When I was in England recently, I rented a 2008 Audi A4 2.0TDI. I've always been a big Audi fan but it's been a few years since I owned one or drove one so this was something of a treat for me.
Despite my bias towards Audi as a brand, after a couple of days in the seat, I came to the conclusion that someone in the Audi design department was having a bad day.
First - the handbrake. Whilst it's good and strong (unlike American handbrakes), the position of it is appalling. Sure it's where you'd expect to find it between the front seats, but it's right under the drivers armrest. You need the agility of a 16 year old gymnast to contort your arm so you can use it, and when you do, you'll trap fingers and thumbs between bits of cheap plastic and metal.
Second - the cruise control. It's a little nubbin that sticks out from the steering column just under the indicator stalk. Instead of up/down to engage / disengage, it's pull/push. It seemed that every time I went to try to re-engage the cruise control, I'd find the indicator stalk by mistake and pull it. That meant I kept flashing people with the high beams, and more than once I got the finger from the driver in front. So much aggrevation that could have been eliminated by a can of Red Bull and slap in the face to the designer who though this was a good idea.
Third - the heater controls. It was like trying to pilot the shuttle. There were separate buttons for "defrost" and "use windscreen vents". I'm not sure why - they both did the same thing. Plus I appeared to have a third defrost button which might or might not have done the rear window. According to the button label - a box with wavy lines coming out of it - I might have actually been brewing a cup of tea. Then there were the digital fan buttons and temperature buttons that required a lot of pushing and clicking to get what I wanted. And by default, the a/c was always on but had an "econ" button to turn it off. Since when was that the norm? Shouldn't it be off with a button to turn it on? Why would you design a system to default to giving the worst mpg? What's wrong with heater controls as knobs that you can simply twist without having to look at them? Surely they're easier, more intuitive and less likely to distract the driver?
The last item is a matter of opinion I suppose. I'm not a huge fan of built-in technology for the sake of it when it comes to cars. More stuff to distract already bad drivers just isn't a good thing. Audi's radio / nav system, whilst impressive, is just too complicated to use on-the-drive. It's not a touch screen and the buttons are all just badly positioned and labelled. To get any proper use out of it, you need a passenger in the car all the time.
It took me a day just to find the volume control - rental cars don't come with a manual, and Audi's control layout is far from intuitive or understandable without it.
It took two days before I found the sub-mode selection buttons around the input knob. Sure there are labels in the corners of the screen tantalising you with what the system might be able to display. But touching the screen does nothing, and there are no buttons next to the labels themselves. Its like putting a fake light switch in the living room of your house with the real switch outside in the shed.
Which reminds me - the Audi 'intelligent' radio wouldn't let us listen to Capital FM because it considered the signal to be too weak. We couldn't select it as a preset and we gave up trying to figure out how to manually tune the radio. When technology starts preventing you from doing stuff because it thinks it knows better - that's when it's time to call it a day and stop making idiotic design decisions. It's a bloody radio - let me tune it and listen to the crappy signal if I want to.
I think the only system that's more complicated and difficult to use is BMW's awful I-drive. Why can't these manufacturers learn from Garmin or TomTom when it comes to on-screen interfaces? Simple is best.
The A4 is a great car despite these problems. It just surprised me that Audi, of all brands, are making mistakes like this.