Distracted driving is a big deal, especially with all the great things modern cars can do. Purely digital control via touchscreens and capacitive keys is not the answer, as we have to keep our eyes on the road, and physical feedback helps us with that. On the other hand, old-fashioned buttons are unsuitable for navigating modern infotainment systems’ complexities. A mix is necessary, and each automaker has its mindset about where to strike the right balance—Mazda’s wrong.
I recently had the privilege of driving a Mazda3 Turbo daily for a week. It was a nice experience that I will discuss in a future review. However, one of the drawbacks – which I knew I was going into – was the infotainment system’s interface. It is a dial placed between the gear lever and the center console.
The most recent Mazda I’d driven before this 3 Hatch was a 2021 Miata RF. That roadster also had a dial, but it also had a touchscreen. The display only responded to touch when the car was not moving; you had to use ,the button all other times. I expected the same from these 3, but it’s worse: the panel isn’t touch-sensitive at all, so the dial is all you get.
Photo: Adam Ismail
This isn’t a problem for Mazda’s user interface, as it consists of only vertically scrolling lists that you can move between by moving the steering wheel left or right. In those cases, the dial works fine. But everything falls apart if you like to use CarPlay or Android Auto – and who doesn’t.
Mazda’s rationale for this interface design is predictable. When you take your right hand off the handlebars to reach across the front row toward a screen, it’s nearly impossible not to apply an involuntary force to your left hand while still holding the handlebars. It would help if you also moved your eyes off the road and into the display. That’s always unavoidable, but at least the way you don’t have to reach Mazda. It’s more comfortable to casually rest a hand on a watch face and quickly shift your focus from the screen to the dash and back—eyes are good at that—rather than having to look away and move your body simultaneously. I understand.
The problem is the only user experience that benefits from this mindset are Mazda’s because Mazda’s is designed for it. Using a dial to navigate something like CarPlay that was meant to be touched isn’t just annoying or inconvenient; it’s also unsafe.
Photo: Adam Ismail
Software made for touch doesn’t have to organize everything into lists. The CarPlay home screen has app icons in a grid and a persistent vertical sidebar on the left with recent apps. Lists are only used where they make sense, for example, in a music player like Spotify.
At one point during my time behind the wheel of the Mazda3, I was listening to Apple Music and had to scroll from the top of a list to one of the items at the bottom. Halfway through the list was a horizontally arranged bar of recently played albums, about five or six. If Mazda had just let me touch the dang panel, I could have scrolled past that fracture, found what I was looking for, and tapped it in under two seconds. But the dial meant I had to scroll through those albums individually, making the process much longer.
These menus are very frustrating to navigate with a dial or anything other than fingers. (Image: Apple)
In another case, I called Siri and wanted to cancel our exchange. A Cancel or Back button on the screen places CarPlay at the top left of any screen. It’s easy to tap because it’s always in the same place. In this situation, I couldn’t, so I pressed the physical Back button on the car, near the watch face. But CarPlay didn’t recognize it, and I didn’t want to turn a knob for 10 seconds trying to figure out how to highlight an item in the corner of the screen, so I waited for Siri to give up.
These are just two examples. Sure, I’d get used to these annoyances with enough time, as we do with all our cars. That doesn’t change that a dial was simply the wrong tool for these jobs. And even though Mazda isn’t responsible for CarPlay, it should still have fun playing with Apple’s platform. CarPlay should be as easy to use as the software built into the car because customers will use it anyway.
Photo: Adam Ismail
I’d take a well-designed touchpad, like Acura’s, over Mazda’s system. And “touchpad” is a dangerous word in the Jalopnik Slack – I should know because when I shared that opinion, my colleagues described it as “horrific” and a “world is flat”. I’d rather have a pad because, like a touchscreen, it allows me to instantly locate any screen element with my finger, with the only layer of abstraction I wouldn’t touch directly. But I wouldn’t have to reach either. It would be the best of both worlds.
This is a problem for which no one-size-fits-all solution exists, and I know it. Our brains work differently,, and not every driver will find the same interface intuitive. Redundancy is probably the best approach here; touchscreens are cheap to make these days. We should all have the ability to tailor these experiences to our preferences. I wish automakers would stop telling me mine are unsafe when I’m forced to take my eyes off the road.