It appears German automakers collectively have identified the key aspects that make up a great user experience behind the wheel as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen all win 2019 Wards 10 Best UX trophies.
Six exceptional vehicles from U.S., Asian and British brands (Chevrolet, Ford, Hyundai, Lexus, Range Rover and Subaru) round out this year’s winners from a field of 23 nominated all-new or redesigned vehicles.
Now in its fourth year, the Wards 10 Best UX competition is dedicated to assessing the user-friendliness of smartphone pairing and charging, voice-control navigation, head-up displays and the effectiveness of driver-assistance technologies such as adaptive cruise control and blindspot monitoring.
“User experience – or UX – is one of the hottest buzzwords in the auto industry,” Wards Senior Content Director Drew Winter says. “This year’s pool of winners illustrates the industry’s progress in giving drivers access to a wealth of information and entertainment options without distraction.”
The 2019 winners in alphabetical order (with sticker prices as tested):
- Audi A8 ($101,095)
- BMW 330i ($59,920)
- Chevrolet Blazer ($50,765)
- Ford Explorer ($61,330)
- Hyundai Palisade ($47,605)
- Lexus RX 350 ($51,750)
- Mercedes-Benz A220 ($51,925)
- Range Rover Evoque ($59,215)
- Subaru Outback ($40,705)
- Volkswagen Arteon ($44,055)
In July and August, editors evaluated and scored 23 vehicles available in the U.S. with all-new or re-engineered UX features such as display screens, interfaces or applications. There is no price cap, but overall value is a consideration.
Similar to our evaluations for Wards 10 Best Engines and 10 Best Interiors, judges interact with and drive the vehicles during their routine daily commutes in metro Detroit.
The editors ask many questions during their assessments and scoring: Are there too many hard buttons and switches, or perhaps too few? How many USB ports are onboard? Are over-the-air software updates available? Are radio stations easy to find? Does Apple CarPlay work in wireless mode? Are there elements of surprise and delight, such as flashy graphics at engine startup? Does the driver experience an immediate emotional or sensory connection to the vehicle or brand?
The long-wheelbase Audi A8 earns a 2019 10 Best UX trophy with an overall user experience that is high-tech, intuitive, visually stunning and luxurious, befitting a car with a sticker price above $100,000.
The A8 is loaded with elements that surprise and delight, from the adjustable rear seats in the limousine-like second row, first-rate driver assistance technology and illuminated seatbelt buckles to the always impressive Virtual Cockpit reconfigurable gauge cluster, manageable dual touchscreens and the nifty sliding electronic vent controls that also provide haptic feedback.
The driver can’t help but feel pampered, able to compose text messages from verbal commands and have incoming messages read aloud. Wireless CarPlay works great, and the driver can use voice commands for navigation and infotainment.
Second-row occupants have it just as good, with a detachable tablet mounted in the armrest for controlling cabin temperature, audio, warm ambient lighting, privacy blinds and seat temperature.
BMW is the only automaker to win Wards 10 Best UX honors in each of the four years of the competition: the 7-Series in 2016, 540i in 2017 and 640i in 2018. This year’s honoree is the 330i sedan, which, like the others, demonstrates how the Bavarian design team manages each year to move the UX bar a little higher.
The new 3-Series impresses at engine startup with light bars that sweep across the display screen reinforcing the BMW brand logo. Phone pairing is lighting fast, and voice controls work quickly and flawlessly, even with natural speech commands.
Wireless phone charging is beyond convenient, and the up-to-date Reuters news feed lets the driver feel connected to daily events. The head-up display is big and bright and shows navigation route guidance.
BMW was ahead of its time nearly 20 years ago when it introduced the iDrive controller positioned in the center console for navigating menus in the display screen. The iDrive remains integral for BMW interiors, but the new 3-Series (pictured above) now offers the option of using the touchscreen directly – a trend among German automakers.
Chevrolet makes a second straight appearance on the list with the all-new ’19 Blazer, following up on honors last year for the Equinox. Both models are 2-row, 5-passenger crossovers, but the Blazer is larger, with a cargo hold and available cargo management system sure to satisfy everyone from the do-it-yourselfer to the weekend warrior.
