Mazda3’s infotainment dial is awkward, no matter what Mazda says
Distracted driving is a big problem, especially with all the wonderful things modern cars can do. Purely digital controls via touchscreens and capacitive keys aren’t the answer, because we need to keep our eyes on the road and physical feedback helps us do that. On the other hand, old-fashioned buttons aren’t enough to navigate the complexity of modern infotainment systems. A mix is necessary, and each automaker has their own school of thought as to where the right balance lies. Mazda is wrong.
I recently had the privilege of driving a Mazda3 Turbo daily for a week. It was a great experience that I will expand on in a future review. One downside, however – which I kind of knew about – was the infotainment system interface. It’s a dial, positioned between the gear selector and the center console.
The most recent Mazda I drove before this 3 Hatch was a 2021 Miata RF. This roadster also had a dial, but it also had a touch screen. The screen only responded to touch when the car was not moving; all other times you had to use the button. I expected the same from this 3, but it’s actually worse – the panel isn’t tactile at all, so rotary is really all you get.
That’s no problem for Mazda’s user interface, as it consists only of vertically scrolling lists that you can move between by pushing the wheel left or right. In these cases, the dial works very well. But if you like using CarPlay or Android-Auto – and who doesn’t – everything collapses.
Mazda’s rationale for this interface design is predictable. If you take your right hand off the steering wheel to reach the front row and towards a screen, it’s almost impossible not to put some involuntary force on your left hand which is still holding the steering wheel. You also need to move your eyes from the road to the screen. It’s always unavoidable, but at least Mazda’s way you wouldn’t have to reach. It’s more comfortable to casually rest a hand on a dial and quickly shift your attention from the screen to the dash and rear – eyes are good for that sort of thing – rather than having to look away the look and move your body at the same time. I understand.
The problem is that the only user experience that benefits from this thinking is Mazda’s, because Mazda was obviously designed for that. Using a dial to navigate something like CarPlay that was clearly meant to be touched isn’t just annoying or inconvenient – it’s dangerous.
Software designed for touch doesn’t have to organize everything into lists. The CarPlay home screen features app icons arranged in a grid; it also has a persistent vertical sidebar on the left with recent apps. Lists are only used where they make sense, e.g. in a music player like Spotify.
At one point during my time driving the Mazda3, I was listening to Apple Music and needed to scroll from the top of a list to one of the items down. Halfway down the list was a horizontal bar arranged recently played albums, like five or six of them. If Mazda let me touch the dang panel, I could have skipped that pause, found what I was looking for, and hit it in two seconds. But the dial meant I had to scroll through those albums individually, which made the whole process much longer.
In another instance, I had summoned Siri and wanted to cancel any exchange we had. There is an on-screen Cancel or Back button that CarPlay places at the top left of every screen. It’s easy to type, because it’s always in the same place. In this situation, of course, I couldn’t do that, so I pressed the physical car back button, near the dial. But CarPlay didn’t recognize it, and I didn’t want to spend 10 seconds turning a button trying to figure out how to highlight something in the corner of the screen, so I just waited for Siri to give up.
These are just two examples. Of course, given enough time, I would get used to these inconveniences, as we do with all our cars. That doesn’t change the fact that a dial just wasn’t the right tool for these jobs. And even though Mazda isn’t responsible for CarPlay, it still has to play around with Apple’s platform. CarPlay needs to be as easy to use as in-car software because customers will still use it.
Shit, I’d take a well-designed touchpad, like Acura, on Mazda’s system. And “touchpad” is a dangerous word in Jalopnik Slack – I should know that because when I shared this opinion my colleagues described it as “horrifying” and a “the world is flat” take. I would prefer a pad because, much like a touchscreen, it would allow me to directly locate any element of the screen with my finger, the only layer of abstraction being that I wouldn’t be touching the screen directly. But, I wouldn’t have to reach either. It would be the best of both worlds.
This is a problem for which there is no single solution, and I know it. Our brains all work a little differently and not all drivers will find the same intuitive interface. In fact, redundancy is probably the best approach here; touchscreens are really cheap to make these days, after all. We should all have the ability to tailor these experiences to our preferences. I just wish the car companies would stop telling me mine aren’t safe, when I’m the one who’s forced to take my eyes off the road.