The Business Insider Transportation team just announced our 2016 Car of the Year, the Acura NSX. We also named five runners-for our third-annual edition of the award. This year, we've added two new trophies: Audio System of the Year, won by Bowers & Wilkins; and Infotainment System of the Year. For 2016, our Infotainment System of the Year goes to Audi.

The finalist were:

  • Audi MMI/Virtual Cockpit
  • BMW iDrive
  • Ford SYNC 3/SYNC and MyFord Touch
  • General Motors MyLink/IntelliLink/Cue plus OnStar
  • Tesla Touchscreen
As connectivity, apps, smartphone integration (for voice calls and texting, as well as email), GPS navigation, and autonomous-driving features become more important features of the auto experience, we feel that it's essential to provide our take on the carmakers that are doing the best job of pulling together all these elements - don't forget to throw in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto - under the general rubric of "infotainment."

A great infotainment system makes car ownership a pleasure. A poor system makes it a chore. Consumers are far more demanding these days than they were just five years ago. And they're going to get more demanding, as 24/7 connectedness continues to define their lives.

Safety first

Of course, not all trends are good ones: Consumer Reports has noted frequent owner complaints about balky infotainment systems; and the issue of distracted driving is of paramount importance.   We consider a great infotainment system to be one that performs all its functions relatively seamlessly and with as much of an intuitive interface as possible. At this juncture, voice-recognition technologies are still at an early stage, but we certainly appreciate when a manufacturer's setup works as advertised and isn't clunkier than the more dangerous manual-entry-of-info modes.  An impressive infotainment system isn't always like what you might get with a smartphone or a tablet. If it were, Tesla's massive Touchscreen would have been a winner this year, as nearly all vehicle and infotainment features are controlled through it.   Reliability, ease-of-use, precision (especially when it comes to navigation) and the ability of a system to be operated while driving without endangering anyone were key criteria for our choice - which involved debate and discussion all year long among Senior Correspondent Matt DeBord, Transportation Reporters Ben Zhang and Danielle Muoio, and Senior Transportation Editor Cadie Thompson (Evening News Editor and West Coast car buff Bryan Logan also kicked in his thoughts).

The big winner

We've been delighted with Audi's MMI infotainment system for a few years. It does everything well, from managing audio to providing superb and accurate navigation powered by Google Maps. It also has Bluetooth integration along with Audi Connect 4G LTE connectivity and a cluster of apps.

It isn't a touchscreen system: a central infotainment screen emerges from the dashboard, but you use a knob, buttons, and a touchpad to access the menus and features. This is throw-backy, but in practice, it works well, and once you get the hang of it means less time taking your eyes of the road. Bluetooth integration is faultless.

However, the competition has caught up with Audi. But the arrival of Virtual Cockpit continues to give the carmaker an edge.

Virtual Cockpit is a very cool technology that transforms the main instrument cluster into a customizable digital screen. It can, for example, display the navigation map and send the traditional gauges to the corners of the screen. This means that a driver's eyes are front-and-center much of the time, rather than darting between the road ahead, the infotainment screen, and the instruments (as well as the rearview and sideview mirrors).

Virtual Cockpit is managed using steering-wheel controls, so it's even more safety oriented. It currently isn't available on all Audis. It's limited to the A4 sedan, the Q7 SUV, and R8 supercar, but we expect to see it in future vehicles.

In terms of the voice system, Audi's MMI is state-of-the-art. It isn't as good as Apple CarPlay and Siri, but Apple's system isn't quite ready to take over control of the car yet.

The overall Audi system is very effective and quite advanced. It's a worthy winner for our first-ever Infotainment System of the Year.

General Motors' MyLink/IntelliLink/Cue plus OnStar has come on very strong in the past two years as the biggest challenger to Audi's MMI in the traditional automaking realm.

GM's system - which has different names across brands, but has essentially the same functionality - is easier to use than Audi's. Central touchscreens are the rule, with a few important buttons and steering-wheel controls retained. Bluetooth integration is impeccable, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available, audio operation is easy, and navigation using the in-dash system is excellent.

What sets GM apart is the combination of 4GLTE connectivity, available on every vehicle the company makes, and OnStar, GM's longstanding suite of communications, safety, and navigation technology, activated by buttons on the rearview mirror.

4GLTE transforms your GM vehicle into a rolling wi-fi hotspot. In practice, it's brilliant. Parents can't live without it, as in-vehicle entertainment screens are replaced by everyone bringing along their own device.

OnStar is still the best way to get directions. You push the blue button, an operator comes on the the line, you tell that person where you want to go and Presto! The navigation is sent to your vehicle. This can all be done on the fly, outdoing all other in-dash and voice-activated nav systems on the market.

In total, GM full infotainment package is probably better than Audi's at this point. But Virtual Cockpit, in our assessment, is simply too groundbreaking to ignore. That's why GM finished second.

All the other infotainment systems that were in the running had the compelling merits. BMW's iDrive is most-improved, Ford SYNC 3 is a tremendous update over the previous generation, and Tesla Touchscreen marks the direction is which all manufacturers will probably head in the future toward putting all vehicle-systems-management in place.

Congratulations to Audi, however, for maintaining its level of infotainment excellence and continuing to innovate.


Tech Insider