The Blazer’s DNA is closely linked to the Chevy Camaro sportscar, and the connection is evident in its unique HVAC delivery where a twist of the oversized vents adjusts the temperature and fan speed.
Wards judges were smitten with the latest Chevy infotainment system, which includes a new marketplace app for mobile shopping and has excellent natural language recognition. The 8-in. (20-cm) high-definition touchscreen is set high on the dash to reduce glance time away from the roadway and its big icons are easy to see.
The OnStar 4G LTE Wi-Fi connection is as reliable as a bloodhound. Stop-and-go ACC makes long-distance cruising more agreeable, and other driver-assistance features include lane keeping with lane-departure warning, forward collision alert and forward automatic braking.
Ford steps up its user experience in the redesigned Explorer utility vehicle with a new 10.1-in. (26-cm) vertically oriented LCD tablet touchscreen atop the center stack for navigating myriad infotainment offerings.
The menus are well organized and as simple to navigate as any system on the market, with large tiles that are easy to tap and are well spaced to avoid clutter. The 12-in. (30-cm) digital gauge cluster also is smartly organized.
At engine startup, the Explorer uses brilliant images of blue sky, snow-covered mountains (pictured above) and a wide-open road ahead to encourage adventurous spirits. Occupants in the vehicle cannot help but be impressed by the show, but it doesn’t stop there: Toggling through drive modes with a rotary dial in the center console also launches short animation sequences unique for each mode.
In addition to its high-tech aspects, the Explorer’s new interior also incorporates hard buttons for climate control and heated and cooled seats, as well as volume and tune knobs. The overall design simplicity is an immediate breath of fresh air.
Phone pairing is fast, charging ports are plentiful, driver assistance technologies work well, and response time to voice and physical commands is quick.
Few brands combine a premium-leaning experience at a family-friendly value like Hyundai does. The ’20 Palisade Limited continues that tradition with near-luxury trappings, loads of connectivity and a strong suite of standard safety items.
But it was all the clever design elements that stole the show. For example, the retractable cupholders in the center console will hold drinks snugly or tuck neatly away for an oversized storage bin.
A pair of USB ports are located at the inboard sides of the front seats for easy access by second-row passengers. No more digging around the dark chasm of the footwells to plug in. Judges also enjoyed the blindspot camera, which offers a video feed inside the digital instrument cluster of hard-to-see lanes on both sides, while moving.
The Palisade’s lane-centering technology works especially well, too, and its ACC offers four gap settings instead of the typical three.
Then there is the outstanding value of a safety-laden, 3-row, family-hauling SUV for under $50,000 to make the Palisade accessible to a wide audience of buyers.
The Lexus RX is the most popular luxury utility vehicle in America, having sold more than 192,000 units since October 2018.
Add in an award-winning user experience, and the RX makes even more sense for shoppers demanding luxury, style and state-of-the-art connectivity and driver-assistance technology.
The large, horizontal display screen (pictured above) seems to hover above the instrument panel, in clear view of the driver, and the head-up display is vibrant and colorful, with turn-by-turn navigation directions if desired.
The swirling startup sequence on the display screen continues to impress, and four USB ports can be found in the front and second rows. Voice controls work well, allowing drivers to change climate settings, find radio stations and program navigation destinations, even with natural speech commands.
The center screen is the main access point for numerous vehicle and comfort settings, and it can be used as a touchscreen or controlled by the mousepad ergonomically placed in the console, to the right of the shifter.
Judges praised the RX’s ACC system for its smooth acceleration and braking. The RX even keeps sight of the road through odd construction-zone lane markings, and the lane-keeping system does its job effectively without nannying the driver.
Few cars have made such a splash in recent years as the ’19 Mercedes-Benz A220 sedan. It is the lead product for the groundbreaking Mercedes-Benz User Experience, or MBUX, and the technology is an all-star performer underpinned by two, 10.25-in. (26-cm) displays that create a stunning widescreen cockpit. The startup sequence dazzles, and shutdown finishes with a cool graphic of the car inside the digital instrument cluster.
The central display is home to the main navigation screen, which uses augmented reality to overlay addresses on buildings for super-accurate mapping. Miss a turn with this system and it may be time to give up driving.
