The BMW iDrive System – It Ain’t That Bad

By on July 13, 2011
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A deeper look at the much-maligned system

BMW has been responsible for a lot of innovations in our cars today. A major one is its signature iDrive system, one which hardly ever receives the recognition it deserves. Now we all have heard a lot of horror stories about the demonically complicated iDrive. Lets take a deeper look, is it REALLY that bad?

What it is

iDrive is BMWs proprietary system for managing different functions of your car. It’s also sometimes called a ‘vehicle control system.’ Its User Interface consists of a control knob and a menu button on the centre console and an LCD in the middle of the dashboard. Basically what iDrive does is to combine all the secondary systems of your car, like audio, navigation, climate, and communications with the various sensors which tell you your cars health, into one easy to access display. Vital controls including indicators, headlight controls, windscreen wipers, and basic sound system and communication controls remain near the steering column, close at hand.

How it works

The system promotes use through a single control knob, which can be rotated, pressed and pushed in all four directions of a compass. The control knob provides ‘haptic’ feedback. This means that the user can feel as it moves through the options on the screen. It also has a ‘force feedback’ feature; it kicks back slightly while scrolling through lists. This makes it easier to use while driving while keeping your eyes on the road. Key driving data such as speed and navigation directions are presented in your line of sight, on the Head-Up Display (HUD). While different years’ models show slightly different iterations of iDrive, the basic elements remain the same.


The system represents a stride forwards in car diagnostics. Where as previously a vague check engine light would appear, the iDrive system provides a full readout on the centrally mounted LCD on a variety of parameters, enabling the driver to access a wealth of information on the cars health. It also alerts the driver when oil changes and other repairs become due.

Current versions of iDrive also feature an onboard 40GB hard disk, which comes pre-installed with navigation. Up to 8GB can be used for storing music on the hard drive, and support for DVD video playback is also included. A full featured web browser, voice controls and programmable buttons make an appearance in the newest version.

Controversy and Influence

The design tries to assimilate all the various systems into one easy-to-use unit. When iDrive first came to the market, it was criticized by most motoring publications for being far too complex for the average user. It was said to have a steep learning curve, and was not intuitive to use. The average customers, on the other hand, have generally provided more favorable feedback.

The influence of iDrive in the automobile industry is undeniable. It has led to competing (but similar) products from luxury car manufacturers Mercedes, Audi and Lexus. Newer Rolls-Royce models have also sported a similar system, albeit a less complicated one.

Such systems are now trickling down to everyday family cars. The Toyota Entune, Ford Sync, and Fiat Blue&Me systems are only a few such examples. This does show that even if the iDrive might not be the ideal implementation, the industry has come to recognize and acknowledge the growing need for such systems.

And BMW were the people who made it all happen.


Where the magic happens. BMW HQ, Munich.


Bloodthirsty gamer moonlighting as a movie buff.

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