Motoring: Wanted: car radios with knobs on

Buttons the size of pinheads are scattered over the radio face like shot from a blunderbuss
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IF YOU don't know what Dolby, RDS and ICE are, then, like me, you won't want a complicated car radio. You simply want something easy to use that sounds good. And, like me, once you've bought your radio (almost certainly standard with the car) you'll probably listen to no more than four or five different stations ever, and occasionally play the odd tape or CD.

Car company research, you'll be pleased to know, identifies us radio illiterates as being very much the normal car buyer. Yet car companies - who think they understand their buyers but rarely do - offer ever more complicated radios, with ever more functions, all adding to the cost of cars.

"We find that about 50 per cent of owners read the handbook and try to understand the technology of the radio," a German VW engineer told me a few months back. "Then, typically, they forget about three-quarters of that and just use the familiar controls, such as volume, tuner and tape/CD select.

"A large percentage - including most women - don't even try to understand the radio. They just stick to a couple of stations throughout the period of ownership. Only a very small percentage of all buyers really use these new units to the full."

Mind you, even if you understand them they're hard to use. Radios are complicated and - unlike with books - you can tell this from their covers.

A plethora of buttons, mostly the size of pinheads and hopelessly tiny for the typical podgy-fingered punter, are scattered over the radio face like shot from a blunderbuss. They have daft and meaningless graphics that offer no explanations.

To make matters worse, the handbook is often just as unintelligible as the radio graphics. Their poor design is all the more amazing when you look at the pedigree of the companies that produce car radios.

Sony, for my money, is one of the world's great industrial designers. Look at its logo (so simple yet elegant, modified only minimally since its first use in 1957) and at its products, such as the Camcorder, children's tape machines, Playstation and Walkman.

And then look at its typically messy car radios, full of tiny, incomprehensible buttons that are about as easy to push as poking a fly in the eye. Panasonic, Alpine, Sharp - they're all as bad as each other.

There have been some recent improvements, but they've been a long time coming. The Ford Ka has a simple radio with big buttons and Renault - long the master of radio ergonomics - now offers column-stalk remote controls on all its models.

The exemplar is the new Espace, which has no radio visible at all. It is hidden - good for deterring thieves as well as for hiding an ugly piece of kit - and you tune or select stations only by the remote-control column stalks. It is brilliantly simple.

A recent visit to Skoda showed that the Czechs, once synonymous with tack, are now trying hard to make their cars as sensible and rational as possible. The new and excellent Octavia, on sale in Britain next week, is proof of the new philosophy, as are their plans with car radios.

"Our research shows that people want much simpler systems," says the engineering boss Wilfried Bockelmann. "They just can't be bothered trying to decipher the handbooks and they don't need or want the full range of radio functions.

"I'm convinced that most people want two big knobs and a row of buttons for changing the station - just like old car radios used to have. We haven't discovered a better system."

So I asked Bockelmann when some car makers, including Skoda, would offer this retro style, but with modern sound quality. He wouldn't tell me (car company bosses never talk about new models). But his smile reassured me that we won't have to wait for long.

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