How Touchscreens Ruined Luxury Cars

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Why would anyone spend twice as much (or more) on a car if the car that costs half as much (or less) has pretty much everything the car that costs twice as much (or more) has?

Consider – among other things – the ubiquity of the LCD touchscreen (and the related flatscreen instrument cluster). Go back ten years and very few cars had either, let alone both – and all of those that did were luxury (that is, expensive) cars. It was a way for the luxury car brands to tout what their cars had – and other (lesser) brands didn’t. The first time you saw a car with a a sheet of glowing glass (or plastic) embedded in the dash you may have thought you’d boarded the Starship Enterprise; it seemed very “high tech” and it looked look like nothing you’d ever seen before – outside of watching Star Trek.

But today, you see them everywhere – and they look common.

And that’s a problem – if you’re trying to sell a luxury car that costs twice as much (or more) than a car that costs half as much (or less) that has pretty much the same thing.

Maybe the car-that-costs half-as-much has a smaller touchscreen and a less fancy flatscreen dash display. But even that gap is rapidly closing because unlike electric cars, electronics are getting cheaper. They’re all made in Chyna – and they don’t cost much to make.

Indeed, these touchscreen displays are how the car companies – all of them – make more money, by charging you more for something that costs them less. Both to manufacture – and to install. Plug and play, as the saying goes. And it’s quite literally true.The car comes down the line and the iPad-like LCD touchscreen is plugged into place. No fine adjustments needed. And the iPad-like LCD touchscreen can be used to control most of the car’s everyday functions, such as the stereo and the AC/heat/defroster. No more switchgear to connect.

Just plug – and play.

It won’t be very long before every car – and crossover and SUV and truck – irrespective of brand or price – has a mostly “digital” dash. Probably two-thirds of all new cars already have them. And this may become a problem for the brands trying to sell “luxury” that has become merely expensive.

It is a problem magnified by the common-placing of what were until relatively recently luxury amenities, such as climate control air conditioning, seat heaters, full-power accessories and very good stereos. These are all features that used to be luxury car features – because most other cars did not come standard with them or even offer such things. Now you can get all of these features – as well as panorama sunroofs, LED headlights, in-car WiFi and smartphone chargers – in practically any car, including what are still absurdly referred to as “entry level” models such as the Toyota Corolla.

The dashboard of an $18k Toyota Corolla. . .

Once upon a time, cars like the Corolla came standard with a speedometer – and a fuel gauge. They had manual roll-up windows, plastic pop-off wheel covers (these were often optional) and a heater. If you had the money to pay extra for AC you could, but it wasn’t climate controlled AC. Forget the heated seats and the panorama sunroof. If you wanted such things, you bought a luxury car – if you could afford to.

Now, most people can afford (or at least, can get a loan on) an “entry level” car that has many of the features only luxury cars used to have.

Including touchscreens.

Entry level cars also have fantastic paint jobs and tight panel fitment, both formerly to be found almost exclusively in the luxury car class. And as this process has been elaborating, luxury-brand cars have been losing their larger, more prestigious engines – such as V8s and V12s. Many $50,000 luxury-brand vehicles now come standard with 2.0 liter four cylinder engines – and four cylinder engines used to define “entry level.”

So why not just buy the “entry level” car – and save yourself spending twice as much (or more) on the “luxury” car that’s become merely an expensive car?

Precisely.

It might behoove the luxury car brands to offer people of means something people of lesser means cannot get in an “entry level” car, because it would be too expensive to offer.

One such thing that comes to mind could be finely jeweled instruments rather than cheap plastic screens (even if the latter are sometimes faced with glass). It is not possible to make a cheap Rolex.

Not a real one, that is.

And that’s why people who have the means buy them. It doesn’t mater that a $15 digital watch keeps time just as well. The point is that not everyone can afford a Rolex. But it’s also more than just that, because it’s not just about being in a position to spend $20,000 on a Rolex. The point is the Rolex is a a magnificent example of hand-made craftsmanship; it is not merely a way to keep time. It is a work of art.

It is not a piece of mass-produced disposable junk from Chyna.

Real wood and chrome/metal trim (not plastic that looks like metal) could be added to the mix. Adding a V12 would of course be even better.

