufacturers that use knobs don’t see it that way. They say that if they put the knob in the center console, they can move the infotainment screen higher on the dashboard, away from your reach, which means you have to take your eyes off the road less in order to do things. This is true, of course, but I would like to point out that I would take my eyes off the road even less if I could just touch the damn screen wherever I want.

Maybe the best manufacturer is Mazda, who undoubtedly had this argument in some engineering meeting, which likely led to raised voices and harsh words and maybe even some good old-fashioned chair throwin’. So what they did is, they put in a knob and a touchscreen. This allows you to use both hands to control the screen at any one given time.

No, I’m just kidding, what it allows you to do is use the touchscreen when you’re feeling touchscreeny and use the knob when you’re feeling knobby. I think this is Mazda’s greatest decision since 2002, when they decided to start making decent cars.

Unfortunately, it’s not a decision anyone else seems to be making, as other automakers have all staked their claims: some have gone touchscreen. Some have gone knob. But I will continue to hope that in this great war of in-car screen controls, the touchscreen people will slay the knob people and claim victory over the Great Land of Infotainment. Until then, I will do my best to keep from crashing into bus shelters.

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  • Maxk1947 Maxk1947 on Nov 02, 2015

    My first-series Sable had only knobs and buttons, of course. What was wonderful, was that each knob and button had a unique texture (for example, each window control button had a different pattern of raised dots). With a little experience, I could operate everything without taking my eyes off the road. Does any manufacturer still do this?

  • Jasjones415 Jasjones415 on Sep 02, 2016

    Doug's article begins with the Passat but he fails to mention that the Passat has a combination knob and touchscreen scenario. My decision to acquire the Golf R over others was teh fact that it had a knob for volume, touch screen for others. It's a good blend. I just drove a Cadillac XTS and was presented with no knobs...all touch screen. I understand how use over time would enable me to ajust but I ended up using the steering wheel button controls over the touch menu system, and came away decidedly against and all touch screen and touch/button (no press,but button like surface activation). Couple thoughts: A knob for Volume - ideal - it's immediate and wheels to a level that is sought after without you ever taking your eyes off the road - why do safes have dials for accuracy and not touch screens - many reasons I imagine but one is the level of accuracy I'm sure. Further, How do you reach the touch screen and adjust volume without looking at it? At 70mph its an unnecessary risk and an extremely common function. A knob for Air/Heat Fan - to get comfortable, while driving, a knob is best to adjust the speed of the fan. How does a touch screen to adjust the speed of a fan through a shared menu system make any sense? Touch Screen for Sound Adjustment - ok, perhaps a case can be made for reducing the clutter- functions such as treble, base, fade, are typically set now and then. Finding these and adjusting through the touch screen menus. If it were up to me the screen would be a display but buttons activate functions. I really liked the 2009 Mercedes Benz knobs/buttons + it has a multi-function knob/spinning wheel and touch likey. Many many presses to get anywhere and you have to take your eyes off the road.

  • Tassos Before you rush to buy this heap of rusty metal, maybe you should wait a day or two.I hear Tim will have an Model T next time.
  • Redapple2 I d just buy one already sorted. Too many high level skills (wiring, paint, body panel fitment et. al.) that i dont have. And I dont fancy working 100 s of hours for $3 /hour.
  • 28-Cars-Later I'm actually surprised at this and not sure what to make of it. In recent memory Senator Biden has completely ignored an ecological disaster in Ohio, and then ignored a tragic fire in Hawaii until his handlers were goaded in sending him and his visit turned into it's own disaster, but we skipped nap time for this sh!t show? Seriously? We really are through the looking glass now, "votes" no longer matter (Hillary almost won being the worst presidential candidate since 1984 before he claimed the crown) and outside of Corvette nostalgia Joe doesn't care let alone know what day it happens to be. Could they really be afraid of Trump, who AFAIK has planned no appearance or run his mouth on this issue? Just doesn't make sense, granted this is Clown World so maybe its my fault for trying to find sense in a senseless act.
  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)