Custom LCD Instrument Clusters: Fun or Foe?
Cars like the Dodge Dart show how far LCDs have dropped in price. But are they truly better than real needles and numbers?
LCD displays have lowered to the point where 24-inch computer monitors can be bought for under $200, and 50-inch TVs are now under $800. They’re littered over every smartphone and supermarket kiosk. Their slim, high-resolution, full-color capabilities have -- no wonder -- been appearing on more and more car dashboards for the last 15-plus years.
Luxury cars saw them first as GPS navigation displays. Then, thanks to the revolutionary (and overly complex) iDrive system from BMW, the nav displays also became full-fledged infotainment centers. We now have full-fledged touchscreens and knob-controlled LCD displays in nearly every price segment. More color LCD displays supplement the instrument cluster, allowing the driver to change vehicle settings and radio stations without using the main controls, like on new Audis and Mercedes.
In 2006, Mercedes threw out the analog speedometer on the S-Class, replacing it with a large LCD that didn’t do much aside from being digital. Jaguar and Land Rover upped the ante in 2010 with a full-width LCD instrument cluster with a few little animation tricks rolled in. Again, it didn’t offer much over a nice set of real gauges. (LCD clusters are nothing new. They’ve been done a hundred times before, mostly in bad, awful, or plain terrible ways.)
With the 2009 Ford Fusion Hybrid and now the Explorer, we saw what slick software could do to a gauge cluster on more reasonably-priced cars. The age of the customizable instrument cluster had begun. (Note that Lamborghini produced a switchable, very intimidating LCD display in 2007 that mimicked fighter jet readouts. Also note that just 20 were sold.)
Only now, with the arrival of the 2013 Dodge Dart, can we truly say that LCD displays are cheap enough for everyone. The $20,000 Dart Limited comes with both an 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment display and a 7-inch customizable cluster display that, like Mercedes, replaces the central speedometer (the fuel gauge and tachometer are real needles).
At the other end is Cadillac, which uses Linux to operate its full-width LCD instrument cluster on the top-end $60,000 XTS sedan. The driver can swap between four gauge layouts, is treated a blur of 3D animations, and can wade through multiple menus, radio presets, and maps with a few controls at the wheel.
Dodge and Ford (which has a real speedometer flanked by two LCD screens) let the driver add or subtract information from the displays, like compass readings and engine temperature.
Each of these LCD clusters requires a moderate learning curve, but they’re just as easy to read with polarized sunglasses or in bright sunlight. They’re all pretty-looking and impressive in their own technological right, especially for the price. But are instrument clusters – undoubtedly the most critical, central part of the driver’s attention aside from the road itself – any better now that they’re TVs instead of sweeping needles and painted numbers? Are they the new age-models for long-term reliability and classic design? Hell no.
LCD panels have evolved to the point where just a few pixels might be “dead,” but more often than not, they hold their color and brightness for years without fail. The issue is the computers behind these screens, and as anyone who’s owned a pricey European car can attest, electronics fail. But door locks that fail to unlock or windows that don’t roll down, like on my mother’s Volvo S80, are mere annoyances.
But an instrument cluster that crashes on the highway is akin to Mission Control going offline. Because the entire readout is backed by a suave computer, it’s not about if it’ll break, but when. While LCD TVs are so cheap as to make it easy to replace every few years, they’re not built to last two decades on your stereo cabinet. Your car’s electronics should, and while I don’t think everyone will experience a busted LCD cluster, I’d hate to pay several hundred bucks to get my speedometer back.
As for design, just look at the simple layouts and typography that have adorned BMW and Porsche clusters for decades. One look at this five-gauge layout – with its wide numerals and enlarged central tachometers, the speedometer labeled in increments of 25 – and you instantly know you’re sitting in a Porsche. BMW, with upright, bold lettering and straight-faced, unadorned gauges that glow amber at night, has also clung tight to their clusters.
And what has Porsche done? They’ve replaced one of the physical gauges with a color LCD display that adds plenty of useful high-tech features without ruining the iconic character of the interior. The “floating” speedometer needle on late-model Volvos is a recognizable, easy-to-read trait. Even the Mini instrument cluster and its comically supersized speedometer is a charm easily lost in pixels.
Sure, everything changes. I’m growing a beard now, so I know that. But many things don’t need to be reinvented. For the most part, steering wheels are still round. Rims bolt on the axles with five lug nuts a piece. Air vents use the same dials or slats to control the breeze, and turn signals (save for Ferrari) are perfect on column-mounted stalks.
They all just work.
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