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Unwieldy iDrive May Inspire Users to Twist--and Shout

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It looks like a finely machined body part from the original Terminator, resting there on the BMW 745i’s center console.

Your palm fits comfortably around it.

But the iDrive knob, which moves up and down in the eight key compass directions, and also spins left and right, may have your mind spinning too as you try to set temperature controls, radio stations and navigation destinations.

Information conjured up with the knob is displayed on a small screen in the center of the dashboard.

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Its complexity moved one executive at a rival auto maker recently to crack, “iDrive--you operate.”

Say, for instance, you want to adjust the radio’s bass output.

Push the iDrive knob twice (once to call up the screen, once to accept the disclaimer that the system should be operated only when traffic permits). Next, pull the knob toward the rear seat to select “entertainment,” then spin it past the AM and FM selections to “memory.” Push it again, spin to “bass,” push again, then spin to select a bass level.

It was an eight-step process that wasn’t intuitive enough for me or my driving partner to figure out. We had to be tutored when we couldn’t find directions in the owner’s manual.

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Lots about iDrive isn’t exactly intuitive.

I used it to advance from song to song when a CD was in the single-disc player, but I could not do the same when a CD was in the six-disc changer. I had to resort to using the forward button on the dashboard next to the single-disc player to advance tracks on CDs in the changer.

Other functions include setting and viewing data such as elapsed mileage or fuel consumption; calling the BMW Assist help center if you get lost; or calling your dealer for service issues--including instructions on using the iDrive.

Drivers also use it to turn the dynamic traction control on and off, change the language in which information is displayed, reset the clock or set a speed warning that beeps to remind them they’ve hit the speed they’ve chosen.

Navigation is the toughest nut to crack. It’s time consuming, and I was continually overspinning when trying to input data. No doubt accidents will happen among new users of iDrive who are concentrating too hard on twirling the dial. Though BMW makes you push a button to log a promise that you won’t operate the system when driving conditions are dicey, it opted not to actually lock you out. You can operate it at 120 mph if you want.

Seeing the navigation maps was almost as difficult as programming the system. I found the screen too small, even when maximized, compared with systems such as those on Acura and Lexus models.

BMW says it plans to migrate iDrive across all its models.

The folks in Bavaria should consider making it purely optional.

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