We’re in a strange era for instrument clusters and dashboards right now. It’s a transitional period, thanks to the very rapidly-growing adoption of full-color LCD matrix displays into and, in some cases, replacing the traditional instrument cluster. Sometimes, though, new tech isn’t always better, as this Mazda 3 dash cluster demonstrates.
The 2018 Mazda 3's cluster is in this little pod shaped like a winged ball, sorta. Like a very stylized Golden Snitch, if you wanted to geek it up a bit. It’s a smallish, separate unit right in front of the driver, almost like a motorcycle’s instrument pod.
The big center pod is a tach with an inset digital speedo, the right ‘wing’ has a fuel gauge, fuel range, outside temp, and your cruise control set speed.
The left wing has your current gear and odometer, and various warning and idiot lights are arranged below the main pod unit. That’s it.
When driving the 3, I found myself in the very unusual situation of being really delighted with the instrument cluster. This wasn’t a matter of being technically wowed, since this thing is really using, arguably, outdated displays: there’s no matrix screens, color or otherwise, just an analog tach and some 7-segment (well, maybe 14-segment for the gear display) displays. This dash cluster could have been made in the 1980s, really.
The tech doesn’t matter, because it does its job so well. One glance gives you everything you need to know, easily, with no extra bullshit. Speed, revs, fuel range, all instantly grasped. It’s lean and distilled down to the essence, and it works.
Even being simple, there’s some nice refinements, too. Look at the fuel gauge. The first three quarter-tank sections are broken into three blocks each, until you get down to the last quarter tank, where it’s divided into six blocks:
The greater granularity for the last quarter-tank makes sense, because that’s when you actually care that much. Each block in the first three sections is about one gallon, and a half gallon for the last quarter tank. It’s just a nice touch.
Compare that to an example of an all-LCD instrument cluster, the type of which is growing more and more popular. Theoretically, these displays should be freeing, and allow for completely new display designs and ideas.
Of course, nobody’s doing that. Carmakers seem to be stuck on the idea that they have to re-create analog gauges, while at the same time cramming in as much information as possible. This is what that result usually looks like:
That’s a lot going on, and a lot to process at a glance. Plus, it’s redundant; many modern instrument clusters now have two speedometer readings, or at least an option to display two speedometers, one digital, one analog (fake or real). Why? You’re not getting a second opinion here—what’s the point?
After driving many modern cars with complex LCD instrument clusters, this Mazda dash felt so capable and refreshing I felt like it deserved to be called out, because, let’s face it, it’s a dying breed.
I’m hopeful at some point we’ll break free and actually try to really re-think what the instrument cluster should be, ideally with a take other than the Tesla Model 3's big-ass central laptop-running-several browsers approach.
Until then, it’s nice to see something that just does its job well.