The result would be a car most of us could not afford. But it would be something many of us would love to be in a position to afford, one day.

In other words, it would be what a luxury car once was – and could be again.

. . .

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52 COMMENTS

  1. What’s a luxury car these days? Badges? Tales of old glory and prestige? Again, a $25k Kia offers much of what a $50k Benz offers minus the drivetrain, and 90% of people don’t wring their cars out, so they wouldn’t know what wheels are getting driven unless it’s bad weather and they’re getting chased.

    Someone one suggested Luxury should go back to no screens, keep it clean and simple. I agree 1000%, also no forced induction, have a big V8/10/12 make all the power without trying. Not saying 0-60 in under 3 seconds power, but “I need to pass this slow moving clover hogging the lane, I shall now hit triple digits with ease as he looks at me with a slack jaw and the fiery hated of a malnourished vegan glaring at you through the window as you eat your steak dinner”

    What happened when Luxury was actually admirable, when it was something to want to obtain. Now Muscle cars offer 90% of what the Germans used to, but with edge and flair. Hopefully if things deregulate in the future and govt leaves manufacturers alone, they can go back to the way things ought to be… at least, this fool can dream

  2. Want to turn on the heater while driving?….

    This new EV was watching the driver’s eye’s as the driver was looking at the touch screen…it gave him warnings…about distracted/impaired driving….

    So…….. on the freeway, stuck in traffic, etc….you will have to pull over and park to turn on the heater, AC, radio and other accessories….lol

    it will also report you…rat you out…your car is a karen…..remember…..24/7 connection….so your insurance rates go up too….

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5umdHj0o1B8&t=1558s

  3. My Ford Focus has two smaller screens, neither of them are touch screens (each controlled by buttons) . Which is fine with me since I dislike the the fingerprints you see all over those. Screens are a ok addition but not a replacement for other things. I still have buttons for radio ac etc.

    • ‘Both of those touch-sensitive displays are surrounded by shiny black plastic that is absolutely sure to show fingerprint smudges in between swipes of a cleaning cloth.’ — autoblog.com

      Apparently, we’ve reached Peak Clownscreen: today corresponds to that magical moment in 1959 when Cadillac, inspired by Sputnik and America’s own nascent rocket men, attained Peak Tail Fin with protuberances rising two feet above the trunk:

      https://tinyurl.com/2794nkt7

      But black plastic don’t float my boat. Probably there’ll be an $18,000 Discreet Charm package, enabling the discerning buyer to upgrade the screen surrounds to tungsten cowhide and engine-tooled crapalloy.

      Surely the last frontier is addressable subdermal LED pellets, embedded in the skin with a tattoo machine. Use your smart [sic] phone to play edgy TikTok videos on your forearms or your forehead, as the case may be. Then sweep enamored birds off their feet into your surround-screen Porsche minge wagon. Don’t forget to suppress those buzzkill ‘payment due’ notices!

      I smoke old stogies I have found
      Short, but not too big around
      I’m a man of means by no means
      King of the road

      — Roger Miller, King of the Road

  4. I just bruised (maybe even cracked) a rib struggling with an electronically controlled fan clutch on a Chevy Trailblazer. Had to still change a wheel bearing & hub before it was done. I’m calling it a day.

  5. Android tablets run $89-$125 on Alibaba.com. 10″ LCD touch screens, bring your own processor, about $33. Nothing luxurious about them.

    Back when, my friend’s father was buying up old pre-70s Cadillacs and Buicks because he could get them on the cheap. They were mostly clapped out so no prizes, but the difference between a ’67 Electra 225 and a ’69 Coupe de Ville was clear. The Buick was nice enough, but had a radio, vents (and manual heat controls), good power steering and that’s about it. The Caddy was a different animal. AC w/climate control. 8-Track stereo. Auto dimming headlights. Thermometer on the side view mirror. And way out at the end of the hood… Turn signals.

    Years later my friend bought a used early ’80s Buick Riviera. By this time Buicks had caught up with Cadillac, and of course surpassed anything considered luxury before the moon landing. All the stuff on the 69 Caddy was now on the Buick, and even better. Now instead of just having turn signals on the hood, there were high beam indicators and… something else I don’t recall but for sure there were three lights. Bose stereo. And better styling than the humpback Caddys of the day. What was there to bring people to the Cadillac dealer? The badge? The Boss singing about them? Mary Kay salesladies?

