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ScreenDrive: The 2017 Audi S3 reinvents the moving screen

Information overload

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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.

A giant turtle flanked the apple red Audi S3. The turtle was apropos. If I had to choose an animal to describe the evolution of screens in cars since the first one appeared in the 1986 Buick Riviera, the turtle is it. Cars, because of their long life cycles, never can quite keep up with the pace of smartphone progress. It’s hard to get excited about the latest car app, when Android Auto and Apple CarPlay run laps around their operating systems.

The turtle I reference was the subject matter of a mural, one of many street art works that line the industrial new-cool streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn, and the backdrop of choice for our second ScreenDrive photo shoot. Three of us huddled in the S3 cabin. I was in the driver’s seat; Ashley, the Circuit Breaker writer, sat shotgun; and Amelia, our staff photographer, perched in the back. What I didn’t anticipate was how the action inside of the sports sedan would catch my passengers’ attention — even when the car was at a standstill.  

When the car is powered down, there’s not so much to see in the Audi S3. It’s composed of a minimal monochromatic dash, and no glossy screens are visible at rest. The design is almost post-modern analog, like this car should have a record player spinning 45s in the glove box. In place of the usual built-in home screen are two menacing air vents. But first looks are deceiving. Audi’s 2017 technology is about as gadgety as most car companies get.

When it comes to in-car technology, the Audi S3 is not the car industry’s turtle.

I reached down to my right and pushed the ignition switch. In a dramatic whoosh the rectangular 12.3-inch TFT screen rose from the dash, beckoning me to tune in. “Ooh,” said Amelia. I noticed that Ashley intuitively reached out to touch the screen. There’s a tactile, touchy-feely element to the screens on the S3 — and that’s a good, rare thing in a modern car.

But where things got a bit more confusing was trying to understand all the tech at the driver’s fingertips, starting with what to call it. Every carmaker has a different set of vocabulary for its set of telematics and infotainment system. Audi introduced this trademark MMI (code for multimedia interface) in 2001. It’s a mouthful of a name, but up until recently it gave Audi a clear edge on some of its competitors. MMI, in essence, is the screen and its control functions. The MMI houses Audi’s infotainment display that includes radio and smartphone integration, its vehicle info center, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Audi connect system is powered by an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor and equipped with 4GLTE and Wi-Fi. The S3 MMI has a touch pad, steering wheel buttons, and voice commands giving the driver (or user) several options on how to communicate with the car. Still with me?

There’s a lot going on here, and it’s an understatement that it takes a bit of due diligence to make sense of this bevy of bells and whistles. But while the suite of options might be vast, it is relatively intuitive to use them interchangeably, by pushing a button on the steering wheel or through a tap on the screen.

audi s3 dashboard

Behind the steering wheel is the Audi virtual cockpit, the tra-la-la optional feature new to this model, which first debuted on the 2016 Audi TT. When it was rolled out last year, there was much to-do that virtual cockpit was like having a video game system embedded in your car. While it’s not quite Rise of the Tomb Raider caliber, the graphics are good. Google Maps are bright and there are lots of nice images of the car you’re driving, lest you forget. Virtual cockpit lends Audi a high production value on its in-car experience. The virtual cockpit projects 1440 x 540 pixels that are refreshed 60 times per second on the screen. The MMI screen isn’t quite so vibrant at 800 x 480 pixels. The reason for this distinction is that the virtual cockpit is designed to make navigation, Google Earth, and the tachometer and speedometer images pop before your eyes, with minimal lag time to improve driver reaction. When you drive, your route unfolds in your own mini movie. You glance down, without ever turning your head. But good driving is based on the concept of looking out and ahead, and therefore, the conundrum of how to communicate information to a focused driver has not been solved. I played with the custom screen options, which include a nifty sport mode that zeros in on the tachometer and odometer to enhance the zippy aspect of the S-line cars.

This crispy clarity is also a sign of what to expect from Audi graphics in the future, when the next generation of MMI is due to debut sometime in fall, according to Audi. The virtual cockpit is standard on the TT and the R8, Audi’s supercar. But by adding Virtual Cockpit to the A4 and the sportier S3 package options, Audi’s making hi-brow luxury car tech available to the entry-level luxe buyer. The S3 has an MSRP of $42,900. It’s not quite your everyday Toyota Camry, but it’s in a more accessible range than the $160,000 Audi R8. On the S3, the virtual cockpit is sold in the $3,000 tech package along with a smartphone interface and the MMI touch features, and safety sensors like side assist, and rear cross traffic alert.

Audi, like Mercedes-Benz and others, uses a scrolling wheel positioned just below the arm rest to change screens. The idea is that you can keep your eyes on the road while turning the scrolling wheel. For me, driving and scrolling is like walking and chewing gum. I have the urge to look down when the function I want to control doesn’t instantly respond, which is never advisable while at the steering wheel. We’re still waiting for the perfect solution on how to change screens from nav to radio to Apple CarPlay, or for gesture control to actually be able to read our minds.

By the time I met up with Ashley and Amelia, I had already spent several days tooling around town in the zippy S3, and the low-key screens never got in my way on the road. A big reason for that is less buttons. You can scroll, you can zoom with your fingers. And if you have to use voice commands, most of the time, the machine understood my Midwestern cadence. The virtual cockpit also allows the driver to choose from three different views, and you have nice graphics to remind you the look of the S3 car you’re driving.

How much should your car do for you? There’s a lot of debate on how many doodads people want or should have at their fingertips while driving, and even while at a standstill. The razzle dazzle of the Audi system leaves the impression that it wants to entertain you, or at least to make driving more of cinematic experience via the virtual cockpit and retracting screen, with a clear beginning and end. But the mere fact that Audi has videos to demonstrate how to operate its system shows that the average customer might not fully appreciate what this system can do. When the technology is so good and so intuitive that it no longer requires a video explainer, that’s the true game-changing car.

Most car infotainment systems remind me of something you’d see parked by a hospital bed in an intensive care ward. Push one wrong button, and you might cause the patient flat line. In contrast, this bright red S3, and its subdued design scheme seems attuned to the driver’s point of view. The S3 has a come-run-with-me vibe and a composition that says, “let’s go for a ride.” Promise I won’t bite. I’m no turtle.

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge