It has been an accepted idiom for generations that the dashboard of modern cars had two distinct head units – one for climate control, and one for entertainment (radio/CD/cassette, etc.). Of course separate radio head units are long gone for most cars, but the idea of having radio and climate controls in their own dedicated section of the dashboard has persisted, at least until recently.
Honda has been making a lot of noise about the simplified dashboard of the just-announced 2022 Honda Civic, which removes the audio head unit (and its associated controls) for a simplified layout (pictured above). At first glance, the minimalist layout does seem simpler, with the controls boiled down to just the essentials – three dials for the climate control, and everything else basically relegated to the central touchscreen. According to Honda, one of the benefits afforded by the removal of the radio head unit is a lower overall cowl. But this simplicity comes with a steep price, one that may be too steep for some Curbivores to bear.
While Honda may be the first mainstream manufacturer to embrace this philosophy of eliminating audio controls from the dashboard, they are hardly the first. I noticed this on the new-for-2019 fourth-generation Mazda 3, and before that on my own 2017 Audi A3, which I will use for the remainder of this article, since it is the car I am most familiar with.
So how does a radio without a head unit work? Let’s take a look. For starters, the driver is expected to use the steering wheel controls for most of their tasks, including volume control, track selection, audio source selection, and muting the sound. That’s great for the driver, but what’s the passenger supposed to do?
In my A3 (and in the Mazda3), a second satellite volume control on the center console is provided so that the passenger can adjust the volume and perform a few other tasks. This knob can be rocked to the left and right to advance the music selection (or radio station) forward and back. Pressing down on the button pauses playback.
So what if you want to listen to physical media? On the Audi, the disc player (and SD-card slots) has been banished to the glovebox, freeing up space on the dashboard, but taking up precious space in the glove box. What do you do if you need to flip a disk while driving? Not sure, but how many people still listen to CDs? I have a hunch I’m about to find out.
So what do you think of this latest trend in removing the audio controls and head unit from the dashboard and locating them elsewhere in the car? If it helps the Civic get back to ’80s style “road on your lap” low cowls, then perhaps it is worth it. On the other hand, I get lots of passengers turning the fan knob in the center of the dash of my A3 thinking that it’s the volume control, because that’s where they expect it to be.