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Touch-sensitive capacitive buttons are a purely aesthetic addition to new car interiors designed to mimic the clean appearance of a personal tablet computer. The controls, which replace traditional physical buttons, have found homes in cars ranging from compacts to luxury cars. They're generally awful to use without physical guideposts to reference while driving and can be distracting when poorly designed.
For 2013, Toyota's full-size Avalon received an all-new, upscale interior with capacitive buttons for climate, stereo and navigation controls. Our skepticism peaked when first reporting the Avalon's interior used such controls considering no automaker does the capacitive trend very well. After thoroughly testing the 2013 Avalon, however, Toyota's premium sedan surprised us with the best execution of these controls to date.
"I was 15 minutes into my drive and had adjusted the climate a few times before I looked down and realized they were capacitive touch," says Cars.com Managing Editor David Thomas.
The Avalon's capacitive controls succeed because the buttons respond quickly and accurately to inputs — there's no delay, and each surface is sensitive enough to work at first touch but not so sensitive that they trigger accidentally. All of the Avalon's buttons have large text that's easy to read, plus the surfaces still work when wearing thick winter gloves.
Cars.com News Editor Jennifer Gieger preferred the Avalon's buttons to the 2013 Cadillac ATS. "The physical touch points felt more concrete and responsive than others I've tested (the Cadillac ATS comes to mind). They almost felt like physical buttons embedded in a panel rather than just a flat panel," she says.
Cars.com's long-term 2011 Chevrolet Volt tester used capacitive touch surfaces for the stereo, climate and navigation controls. Drivers never fully warmed up to the control panel even after a year and more than 20,000 miles of ownership. The poorly executed surface left us mashing the controls in frustration while trying to turn on the defroster or inadvertently blasting the climate control by swiping the wrong surface on the way to an intended button. In addition, other automakers' capacitive buttons suffer from a significant delay after the button is pressed.
Toyota didn't eliminate too many real control surfaces to create a foreign-looking console for shoppers. The retained volume and tune knobs maintain a balance of traditional layout and new capacitive touch technology. Ford's MyFord Touch, for example, has only one big volume knob in most of its examples and no tuning knob. MyFord Touch is optional on most Fords, though, and models not equipped with MyFord Touch commonly have traditional knobs and buttons.
Being the best doesn't mean the Avalon's buttons are flawless. Unfortunately, none work as easily or intuitively as a real button. Cars.com editor Mike Hanley explains, "The larger issue with capacitive controls remains. Specifically, the general inability to reliably discern different controls by finger contact alone when compared with traditional buttons and knobs makes capacitive controls ill-suited to a car's cabin."
There's still no replacement for a well-designed center console with real buttons. Unfortunately, automakers don't always give shoppers the option, like Ford does, to choose traditional control knobs. Automakers that don't should check out the Avalon's controls for how to do it correctly.