Audi's virtual cockpit left me feeling like a rocket man

"I'm not the man they think I am at home. Oh, no, no, no. I'm a rocket man."

At least that's what Elton John claimed, despite the fact he'd never been in a rocket*.

However, perhaps he'd actually had a 45 years early, sneak peek at Audi’s virtual cockpit, because now I'm humming the same tune.

I was excited for the 400-mile round trip that awaited me when the Audi A5 Coupe was delivered to my door. But I wasn't prepared for the experience that awaited me inside.

My rocket ship

My rocket ship

I packed my bags last night pre-drive

We drove

Audi A5 3.0 TDI quattro S tronic

Engine: 3.0 V6 TDI
Power output: 218bhp
Top speed: 155mph
0-62mph: 6.2 seconds
Fuel efficiency: 54.3mpg
Price: £50,830

I've enjoyed all manor of digital displays in cars over the years, from Tesla's gigantic iPad Pro-like offering in the center console of the Model S, to the rather more basic setup in the Jeep Wrangler. But there's something rather special about Audi's implementation.

Once I finished loading the expansive boot - wedding suit, a fancy dress (not mine) and a couple of large cases with space to spare - I slid into the low set driver's seat to set the car up ready for my flight drive.

The sports seats were comfortable and cabin sizable, giving us more than enough room for a four-hour-plus trip.

In the cabin you are immediately drawn to the 8.3-inch screen at the top of the central console. Here I connected my phone via Bluetooth to enjoy my Spotify playlists on the long journey up the country and for the security of being able to make a panicked phone call about a delayed ETA just in case the traffic was bad.

It was easy to do, and I was pleased to see the inclusion of Android Auto here as well. I plugged my phone into one of the two USB ports neatly tucked away under the front armrest and was promoted to initiate the feature from my phone if I wished. All pretty standard then. 

It wasn't until I'd plugged my destination into the in-car sat nav, which is excellent by the way, that I noticed just how glorious the other screen was -
the one waiting for me behind the steering wheel.

Audi A5 Coupe design gallery

Oh, hello

Audi's virtual cockpit gives you a high resolution 12.3-inch display where the instrument cluster normally resides and it's clear, colorful and extremely useful.

The default layout sees two large dials (speed and revs) flank vehicle information such as mileage and petrol levels.

Using the arrow keys on the wheel you can swap between different forms of information displayed in this central area, including the media currently playing through the 19 Bang & Olufsen speaker setup, your phone contacts and the map and satellite navigation.

The mapping view was my favorite. With a swift click of the ‘View’ button on the wheel the larger instrument dials shrank to their respective corners of the screen, giving me a widescreen view of the world around me.

There’s even a horizon line and sky that changes to day and night, depending on when you’re driving. It’s almost like you’re flying. Obviously I was still very much aware I was in car, but let this particular Elton John dream.

Impressed by the clarity and simplicity of operation of the virtual cockpit, my eyes were drawn back to the road - handy really - but I wasn’t without tech in my eye line.

Heads up

As well as the optional virtual cockpit (yours for £250), the A5 Coupe also had Audi’s HUD (head’s up display) installed - another option at £900.

It comprises a small projection directly onto the windshield, providing you with useful information such as your speed, the current speed limit, your next navigation direction and lane assistance.

As lovely as the virtual cockpit is to gaze at, it’s obviously not safe to do so when driving, and the HUD keeps vital data in view without the need to take your eyes off the road.

The HUD is devilishly difficult to photograph, as my shot below reveals, but it's another great tech touch we expect to see filter down to more affordable vehicles in the coming years.

You can just about make out the HUD here, it's much clearer in real life

You can just about make out the HUD here, it's much clearer in real life

One difficulty I had initially with the HUD was its positioning, as it appeared it didn’t cater for the angle produced by taller drivers. A dive into the settings menu and I could rotate the projected display, but not shift it.

It wasn’t until later on I noticed a small dial between steering column and door that I found the control to move the display up and down, better placing it in my eyeline. Why this option isn’t in the menu along with rotate I don’t know - but I was glad to find it in the end.

The hidden dial next to the lights switch for adjusting the HUD

The hidden dial next to the lights switch for adjusting the HUD

Audi isn’t the first to feature either of these types of offerings in its cars, but it’s the best implementation of them that I’ve come across. They’re easy to use, great to look at and provide genuinely useful and important information to the driver.

It made me feel like I was driving the future, a future when perhaps our cars will fly - and maybe even venture into space, The Jetsons style. 

For now though, I'll stay on earth. As the great man once said, and despite what Elon Musk might say, "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact it's cold as hell. And there's no one there to raise them if you did."

*I assume

  • John McCann is getting behind the wheel to give you an alternative look at the wealth of cars - and the tech inside them - available today. From superfast sports cars to tech-packed hatchbacks, he'll take you through a range of makes, models, power and price tags in his regular TR Drives column.
John McCann
Global Managing Editor

John joined TechRadar over a decade ago as Staff Writer for Phones, and over the years has built up a vast knowledge of the tech industry. He's interviewed CEOs from some of the world's biggest tech firms, visited their HQs and has appeared on live TV and radio, including Sky News, BBC News, BBC World News, Al Jazeera, LBC and BBC Radio 4. Originally specializing in phones, tablets and wearables, John is now TechRadar's resident automotive expert, reviewing the latest and greatest EVs and PHEVs on the market. John also looks after the day-to-day running of the site.