Jason Barlow: The best things in life are simple

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My friend Neil only cares about two things in a shiny new car. The first is how much"squidge", there is in the dashboard moulding.

My friend Neil only cares about two things in a shiny new car. The first is how much"squidge", there is in the dashboard moulding. The second is more traditionally blokey: Neil loves in-car gadgetry. Luckily for him, he also has a brain like a Cray supercomputer, a degree in physics and a PhD, so he masters things with frankly embarrassing speed. I have none of the above things, and don't.

Having just driven the new Mercedes-Benz CLS, Nissan Murano and Lexus GS300 back to back, I can only conclude that this is a very good time for Neils everywhere, and a very bad one for me. Their interior mouldings are all fabulously squidgy. More importantly, though, they all have dashboards and in-car systems of such stunning complexity that actually driving these cars - and they're all pretty impressive - is secondary to, say, trying to set the time or, God forbid, retuning the radio.

The Mercedes, in particular, is enough to take any fully paid-up Luddite on a one-way trip to the very brink of black-hearted despair. Now the CLS is challenging in a number of ways. A four-door coupe, Mercedes' designers reckon that, like the iPod or Renault Scenic, this is one of those unique products you didn't really know you needed until someone invented. The truth is, you don't need it. It does nothing new, it's less roomy than an E-class, and has such a curiously banana-like profile that you will never, ever see one in yellow.

Granted, it's a sumptuous driving experience, but I spent so long fiddling with its "Comand" (see, they can't even spell it correctly) system, that I soon forgot about its remarkable gearbox and pillowy ride. It was the CLS's misfortune that I had the car the weekend the clocks went forward, which is precisely what I failed to make the Merc's dashboard display do. My wife, a woman and therefore fearsomely logical, did the thing that no man ever will - consult the manual - but even that failed to yield the necessary information. And so there we were, two adults in a £60,000 Mercedes, reduced to swearing at a small screen. I suggested retuning the radio, thinking that perhaps music would take our minds off this man-machine communication breakdown. But the bloody thing wouldn't do that either. It was almost enough to make public transport look like a viable option.

Then there was the Nissan Murano, a hunky, chunky, and fabulously futuristic-looking off-roader. It's well made, very spacious, and somehow less obnoxious than many of its rivals. It has a stereo with rotary knobs and buttons for the presets - a functional, intuitive and familiar design approach. But there's also a silly reverse-parking camera and a sat-nav system that refuses to go away no matter which buttons you push, and a clock display that will not stay where you want it to. In the name of all that is holy, why?

Even the mighty new Lexus - as thoughtfully crafted a car as I've ever sat in - isn't above a bit of reckless over-complication. Want to jettison the sat-nav and leave the touch-sensitive stereo display on permanent view? I'm sure you can do it, but I couldn't figure it out even after an hour behind the wheel. The result? Frustration, irritation, and distraction, the very things these cars and their fancy systems are designed to circumvent.

As someone once said, just keep it simple, stupid. That's what good design is about, and that's why the iPod has been such a success - because it's easy to use, as well as being clever and desirable. Either that, or all cars should come with a Neil fitted as standard. I'm sure he could come to some arrangement. Jason Barlow is the editor of 'Car' Magazine

motoring@independent.co.uk

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