    Meanwhile the Japanese ecnoboxes had excellent radios, were super easy (and fun) to drive, and all you had to do was keep on top of the basic maintenance. AC could be added on by the dealer in an afternoon. These cars, along with the Taurus, changed dashboards forever. The Japanese cars because there just wasn’t enough space to build a wrap-around cockpit, and the Taurus because they wanted to be Japanese and all the wives in the focus groups said they wanted control over the heater. Once they crossed that boundary it was game on.

    • Nice observation here.

      I first noticed this with the early 90s Toyota Camry. In top of the line V6 trim it was the functional equivalent of cars like an E-Class Mercedes, 5 Series BMW, Audi, Volvo, etc., at about half the price. Sure, it lacked the prestige of those marks, but it had 185hp, leather, power mirrors, windows, driver seat, a/c, nice stereo, etc.

  6. Hey Eric,

    Is that the inside of your Great Pumpkin again?

    I really dig the brake control. I don’t know if it would be in any way useful, but I love it anyway!

    Working on my old-school backhoe lately, I really can’t help but bask in its simplicity, as well as the analog controls for everything. I’m having a satisfying and rewarding time putting things back in working order, as it was neglected by its other owners for years.

  7. Last year, I bought a used, top of the line Porsche Cayenne (this thing is great in snow, and tows 7700lb and does 0-60 in 4 seconds because it’s got a 550HP V8. Crazy). Everything inside is leather, wood, and all controls are physical, my dream road trip car, basically. Love it.

    It’s currently at the dealer for a recall, so I have a brand new Porsche Macan as a loaner. The interior of this new car is designed around its screen – the position of the screen compromises the air vents. The controls on the center console are touch sensors under a shiny sea of black plastic. The first time I adjusted something, you could see fingerprints, and I imagine in a year or two, it’s going to look completely scratched up. This is a Porsche with a 2.0L 4-cylinder turbo. Inside, all materials are plastic. It’s a nice car, but I’d not call it “luxury” despite the price tag.

    Maybe I’m just showing my age, but I miss older car designs, before plastics became so ubiquitous, where you had wood, metal, leather, fabric, anything but plastic. I also dislike the polycarbonate headlights which turn yellow in a few years, the lack of a spare tire, or any sort of durability. These expensive cars aren’t designed to keep running for a long time, more to be enjoyed briefly, while under warranty, then sold to an idiot like my to try to keep it running past its expiration date.

    • My sister has a Macan, definitely very unergonomic due to the blind spots and suckass AC placement (She lives in Fl, where you really need the AC)

      Someone one suggested Luxury should go back to no screens, keep it clean and simple. I agree 1000%, also no forced induction, have a big V8/10/12 make all the power without trying. Not saying 0-60 in under 3 seconds power, but “I need to pass this slow moving hogging the lane, I shall now hit triple digits with ease as he looks at me with a slack jaw and the fiery hated of a malnourished vegan glaring at you through the window at a steakhouse”

      If I had $50k and needed a “luxury” car, A charger 392 would do the job, or find a used E39 or CTS-V

  8. I so miss the gauge cluster in the 1968 Mustang which had the speedo, temperature, oil pressure, fuel, and volts gauges. Instead I have to toggle to the volts and oil pressure and all I get are numbers which do not provide context

  9. The dreaded drudgery of digital dissonance!

    Just build a cradle for the cellphone and you won’t need a 9000 dollar flat screen that can’t do squat in the end.

    Wifi to everywhere, problem solved.

    The auto companies can charge a subscription for your cellphone to control the telemetries.

    Forget the flat screen nonsense, it’s obsolete.

  10. Perhaps this is an extreme example of the antithesis of the now, ubiquitous LCD flat screens that your article speaks of Eric, but making a cars interior, and it’s switch knobs in particular, feel special – can be done if the manufacturers desire to do so is there.

    Listen to Gordon Murray talk about creating the perfect aluminum switch gear for his couple million dollar T50 650HP V12 that redlines to 12,100 RPM. An impractical example of switch gear for an everyday mass produced car, but a perfect example of what can be done to the highest quality, by people with extreme passion and desire for perfection. Inspiring to see, but unobtainium to all but a few!