Artificial intelligence drives natural language processing activated by simply asking, “Hey, Mercedes.” Artificial intelligence adapts the car to fit the preferences of individual users.
MBUX also advances touchpad technology, which judges are seeing on more cars today in place of the traditional rotary dial for selecting infotainment options.
ADAS features can be laid on thickly with the A220, including a nifty route-based speed adaption for ACC. For example, the car knows to slow as it exits the freeway. Wards judges discovered the A220 isn’t just intelligent, it’s downright genius.
Sitting in the stylish, luxuriously appointed ’20 Range Rover Evoque is an indulgent experience by itself. But add in a king’s ransom worth of connectivity, driver-assistance tech and comfort and there was little debate about the winning Evoque.
Its user experience begins with a click of its hefty key fob, which flashes the crossover’s headlamps and taillights, while simultaneously projecting a speed-form image as a puddle lamp and lighting its door handles. Such drama!
Inside, the Land Rover logo appears in the head-up display and main infotainment screen; available Wi-Fi keeps occupants connected; the navigation within the dual-screen Touch Pro Duo infotainment center provides up-to-date traffic and weather.
The top screen, which serves as the main portal, eliminates glare with the clever ability to adjust its pitch (pictured above). The bottom screen is home to HVAC controls and the different driving modes. Screen colors are elegantly hued, while redundant steering wheel controls are intuitive and a real triumph of economy.
Judges also enjoyed the convenience of the Activity Key wearable. While not new to Jaguar Land Rover products, the RFID-based technology is an all-weather wrist band owners can use to lock and unlock the Evoque in place of their key fob.
Subaru climbs aboard the 10 Best UX wagon with the redesigned ’20 Outback. The beefy hatchback follows on the Ascent SUV, which was honored for its UX system last year.
But the Outback receives an all-new version of the Starlink multimedia system with a tablet-shaped 11.6-in. (29-cm) high-resolution touchscreen conveniently uniting items such as audio, HVAC and controls for the car’s X-Mode driving dynamics.
Want to adjust the climate? Touch the seat icon at the bottom of the screen and a large icon appears with a nifty slider for the temperature range. It’s also worth noting the Starlink system accepts over-the-air updates, so the content will remain fresh for years to come.
Judges’ smartphones connected quickly to Starlink, and a pair of USB ports are found in the forward storage cubby. Two more USB ports are available to second-row occupants. Wi-Fi is available and the voice-activation system performed perfectly with navigation.
Subaru’s marvelous EyeSight Driver Assist Technology keeps track of traffic movement, operates ACC and helps drivers stay in their lane. EyeSight also helps reduce or avoid frontal crashes with pre-collision braking, and it can perform pre-collision throttle management to slow the hatchback if it anticipates a crash.
Volkswagen’s new Arteon sporty sedan delivers much more than just a giant trunk. There’s the soothing startup sequence, eye-grabbing instrument cluster and the app-rich Car-Net system that puts VW squarely in the connectivity game.
Car-Net allows drivers to run some apps from their smartphones directly to the infotainment system and also will connect to an Apple watch.
Judges appreciate the proximity-sensing touchscreen that illuminates controls as your hand approaches the screen. The result is a center screen that keeps clutter to a minimum but allows instant access to controls when you need them.
ADAS features are cutting edge, with dependable stop-and-go ACC, pedestrian and blindspot monitoring and forward collision warning. Another cool technology: post-collision braking, which will stop the Arteon automatically after a crash so it doesn’t strike another vehicle or object.
Voice programming of the navigation system is simple, and maps are highly detailed.
The all-new Arteon (pictured above) is stylish and its UX features represent a cut above other VW models. And one of our favorite features – especially as we hop from test car to test car – is a digital reminder not to leave your phone in the car.
The 2019 Wards 10 Best UX winners will be honored at a special ceremony during the WardsAuto User Experience Conference on Oct. 1 at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, MI.
Winning vehicles will be on display. For more information about the daylong conference, visit https://wardsauto.informa.com/ux/.
Visit WardsAuto.com in the coming days for additional articles, videos and photos from the 2019 Wards 10 Best UX competition.