Surprising tech features land these vehicles atop 10-best user experiences list

Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press
·8 min read

Luxury cars don’t have a monopoly on the best new features, particularly those for driver assistance, entertainment and navigation.

You’re as likely to get the latest and greatest from mainstream brands like Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota or VW as luxury brands, according to WardsAuto’s 2020 list of the 10 best user experiences in vehicles.

The list in alphabetical order, with the list price of each vehicle tested:

  • Audi Q7 ($75,290)

  • BMW X7 ($113,845)

  • Chevrolet Trailblazer ($32,350)

  • Ford Escape ($44,220)

  • Hyundai Sonata ($34,365)

  • Kia Seltos ($29,485)

  • Mercedes-Benz CLA ($48,295)

  • Subaru Legacy ($36,795)

  • Toyota Highlander ($51,112)

  • Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport ($51,050)

Also noteworthy: Every winner is an SUV, except for the Hyundai Sonata, Subaru Legacy and Mercedes-Benz CLA sedans.

“This is a great list of new vehicles that span a wide swath of the U.S. market, from mainstream to luxury,” said WardsAuto executive director of content and judge Dave Zoia.

Wards, by the way, provides auto insights and analysis.

“The fact that so many of this year’s winners are crossovers tells you exactly where automakers are targeting their investments in the latest vehicle technologies,” Zoia said.

"User experience" is an awkward name, but it refers to features that are high on customer lists. Good ones make vehicles safer and easy to use. A poor UX can become an ongoing source of frustration, a reason to avoid a model or brand in the future.

Wards Auto user experience judge Christie Schweinsberg used a headset to shoot driver's-eye video of vehicle controls.
Wards Auto user experience judge Christie Schweinsberg used a headset to shoot driver's-eye video of vehicle controls.

Loosely speaking, the user experience refers to:

A. Features that make you a better driver, anything from a sensor that warns before you back into something, to systems that help steer, accelerate and brake.

B. Controls and displays ranging from seat adjustment to navigation, audio and climate control.

Wards left no stone unturned testing the varied systems. Judge Christie Schweinsberg even used a headset with her mobile phone to record her experience behind the wheel for later reference.

Highlights from the judges’ evaluation of each winner:

Audi Q7: Full-color display screens

Syncing a smart phone to the Audi Q7 SUV
Syncing a smart phone to the Audi Q7 SUV

“The ’20 Q7’s three brilliant, full-color display screens ... will demand your long-term attention – a key reason it earns a 2020 Wards 10 Best UX trophy. There’s the reconfigurable Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster straight in front of the driver, plus the two large horizontal, tempered-glass displays stacked on top of each other in the center console. The lower MMI screen controls climate and comfort settings, while the upper screen is a portal to vast amounts of infotainment."

“We look for elements of surprise and delight, and the Q7 delivers on many fronts: plenty of charging plugs, a Wi-Fi hotspot, extensive climate controls for second-row occupants, quick and easy phone pairing and an overall design that replaces most hard buttons with reconfigurable virtual ones.”

BMW X7: Vitalize mode

Rotary controller in center console of BMW X7 SUV
Rotary controller in center console of BMW X7 SUV

"Select 'Vitalize' if you’re feeling drowsy and need a jolt of energy."

"If you click on 'Vitalize' with the climate control set to Auto, the sunscreen opens, a techno pop dance number comes on the audio system, seat ventilation cranks up, ambient lighting turns green and cooler air (64.4F) pulses through the vents and sounds like waves washing rhythmically on a beach. It’s meant to rouse you on a long road trip and the sequence runs for three minutes."

Chevrolet Trailblazer: Connectivity and more

Chevrolet Trailblazer interior
Chevrolet Trailblazer interior

“It’s inside where the Trailblazer shines with its first-rate connectivity, intuitive controls, ample standard driver-assistance technologies and an overall excellent user experience – all attributes that earn the it a 2020 Wards 10 Best UX trophy."

"With a base price under $20,000 (including destination charges), the Trailblazer exceeds expectations with standard equipment: color touchscreens, Bluetooth audio, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, automatic emergency braking, front pedestrian braking, lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning, forward collision alert and Teen Driver technology, allowing parents to set limits on their joyriding kids.”

Ford Escape: Head-up display

Ford Escape head-up display
Ford Escape head-up display

“If you are a so-called 'visual' person, this vehicle is a sure draw, particularly for the richness of its displayed imagery, from navigation maps to gauge readings to the high-definition backup camera.

“'The digital cluster and the touchscreen both have incredible resolution and clarity."

"Sync 3 is easy to use and compatible with available features such as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Ford+Alexa and Waze navigation."

"New for this model is a 575-watt 10-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system with subwoofers. That’s high-end audio for a mass-market vehicle."