    Pick up video at about the 19:20 min mark.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zOq-flI0Hx8&pp=ygURR29yZG9uIG11cnJheSB0NTA%3D

    • Hey TJ,

      1.3 million pounds later, haha… But I bet it’s a piece of tactile heaven, and definitely something missing from most modern vehicles.

      Also, 12,500 RPM?! Absolute madness. It’s more like a jet turbine at that rate.

  11. It’s more than just touch screens—a lot of other things are doing a number on luxury cars:

    -Homogeneity. There was a time when Cadillacs, Lincolns, Chrysler Imperials, Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, and other high end cars looked distinctive and unique—and rode that way. Now, it’s hard to tell a Mercedes, BMW, or Jaguar from a Toyota, Honda, or Subaru—they all are “crossovers” that look alike, except for the hood ornaments.

    -Equipment. Time was, if you wanted an automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering, brakes, seats, windows, and mirrors, comfortable seats, and a decent stereo, you had to get a luxury car to get those—or pay more for them as options. Now, even economy cars come with those standard—or as affordable options.

    -Quality. Luxury cars were once indeed built better. For example, Chrysler Imperials once had their own assembly lines staffed by the best workers, and a lot of things were done by hand and custom built. And when Mercedes Benz and BMW came on the scene, there was a noticeable difference in build quality, materials, workmanship, and overall attention to detail. Now, basic Toyotas, Hondas, and Subarus look great and run great even after 10 years and 100,000 miles—whereas Mercedes Benz, BMW, and Jaguar often break down before then.

    -Value. Luxury cars are no longer a value proposition in that they cost a lot more, but don’t really give you more, other than the hood ornament and being able to say you have one.

    -Status. A luxury car doesn’t seem to be the status symbol it once was. It seems that the latest I-Gizmos and gaming consoles are the status symbols that are “the in things.”

    • Very true, Bryce –

      And now that most luxury-badged cars come standard with fours (maybe a six, optionally) it’s very hard to see any sounds reason for buying one – other than being able to say you spent $15k more than your neighbor….

  12. Digital destroys everything it touches, anything beautiful and lasts nowhere as long. You could outline a smart phone with jewels and diamonds and it would still be butt fugly.

    When something doesn’t work you are for sure going to need a device to read the codes and live test the equipment. The 2026 crappers are going to have sniffers to test whether your breath contains some alcohol or other illegal substance. Probably rat you out to the local psychopathic AGWs to boot which is forcing one to testify against ones self. Completely unlawful but fits in our new commie/fascist society to a Tee.

  13. The luxury car that you pine for won’t work because it would be too durable. Planned obsolescence is an important part of their business model. It used to be that it was difficult to manufacture mechanical systems that would last more than 100k miles. Now it’s too easy to design and build a mechanical drivetrain that lasts past 200k miles, so they need to create an electronic weakness to the system.

    • When it comes to mechanical systems, a lot of the problems they used to have were not problems that car companies couldn’t fix, but wouldn’t fix. Doing so would not only cut into the whole idea of planned obsolescence, but also create higher costs. Time was, European and Japanese cars’ mechanical systems were better designed and built for even their economy cars. While American luxury and economy cars alike looked beaten down and had serious problems after just 5 years/50,000 miles, European and Japanese cars ran like tops for well over 100,000 miles.

      One positive effect of safety, emissions, and fuel efficiency regulations was that cars across the board ended up being better designed and built. For example, EFI solved a ton of problems with not only emissions and fuel economy, but also reliability and durability—all because the fuel air mixture is exactly right every time with EFI.

      The sweet spot for cars in terms of reliability was from 1995 to 2015.

  14. This is why I like the Spyker C8- real luxury sports car with a v8, real metal switches everywhere and gauges. Also no screens, and a manual. Ill never get one, a 2007 model often costs north of $250K, but if I could, I would.

