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The 2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport: when physical buttons make more sense than a touchscreen

Cars have become expensive, rolling gadgets that are full of screens, speakers, and sensors but are they actually good gadgets? In our new series, ScreenDrive, we'll review cars just like any other device, starting with the basics of what they’re like to use.

I pulled up to my friend Colin’s apartment in Queens, New York two weeks ago in a silver 2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport. “Damn girl,” I think were his words. The shiny metallic exterior, the leather seats, the two displays: this car is sharp. And considering we usually meet at a corner on our block and walk to the subway together, he really couldn’t complain.

The affordable Elantra Sport has a $21,650 base price and can be upgraded with additional tech and gadgets. My Sport included two displays: an eight-inch, high-resolution, full color touchscreen and a 3.5-inch TFT (thin film transistor) monochromatic display on the dash. Throughout my weekend with Colin and the Elantra, the screens proved helpful for getting around and controlling music, but ultimately, the car’s physical buttons became my go-to. Sometimes, even when you have the option to tech, the old way of interaction just makes more sense.

My core problem with the Elantra isn’t its hardware. The displays look fine, and actually, I grew to love the smaller, middle dash display, which became my default reference point when looking for directions. It clearly laid out my next step and other essential stats, like trip mileage and tire pressure. No, the Elantra’s biggest issue is Hyundai’s confusing software. The Elantra runs Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, or Hyundai’s proprietary software. I spent my driving time with Hyundai’s software, and found that the company’s user interface truly makes no sense.

The space to enter an address, for instance, sits in the right-hand corner of the display and blends into the map. Even after entering multiple addresses, I struggled to remember where that bar was and how to access it. Other poor UI decisions include listing directions from the bottom up, so my next direction populated the bottom of a list as opposed to the top, which again, makes no sense. Maybe I have an odd way of comprehending directions?

More than anything else, I continuously struggled to return to the main menu to access different apps. Hence, the physical buttons. When I was already in an app and wanted to get back to music, for instance, I didn’t always remember how to get there. This shouldn’t ever be a question. While yes, a virtual back button exists, it didn’t stick out as the proper way to navigate. I instead ended up resorting to the physical buttons that clearly stated “media” and “map.” These never failed me, made sense to use, and didn’t require scrolling through a page of apps while operating a vehicle. However, other than the strange UI decisions, the software itself functioned. It got me where I needed to go and generally worked well. I wish I could have natively loaded Google Maps on the car’s main display, but I have an iPhone and can’t use it through CarPlay. That’s not Hyundai’s fault.

All of this is to say that software isn’t easy to master. I enjoy using Apple’s CarPlay because I’m familiar with the company’s app interface, and I appreciate its design choices. The same goes for Android Auto. But even Apple and Google still struggle to perfect their systems. Car companies have to think deeply about their UI, and unfortunately, Hyundai hasn’t quite figured out a perfect solution. I hate to lay it on here, but I should also note that the app icons, the maps, and the general vibe of the Elantra’s interface is very ‘90s office-inspired. It’s drab, unexciting, and decidedly not futuristic. The yellow clock at the top of the map? Don’t get me started.

It’s a shame the UI is so bad when the software works and the car is a pleasure to drive. I always felt confident I wouldn’t get lost with Hyundai’s navigation, although I had to experiment to find my preferred method of entering an address. (I always type in an address when possible.)

Hyundai knew how to get me where I wanted to go but its maps lagged a bit if I strayed from the chosen route. During one drive, the navigation redirected me when I crossed through a parking lot but still took the initial street it suggested. Errors are bound to happen but a slow refresh time is a killer. I missed exits and opportunities to get back on track while the car was thinking. But hey, at least I still got to my destination.

The Elantra also struggled a bit with voice commands, like when I tried to navigate to Mister HotPot in Flushing, New York at 33-42 39th Avenue. The Hyundai couldn’t handle that hyphen. Good luck using voice control in cities plagued by hyphenated addresses. Siri wasn’t any help, either. Every voice-controlled gadget struggles with complicated phrases. Addresses are long, so I don’t fault Hyundai necessarily, but it’s just one more pain point. I’ve learned to be patient after spending hours playing around with different devices, but for drivers like my friend Colin, who don’t play with new tech every day, it’s infuriating to deal with glitchy voice control.

Now, with that all in mind, the driving experience itself was fabulous. It was smooth, and I kind of felt like I was floating. This makes it easy to speed, so I had to set my cruise control for small towns where the limit drops to 30 mph. I guess my tip would be maybe don’t take your Sport through small towns, or rather, don’t do what I did.

Generally, I enjoyed driving the Elantra and was sad to give it back. Its microphone worked well during phone calls, its navigation got me where I wanted to go, and it was an easy ride. I only wish Hyundai would work on its UI and more thoroughly consider how people interact with its displays. If you’re looking into a package for the Sport, I don’t think you’ll need the premium one for $2,400 to make the car worthwhile. However, for the SE, I would suggest the tech package for $1,300, solely because that 3.5-inch dash display was a godsend. Ultimately, as long you have those physical buttons installed, you’re going to be just fine controlling the Elantra.