I-DRIVE   View Specs on this Vehicle

Lots of auto writers are dancing around this subject. They're so used to being impressed by BMW engineering, that when BMW truly lays an egg, no one knows quite what to make of it. Well, let us be unwaveringly clear. I-Drive sucks. Here's what we said about it when we drove the 745i:

There is one reason why you should not buy this car. It's called iDrive. In an attempt to convince luxury car buyers that they are getting the latest and greatest electronic gizmos for their 77K, some knucklehead at BMW crammed all of the car's electronic controls together and gave them all one switch. Smart? Duh.

Here's the car's fatal flaw: BMW's "iDrive" system. The intention of iDrive was to combine -- and therefore simplify -- all the controls, including climate, entertainment, navigation, car information and other systems. The iDrive uses a centrally located, spinning, mouse-like knob to change settings, and a centrally located computer screen in the center of the dashboard to help you navigate through iDrive's various menus.

Unfortunately, iDrive is a complete disaster. It's a lot of technology -- and yet you gain nothing. We were continually frustrated by the iDrive. It took us 15 minutes just to change the radio station (I know, I know...it was US, you're saying. But even our more talented lackeys found it confoundingly non-intuitive and frustrating).

And let's even give BMW the benefit of the doubt. Let's say you eventually master this system and know how to get to various menus and functions. Here's the fundamental flaw: you absolutely have to take your eyes off the road to change settings, because the only way to know where you are in the iDrive system is to look at the screen.

Our guess is that someone at BMW thought this would a selling point. That it would be a gee-whiz feature that would differentiate it from the other luxury cars. And remember, this car was probably being designed at the peak of the tech bubble (remember those days of peace, prosperity, and $150 a share iToothpick prices?) Unfortunately, the iDrive is a step backwards from intuitive, simple and well-placed knobs that can be operated almost instinctively.

Now, the question becomes, does BMW dig its heels in and say "you VILL learn to luff it!" and make minor changes, or does it fess up and say "Oy, did we screw up!" and get rid of it? We can only hope someone out there in Bavaria walks into the ergonomics department and fires a bunch of people before they move this disaster into other, heretofore untainted BMW models.

The only good news here is that you don't have to mess with the iDrive all the time. There are volume controls for the radio on the steering wheel, and a couple of basic climate control knobs are on the dashboard. That's about the only thing that saved us from driving around in silence in 80 degree heat.

Unfortunately, BMW is refusing to admit it left a floater in the swimming pool. When the new, redesigned 5 Series came out this fall (see "The Ugly"), it also had iDrive. Admittedly, it was a somewhat streamlined version of iDrive, but it still was a complete pain in the keister; more a reason NOT to buy the car than TO buy the car. We hope they'll come to their senses and make the iDrive for navigation and "occasional" adjustments. And give us good old knobs and buttons for things we use all the time, like the radio.




VESTIGIAL REAR SEATS   View Specs on this Vehicle

We've got nothing against the Jaguar XK8 Convertible. It's a sweet looking car. It's a pleasure to drive. But please don't ever ask us to get into the back seat.

To get around the insurance companies premium pricing for two seat sports cars, Jaguar is among the car makers that add a completely useless rear seat, just to say they have one. It's capable of holding two watermelons, or any other small object without legs.

It's a joke, and the car makers and insurance companies ought to get together and straighten this out before somebody loses his or her legs back there.




DISCARDING PERFECTLY GOOD LOGOS   View Specs on this Vehicle

Speaking of Jaguar, here's a note from our review of the X-Type:

And a minor complaint: Jaguar has switched to a Tony the Tiger-like Jaguar logo that's now plastered on the center of the steering wheel and on top of the stick shift. We thought it was a little silly looking, for such an otherwise classy company. We much prefer the old leaping Jaguar to the current cereal box rendition.

Jaguar had one of the best logos in the business. Everybody recognized the leaping cat. And now look at it. Jeesh.




LITTLE HORN BUTTONS IN THIS CENTURY   View Specs on this Vehicle

Looking back, we gave Mini a pretty easy ride on this one:

One slightly unfortunate ergonomic problem: the horn is activated via a couple of small buttons are on the spokes of the steering wheel, instead of in the middle of the steering wheel where God wanted it to be. We don't know why Mini did that. And when you drive a car this small, you want to have easy access to the horn button.

It's actually pretty inexcusable in 2003 to have little, tiny horn buttons. These were bad enough in the early 90's, when car makers were just learning how to install air bags. But by the mid-90's, everybody had figured it out. Now, Mini comes along with a premium priced car with hard to find horn buttons. Fix it, Mini, or we'll skewer you again next year!