  15. Touchscreen PHONES have already turned society into spoiled, instant-gratification, zombies. They don’t walk 10 yards without thumbing, poking, and waving the damn thing around, completely oblivious to everything going on around them. It’s super-glued to their hand 24/7 like some electronic prosthetic limb. Pretty soon it will be, no doubt.
    The irony is that this crap has done more to isolate and alienate people from each other more than anything else.
    The touch-swipe ‘interface’ utilized in everything, cars especially, is turning society into unskilled, inept morons, with the attention span, and the social skills, of a 3 year-old.
    Unlike the film WALL-E, we won’t need to be relegated to a giant ‘space-ark’ to become fat-floating-blobs, that’s happening right now.

    • Hi GTC….

      The touch-swipe ‘interface’ utilized in everything, cars especially, is turning society into unskilled, inept morons, with the attention span, and the social skills, of a 3 year-old.

      Absolutely! But you forgot educated. Check this out…..
      “Oregon Gov. Kate Brown privately signed a bill last month ending the requirement for high school students to prove proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic before graduation.” 2021

      After schools dropped the requirements, Oregon doubled down this year….
      “Oregon high school students won’t have to prove basic mastery of reading, writing or math to graduate from high school until at least 2029, ” 2023

      They still take the tests but then there is this jewel….
      Vi> “Oregon lawmakers, however, have mandated that families be told each year that they can opt their student out of taking state tests – and one third of high school juniors didn’t” 2023

      First they do not teach them. When they start failing, they eliminate the tests.

      Can anyone of reasonable intelligence see the problem here? We are speeding our way to the bottom. Is this what we pay ‘school taxes for? How can they even enact laws like this? And parents,,, they keep sending their ‘loved ones’ to these useless aberrations. For what!

      https://www.oregonlive.com/education/2023/10/oregon-again-says-students-dont-need-to-prove-mastery-of-reading-writing-or-math-to-graduate-citing-harm-to-students-of-color.html

      • I had breakfast with a few of the boys in the ham radio club this morning. One of the guys had his kid along, they were going out to pan for gold today. His kid is pretty smart, basically learned to read at 3, and knows every state capital, and can name the presidents in order.

        He said he learned the periodic table of elements because there was an app on his tablet that caught his attention.

        Don’t blame the tech, blame the lack of motivation. Kids will absorb whatever you put in front of them. The goal of a teacher should be to facilitate learning, but instead they spend all their time punishing kids who don’t learn by lecture and sitting quietly.

        • Indeed, kids WANT to learn. It’s the parents job to put useful information in front of them to learn. Garbage in, garbage out. Which is why my grandchildren are home schooled, and smarter than I was at their age.

  16. Last February I bought a 2021 Toyota Sequoia for my wife. I wanted one of the last V8’s. I also bought the extended warranty. I wasn’t going to buy it until the sales person agreed with me it wasn’t going to be the motor or transmission that has a problem, but it would be the touch screen or some other electronics which the touch screen he said costs $9,000 to replace. I bought the $3500 warranty.

    • We bought a slightly used 2021 Toyota 4Runner in 2022 and did the same thing, i.e. we purchased an extended warranty on the near certainty that the electronics will go belly up long before the mechanicals do.

      • And they do go bad – neighbors Toyota truck nav system failed, that required labor to disassemble dash to remove and replace, just two weeks to go on the warranty. She said it would have been around $4200, and she immediately signed up for the extended coverage AND made sure this included all electronics.

      • The 4runner screen is super small and much simpler than most others (even by Toyota standards) since it was developed pre-2010 basically. They most likely started designing this vehicle in 2006 or 2007. There are many 5th gen 4runners with 300,000+ miles already. One of the simplest new vehicles you can still buy (only one more year though 2024). I own a 2021 Venture Edition, bought new. I wouldn’t personally pay for an extended warranty for this model. New Sequoias or Tundras may be different since those are putting in those stupid big screens and digital clusters.

      • I think you’re correct ML,
        I’ve seen stories where the dealer/bankster remotely disabled the car if the “owner” gets too far behind on their payments. Keeps the car bricked until the repo man shows up.

      • All Teslas can be disabled remotely anywhere in range of a cellular tower which is everywhere. Currently not used for anything, but exists -today-, right now.

        Not sure why people think this is “future” tech still. Any car that has an integrated circuit and “phones home” which is most of them now could theoretically be remotely disabled in a similar fashion. It is no different than bouncing a file server remotely which has been a thing for 20+ years.