Hyundai Sonata: Remote control parking

Wireless charging pad in Hyundai Sonata
Wireless charging pad in Hyundai Sonata

“The user experience value proposition for the redesigned 2020 Hyundai Sonata is simply stunning. With the price of the average vehicle now reaching $38,000, the $34,365 (including $930 destination charge) on the sticker of our test car seems like a typo.

"There also is a remote smart parking assist feature, which enables the car to pull out from a tight parking space without the driver being inside. A phone-based digital key also is available.”

Kia Seltos: Infotainment controls

Kia Seltos interior
Kia Seltos interior

“Infotainment controls are displayed in a 10.25-inch touchscreen that is generously sized for this vehicle class. Here, icons are big, crisp and easily manipulated for a customized home screen. Connectivity through Bluetooth is quick and simple, and there’s onboard navigation as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

"The Seltos really shines on the user-interface front, with intuitive, easy-to-use controls. The HVAC system, in particular, with its clear readouts and grown-up sized buttons and dials, is 'a magnificent exercise in functional economy.'”

Mercedes-Benz CLA 250: AR navigation

Mercedes-Benz CLA interior
Mercedes-Benz CLA interior

“Our $48,295 test car had $6,410 worth of UX-related options, highlighted by the Driver Assistance Package ($2,250) including Active Lane Change Assist, Active Speed Limit Assist, Route-Based Speed Adaptation and Extended Stop-&-Go Traffic adaptive cruise control."

"The topper, lauded by all of our judges, is the augmented-reality navigation, providing a video image of the surroundings highlighted by visual cues for cross streets and house numbers every step of the way."

"Labels (for cross streets and house numbers) just kind of hover over the ground as you’re driving through a neighborhood. Mercedes-Benz really is the leader in navigation and maps.”

Subaru Legacy: Driver assist technology

Subaru Legacy center screen closeup
Subaru Legacy center screen closeup

"The new Legacy midsize sedan lands on the 2020 Wards 10 Best UX list "for excelling on many fronts."

"Judges said they found 'the Legacy’s ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) confidence inspiring – some of the best-performing driver-assist tech in any vehicle evaluated.'"

"The adaptive cruise control function (packaged within the EyeSight suite along with lane-keeping) works well, maintaining distance and slowing the car to a stop in a linear fashion."

Judges also loved "the ability to fine-tune the Legacy’s acceleration after a stop. So many vehicles resume in a pokey fashion when ACC is on – and you can still get that in the Legacy if that’s what you prefer."

"But select ‘Cruise Control Acceleration Characteristic: Level 4 Dynamic’ from the menu, and you’ll leave trailing vehicles in the dust.”

Toyota Highlander: Touchscreen

Display of Toyota Highlander driver assistance features
Display of Toyota Highlander driver assistance features

“A new 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen ... sets a new standard among rivals while retaining elements from the previous and popular outgoing model."

The "touchscreen has great resolution and is nicely configurable," Zoia observed, calling out the "big buttons for HVAC and radio."

Judge ChristieSchweinsberg found the "voice controls intuitive and responsive, even when using natural speech instead of scripted commands."

"To get to where I was to meet Dave for a car swap," she said, 'it was smart enough to know the Comerica we were meeting at wasn’t on Squirrel Road, as I asked for, but on Hamlin Road. Nice."

VW Atlas Cross Sport: Traffic Jam Assist

VW Atlas Cross Sport 'virtual cockpit' display
VW Atlas Cross Sport 'virtual cockpit' display

“The pièce de résistance may be Traffic Jam Assist. The long-awaited feature represents Level 2+ automated driving, where the car uses its front camera and front radar sensors for full-stop adaptive cruise control up to 37 mph. Lane-keep assist maintains the car in its lane, even through curves. Stop for less than 3 seconds and the Atlas Cross Sport will resume travel automatically when the vehicle in front pulls away. Any longer than that and the driver needs only to tap the accelerator, or press the resume button on the steering wheel, to reactivate the system.”

Wards picked the winners from 18 candidates, a smaller field than usual, but, you know, pandemic.

  • Acura RDX

  • Alfa Romeo Giulia

  • Audi Q7

  • BMW X7

  • Cadillac CT5-V

  • Chevrolet Trailblazer

  • Ford Escape

  • Honda CR-V hybrid

  • Hyundai Sonata

  • Kia Seltos

  • Lincoln Aviator

  • Mazda CX-30

  • Mercedes-Benz CLA

  • Nissan Sentra

  • Ram 1500

  • Subaru Legacy

  • Toyota Highlander

  • Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

Contact Mark Phelan at 313-222-6731 or mmphelan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan. Read more on autos and sign up for our autos newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: These 10 vehicles have the best user experiences, says WardsAuto