THINKING SOMETHING ALMOST ALL THE WAY THROUGH   View Specs on this Vehicle

An engineer at Volkwagen thought that if someone tries to steal a new super-deluxe Toureg sport utility, the theft deterrent system ought to make it damn hard. So, if the car's alarm is not turned off using the key fob, the would-be intruder (even if he uses the key to manually unlock the driver's door) will run into several obstacles.

He'll find that the car won't start. And he'll then find he can't remove the key from the ignition (it locks it in place), and can't take the car out of Park.

Unfortunately, if the battery dies (for no apparent reason), the alarm cannot be turned off. So the owner will face the same set of obstacles.

He will use the key to manually open the door. He will insert the key and try to start the engine. He will fail, and try to remove the key, which will not come out. He will call VW roadside assistance, who will call AAA. The tow truck driver will arrive and won't be able to jump start the car, because the battery is in the rear cargo compartment, and the door locks are either dead or disabled by the alarm system. He will shrug and leave. Another tow truck driver will arrive, shrug, and leave. A third tow truck driver will arrive and decide to tow the car. He will discover that the transmission is locked in Park, so he can't tow it. He will shrug and leave. After another call to VW roadside assistance, a local dealer will get involved, sending a tow truck with a dolly, so the car can be rolled onto a flat bed truck and taken to the dealer.

The owner will be really happy he just spent $40,000 on a high-end German sport utility vehicle.




THINKING SOMETHING ALMOST ALL THE WAY THROUGH, PART II   View Specs on this Vehicle

 

Here's a problem we discovered while testing Volvo's new sport utility this year:

One other small problem: When the third row of seats is folded, and stashed away, there's a cargo cover that goes over the rear cargo compartment to hide your "stuff." But if you're away from home, and suddenly need the third row of seats, you have to remove the cargo cover, and there's no place to store it. It doesn't fit conveniently anywhere in the car. We heaved ours into a dumpster behind a rest area on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Yes, we know we owe you a cargo cover, Volvo. It's on order.




THINKING SOMETHING ALMOST ALL THE WAY THROUGH, PART III   View Specs on this Vehicle

Sophisticated electronics that aren't quite sophisticated enough. This time, from BMW's new flagship:

The 745Li also has a distance warning feature, most useful in parking. Gentle beeps emanate from the speakers at whatever corner of the vehicle is getting close to something. If you hear beeping from the right rear, that means your right rear bumper is getting close to a solid object. As you get closer, the distance warning system beeps faster and faster. Unfortunately, here again is an odd technological oversight. When you're done parking, and put the car in Park, you'd think the parking warning device would shut off, right? After all, it's now done its job. You're in Park, and -- most people would have to concede -- in very little danger of driving into anything. But annoyingly, the warning beeps don't go off -- and keep beeping at you until you either shut off the warning system, or shut off the engine. For all the sophisticated electronics in this car, you'd think BMW could have had included a switch that deactivated the distance alarm when you put the car in park. Maybe that'll be in version 2.0.




THINGS THAT HURT   View Specs on this Vehicle

Subaru WRX owners learned what happens this year when function follows form:

We have to comment on the shift knob. The shift knob has evolved over the last 100 years or so to be round, and fit nicely into the palm of the human hand. But Subaru decided to build the WRX shifter for drivers with flat palms. The shift knob is shaped like a thimble. It's fashionable, it's different, but it cuts into your palm. Dumb idea, guys.




REPLACING INNOVATION WITH POWER   View Specs on this Vehicle

Here were our comments on the new Volkswagen Passat W8, which, not surprisingly, we still agree with! VW took a very nice, mid-sized car, the Passat, and dropped an eight cylinder engine into it:

So, why is VW making an eight-cylinder Passat?

To understand why a manufacturer would build such an overpowered car, first remember that every manufacturer wants to make their latest car exciting and different. There are some tried and true formulas for doing that -- for example, clever design, restyling or new desirable options. But if the manufacturer isn't smart enough or creative enough to come up with those, the old standby is to add power.

We applaud manufacturers who can make cars interesting and fun, without simply making cars that can go 150 miles an hour. It doesn't take much effort to put a bigger engine in a car. It takes a lot of effort to design something new, interesting and creative, however (see Honda Element, Mini Cooper, et al).

While the W8 is not the most glaring example of a car that's stupidly overpowered, it's certainly one of them. VW cut their teeth on making perfectly decent, reliable, fun, funky and affordable cars. We think they'd be wise to get back to those roots. You can encourage them by ignoring the W8.