  17. A lot of career-enhancing Patent opportunities in software implementation techniques and human interface design are available to engineers working on the gadgetry in the vehicles which are not present when adding refinements to the traditional control mechanisms like buttons and knobs.

  18. In my opinion the Tesla is one fugly looking car and that touch screen isn’t helping either. Part of the reason we’re stuck with touchscreens is due to saaaaaaaaaafty, all those cameras need to output to something. At least the TS in the Corolla appears quite small and the rest of the controls appear to be knobs and switches with analog style gauges.

    PS- the switch on the left is intriguing as it lets you control breaking force in relation to expected road condition.

    • Hi Landru,

      I think the Tesla S is an ok if bland-looking car; the Model 3 is similar. Could be a Civic. The Model Y is hideous, though. And the Cybertruck is an abortion in stainless steel.

  19. ‘finely jeweled instruments rather than cheap plastic screens’ — eric

    It’s an elementary matter of taste. You don’t attend the charity ball attired in a tuxedo, patent leather shoes, French cuffs … and a black plastic digital watch.

    Color Clownscreens have made cars into caricatures of prole drift. Only one element is missing, which I’m working feverishly on supplying: a process to apply tattoos to vehicles, so that everyone’s can be uniquely theirs, matching their brightly-inked meat sacks.

    • Car tattoos are coming. I watched a vehicle wrap company put a custom graphic — esentially a tattoo — on a Tesla Model X at an Anime show recently, and, while watching the operation in progress, my software developer mind started to work out how any image could be projected onto any car with the right program and a large enough inkjet printer mechanism.

    • Hi Jim. Vinyl wraps and stickers let you “tattoo” your car to your liking.

      I ran into a woman who wanted a pink Corvette and got her’s wrapped because it was a lot cheaper than custom paint and when it was time to sell it the paint would be like new once the wrap was removed.

  20. I hate these touchscreens because when I have to use them, my eyes are on the screen and not on the road. With the old technology radios and so forth, I can FEEL the knobs and buttons and keep my eyes on the road. And some of these touchscreens obscure my view of the road.

    When the touchscreen breaks, and it will, the repair bill will be in the thousands.

    • Ditto. First exposure to what was coming, our 1991 Silverado with buttons and a little screen for heat/ac control. It’s still annoying as you have to look down and over to change anything. I’m fortunate it still works! Tech bulletin back in the day, remove the unit and clean the contacts with a pencil eraser to restore function. Good luck today even getting to any connections buried inside the dash in a modern car.

    • Tesla is particularly bad in this regard. I get the “why” of it, Elon was going for this minimalist design with clean lines. But it is also what makes the cars somewhat bland. As Eric said Model S/3 are ok if uninspiring. Model Y is fugly and cybertruck is LOL.

      But you can tell it is a car built by geeks and not engineers or drivers. Let’s put EVERY function of the vehicle in a screen that is NOT in your line of sight and requires you to glance to your right w/ alarming frequency. What could possibly go wrong?

      They finally got enough negative feedback that the newer model S and Xs apparently have some integrated gauges above the steering column but not nearly enough. It is my most hated feature for certain. A touchscreen should be -in addition- to other gauges.

      Not to mention, when the touchscreen isn’t functioning what do I now have? A brick, basically. How fast am I going? Who knows. How much “fuel” do I have remaining? No idea. What gear am I in? Drive? Reverse? No idea. I need to turn on my headlights, oh wait, I can’t… Again, it is designed by people who don’t leave their computer screens obviously as its about as impractical as can be imagined.

      You can have a minimalist “gee whiz futuristic” design and not lose massive functionality too but you’d never know it sitting in a Tesla. My understanding is that the other EV makers aren’t as absurd which is a good thing, maybe having learned from Tesla’s way over the top method.

      • It doesn’t help Tesla’s build quality is awful. Minimalist design goes for perfect lines with the best quality, and Tesla’s are far from that. Uneven gaps and crooked parts lead to a really bad look, especially when you consider many are 100k+! Details matter very much with that type of design, and they don’t have it.

        People complain about Chrysler or GM build quality at times and they are FAR better than Tesla. Musk had found it’s hard to build a quality vehicle

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