It is just as important to recognize things done right as it is to point out shortcomings, so I've created "The Credit Department" to give it where it's due.
Not everything good has to be major - sometimes it's little touches that delight, like a dampened glove-box door, or the perfectly counter-balanced trunk that pops up just enough to aid arms-full opening, but not so much as to instantly expose the entire contents of the trunk to the rain.
Kudos today to whoever builds and/or designed GM's generic audio head unit (the part in the dash that the driver interacts with) - I'm guessing it's Delco/Delphi, but it could be Clarion or anyone else.
Sure, it sounds just fine in most of the applications that I've encountered it - in some it sounds fantastic. But that's not why I like it.
It's not because it's the prettiest out there either, with its oddly positioned knobs. Not that I'm complaining about that - I'll take knobs over rocker switches any day.
What it's got going for it is that it's easy to use, yet also allows for a pleasing amount of customization - right down to how many "pages" of radio station presets you want.
Why does that matter? Most GM vehicles with steering wheel controls allow you to thumb through the presets, and if you don't have enough stations to fill 36 slots, you don't have to backtrack, or go through multiple vacant or unset presets to start back at your first saved station.
Better yet, those presets can be any combination of AM, FM, or XM, in any order. Want to organize by genre? Mix and match freely.
I'm also pleased that this radio's XM tuning is near-instantaneous from channel to channel. I'd speculate that the system monitors the channels on either side of the current one to make that happen, since few others that I've tried can do that - not even the excellent-sounding ELS surround system found in Acuras, which have a considerable delay in playback when switching XM stations.
In this one, even the channel name comes up immediately, and the remaining artist/song info is available pretty well the moment that station is tuned. You can choose what XM/RDS info displays as well - it doesn't have to be the station ID. A clock displays independently of the radio's readout.
GM would do well to retain the interface architecture of this design as they update their models, since the more integrated audio system found in the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox that I've just driven wasn't nearly as user-friendly.
The type pictured (this one is in a Saturn Aura) passes what I call the "rental car test" - how fast could an unfamiliar driver figure out the basic audio controls, find a station, or even set their presets. The last BMW that I drove, a 750Li, required seven separate i-Drive steps to set one radio station preset. This GM unit? Select the band (one button), then twist the tuning knob until the desired station appears. Push and hold any preset button for a few seconds until the setting is acknowledged. Your preset stations will be displayed above the button that selects them. How much more simple could it get?