TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Touchscreen auto infotainment systems are the latest, but time-tested buttons remain the safest accessory controls because they minimize driver distraction, says David Champion, who heads automotive testing for Consumer Reports.

“We really like mechanical buttons,” he says at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars here. “When driving, that should be your focus, not operating a touchscreen.”

Motorists should not be the driving equivalent of preoccupied pedestrians “using their iPhone touchscreens and walking into trees,” Champion says.

He gives a rundown assessment of different auto makers’ infotainment systems.

Ford has improved MyFord Touch, but Champion says it remains too complicated and distracting. “It is one of the frustrating parts of a really good car.”

The Audi A8 system is flawed because it requires too much driver attention. He labels BMW’s latest version of iDrive as better than the original, which many frustrated users branded as a baffling system designed by German engineers for German engineers.

“The new iDrive has more manual controls, which is the way to go,” says Champion, a former engineer for Nissan and Land Rover.

Despite his reservations about touchscreen systems, he says the Chrysler 300’s is “the best to understand.”

Champion credits domestic auto makers with creating better interiors than their Asian counterparts, but the latter prevail in driving dynamics, according to Consumer Reports evaluators. They drive about 80 cars annually at the publication’s 327-acre (132-ha) test track in East Haddam, CT.

The publication turns to its readers for assessing long-term reliability. About 1.3 million of them are sent annual surveys on what problems they have encountered throughout the ownership of their cars.

“Reliability is a major issue” that can affect an entire brand, he says. “People who encounter lots of problems don’t say, ‘I’m not going to buy another Chrysler Sebring.’ They say, ‘I’m not going to buy another Chrysler.’”

Champion predicts stricter federal mandates on fuel economy will change the way cars look and drive. The government has set a target of 54.5 mpg (4.3L/100 km) by 2025.

“That will affect everything,” he says, calling it “the mother of all benchmarks.”

To meet that level of fuel efficiency, auto makers must reduce vehicle mass without compromising safety, develop smaller engines that some customers might hesitate to accept and install multispeed transmissions, Champion says. “CVTs (continuously variable transmissions) are great as long as you don’t feel and hear them.”

Auto makers will design cars with improved aerodynamics, and more electric vehicles will come to market to meet the impending new fuel standards, he says. “EVs are interesting, but the downsides are recharging time and range.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com