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Infotainment Systems Have Come So Far in 20 Years

With the advent of a rule that went into place in May 2018 mandating backup cameras in all new cars sold in the U.S., the days of dashboards without at least one screen are likely a thing of the past. The road to today’s flashy touchscreens was a bumpy one, however, and it began with a mini-TV display General Motors fitted to Buicks (really, of all brands to use as a tech showcase?) in the 1980s. That’s a 35-year-old design now, however, so of course the green text on black background CRT looks as charmingly dated as you’d expect.

As LCD screens and digital displays got cheaper into the 1990s and early 2000s, however, some automakers were more eager than others to dip their toes into what looked and felt like high-tech screens at the time. Early Acura MDX and Lexus RX crossovers were among the first mainstream models to offer touchscreen navigation systems, but that was a costly option. Both automakers charged $2,000 for navigation in 2001, though those systems are slow, clunky and make use of map data that’s a decade old at best.

2003 Lexus RX infotainment

For the RX 300, Lexus swapped in three display ribbons to relay trip computer, climate control and audio information. With the stereo on, it was definitely information overload. Acura’s solution may have been even worse, however. The bright screen contained a clock, a cornucopia-shaped average fuel economy display, a massive compass with an outline of what looks more like a Honda Civic hatchback, and a strip of climate control settings. The big screen also split climate control buttons into two different locations, and its backlight color was different than that of the radio sitting below.

Those were mere teething issues compared to what GM foisted on consumers nearly a decade later. The Saturn Astra and Pontiac G8 arrived in American showrooms with their passports already stamped. The Saturn was a thinly disguised Opel sold in and meant for Europe, while the G8 was an Australian-market Holden sedan. Both had merits, but as the General took a few years to get them into American hands, they were already showing their age — especially inside.

2008 Saturn Astra

Big orange digital letters called out such pertinent information as fuel consumption per hour and the outside temperature measured to the decimal point in the Astra. In the G8, a red display relayed audio information, but only for the first model year. The following year, that information was integrated into a new LCD built into the radio head unit, and the formerly remote display became a storage bin.

Ford kept the quirky display going right up until the federal backup camera mandate with its Fiesta, another globally sourced model not originally designed for American consumers. The Fiesta’s display was a little more sophisticated than those used by GM and, decades prior, by other automakers, but it still clustered a relatively small amount of information in a large display.

Infotainment systems continue to evolve. Audi has experimented with deploying screens, Mercedes-Benz seems committed to sneaking two screens under a single pane of glass to take up nearly the entire dash and some automakers are trying out gesture controls. What we’ll be making fun of in 10 years is anyone’s guess.

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  1. I always loved the non-navi models that automakers used to put these cheaper screens in there place. I had a 2004 Accord without Navi and it looked just like the Acura picture! The Buick LaCrosse gen 2 (2010 release) had one of the nicer non-navi screens that I can recall other than the limited release 2011 Saab 9-5. I always felt these allowed the cars to age better. 

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz is an author specializing in helping in-market consumers get the most bang for their buck -- and the best car, while they're at it. When not virtually shopping for new and used cars, Andrew can probably be found under the hood of a vintage classic that's rapidly losing fluids.

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