Far safer to keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel, to borrow a Jim Morrison maxim, than to look down at your dash while one hand fiddles with a touchscreen. That’s why so many auto manufacturers try to implement steering wheel controls for their infotainment systems. Few get it as right as Porsche, however, as our time in the 2014 Porsche Panamera S e-hybrid demonstrated.
I was kind of overwhelmed at first when I looked at the Porsche Panamera S e-hybrid’s dashboard, as my eyes were assaulted by five round binnacles housing all sorts of instruments, both real and digital. In the middle was a huge tachometer in the position all tachometers ought to be placed. Flanking it to the left were two gauges — one showing drive system power usage, and the other showing a combination of engine oil temperature and hybrid battery charge level. On the right flank, there was a combination fuel gauge and engine coolant gauge on the outside, and an interesting, multi-function screen inside the middle-right binnacle.
It is on that small, round screen we focus here. The screen could be coaxed into showing all manner of information, from an energy flow diagram not unlike those we’ve seen in a ton of Toyota and Lexus hybrid products, to tire pressure information, to a sport chronograph, and on and on and on.
Controlling what is displayed on this screen is a small thumbwheel on the right spoke of the steering wheel. Flick the wheel up or down, and you would cycle the small screen through its multiple display functions. Clicking the wheel like a mouse button would dive deeper into whatever screen you happened to be viewing. For instance, if you flicked the wheel until you brought up the currently playing media selection on the screen, you could click the thumbwheel to bring up a series of sub-menus that would allow changing media sources or just picking a different track or folder from the currently playing source. I used that feature quite a lot to navigate songs on my USB stick.
Another feature I used a lot was the ability to summon phone contacts using the small screen and thumbwheel. Scroll to the person you want to call, and click the wheel. Simple. Fittingly, much like a smartphone, there’s a “back” arrow just below the thumbwheel that can be used to return to the previous menu until you arrive at the screen from which you started.
There’s no need for voice control when you can easily punch up your desired command using a simple control interface like the thumbwheel in the 2014 Porsche Panamera S e-hybrid. The only other manufacturer whose infotainment system has a physical control interface this simple and non-distracting is Volvo, as we found in the 2015 Volvo V60 T5 Drive-E we tested a few weeks before the Porsche visited our driveway. The Volvo had a similar thumbwheel designed into its steering wheel’s right spoke. As well as I liked both implementations, I can’t fathom why more manufacturers aren’t going to this kind of interface.
Disclosure: Porsche provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.