Proving that a great “user experience” behind the wheel need not be the sole province of luxury cars, the 2017 Wards 10 Best UX list features a lot of mainstream brands, such as Ford, Dodge, Honda, Mazda, Subaru and Volkswagen.

Easy-to-use smartphones are setting high consumer expectations, making UX a key aspect of new vehicle development. Automotive designers and engineers now are striving like never before to simplify connectivity with personal devices, information displays and advanced driver-assistance features.

There are camera-based forward vision systems to help steer a vehicle in its lane, radar-based sensors to prevent collisions and voice-activated technologies to minimize distraction from infotainment systems. All can either delight us with smart design and make our lives easier or cause drivers endless frustration.

“The Wards 10 Best UX competition is meant to identify technologies that are smart, safe and connected,” says Drew Winter, senior content director at WardsAuto.

“We started this competition one year ago, and in that short time we’ve seen tremendous progress on the part of automakers. These are small steps toward the world of autonomous vehicles, but big leaps in simplifying how drivers and passengers interact with vehicle technologies and features.”

The 2017 Wards 10 Best UX winners, with prices as tested including destination charges:

  • Audi S5 Sportback ($68,350)
  • BMW 540i ($82,360)
  • Buick Enclave Avenir ($59,435)
  • Dodge Durango SRT ($74,950)
  • Ford F-150 Raptor ($65,715)
  • Honda Odyssey ($47,610)
  • Lincoln Continental ($79,780)
  • Mazda CX-5 ($34,380)
  • Subaru Impreza ($29,260)
  • Volkswagen Atlas ($49,415)

Granted, some of these well-equipped vehicles are at the upper reaches within their respective model ranges, but many of the connectivity and driver-assistance features that impressed us also are available in less-expensive versions.

The focus of the Wards 10 Best UX competition, which is a microcosm of Wards 10 Best Interiors, is to identify driver interfaces that are user-friendly, navigation systems that are easy to program, collision-avoidance technologies that are dependable and smartphone integration that is simple, allowing drivers safe access to text messages, emails and phone contacts while on the road.

WardsAuto editors spent July and August evaluating 23 light vehicles that are all-new or feature significantly redesigned UX features.

The Audi S5 Sportback is a return winner, of sorts. Last year, the Q7 earned a place on the inaugural list with first-rate graphics, excellent voice controls and a reconfigurable “virtual cockpit” that can fill the entire gauge cluster with a high-definition, full-color map.

Along comes the ’18 S5 in a smaller package that sacrifices nothing and instead enhances the user experience with vivid graphics, a bright head-up display, a larger rotary multi-media dial, faster response to commands, a slick red, silver and white “S5 quattro” greeting at startup and shutdown and, to ratchet up the excitement, carbon-fiber trim on the instrument panel and a 354-hp supercharged V-6.

The driver-assistance features instill confidence, from the traffic-sign recognition, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-keeping systems to stop-and-go adaptive cruise control that gently guides the car through bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The UX truly helps sell the Audi S5 and remains a benchmark for autonomous functionality, graphics, user-friendliness and infotainment.