How to find the best electronic controls in new cars

If you are shopping for a new car, you'll be checking out the styling, handling and gas mileage. But don't forget the electronic controls, where problems can quickly make you regret your choice of vehicle.

Again this year, issues with so-called infotainment systems plagued automakers in the annual Consumer Reports reliability study. And Ford (F) has just announced it is phasing out its troubled MyFord Touch controls to be replaced in 2016 models by a redesigned system to be called Sync3.

Checking out the electronic controls is no trivial matter, notes Thomas Mutchler, Consumer Reports program manager for vehicle interface. "Given that a driver interacts with these features every single time they get into a car, it's worth checking out if the infotainment system is something they can live with every day," he said in an email.

Both Mutchler and Kelsey Mays, consumer affairs editor of Cars.com, suggest checking to see if a system has retained physical knobs as well as touch-screen controls. "Physical controls, like knobs for volume and radio tuning, are a must," Mays said. On the screen, look for control buttons that are easy to find and screens that are easy to read.

One system often praised for its knobs and ease of use is Chrysler's UConnect, installed in Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models. UConnect ranked first in a listing of the top 10 infotainment systems by Autoguide.com, just ahead of BMW's iDrive. Many other top-ranking systems were in luxury brands such as the COMAND system in Mercedes-Benz cars. But Chevrolet MyLink finished fifth, praised for its adaptability such as connecting easily to navigation apps on smart phones in models that do not have installed navigation.

Along with being easy to use, a vehicle's electronic controls shouldn't distract drivers. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety studied how much drivers are distracted using infotainment systems. Toyota's Entune got the top ranking, with the study comparing its distraction to that of listening to an audio book while driving. Hyundai's Blue Link was the second-least distracting system, while Chevrolet MyLink ranked the most distracting among six systems in the study.

How can you tell if a given electronic system would work for you? Mutchler and Mays offer these pointers:

  • Make sure you get a lengthy test drive and try out any controls you would use frequently. Make sure you are doing it on your own without the sales person controlling the system for you. See if you can easily reach the screen and read what it says.
  • Try giving voice commands to the system. Failure to understand such commands is a common consumer complaint about car electronic controls.
  • Try tuning the radio and adjusting the volume without taking your eyes from the road more than briefly.
  • Pair your cell phone with the system and try making a call and listening to music from the phone. If possible, turn the car off and lock it after you make the Bluetooth connection. When you get back in the car, the system should remember your phone connection and be able to return easily to the music you were playing.
  • Jerry Edgerton On Twitter»

    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.