Do you ever stop and think about the key that you use to enter and start your car? Well, since I’m a detail freak and I spend time in a variety of automobiles on a regular basis, I tend to fixate on such minutiae. I also hate bulky items in my pocket, so I’m rather particular about keys. And I’ll tell you, there’s some serious diversity in the world of automotive keys.
Let’s start with possibly my least favorite key in the industry. It comes out of England and it’s from Aston Martin. Actually, I’m not even sure I’d call it a key. It’s more like an overweight, phallic weapon. Put the bulky fob in your pocket and you better make sure your belt is cinched-up tightly or you may find yourself showing your undergarments to the world. Given this, you’d think Aston would offer a handy place to stash the large key inside the car. Sorry. But we shouldn’t be that surprised as this isn’t the company’s first dance with the devil in the world of keys.
Aston Martin came up with this so-called “Emotion Control Unit” when the last DBS launched in late 2007. It replaced the DB9 and V8 Vantage setup—a Jaguar key attached to a Volvo-derived remote by a piece of leather. Clearly, such a simple key wasn’t enough for then CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez. I would have much preferred conventional because the poorly named fob had to be inserted into the dash in just the right way or else the car wouldn’t start. And if you were to stall the DBS at, say, a busy intersection, good luck swiftly releasing the Emotion Control Unit from the dash and then reinserting it again quickly (and correctly) before experiencing an overload of horn honking and inappropriate finger gestures from fellow motorists. The clunky key operation stuck around through the lifespan of VH platform, though it did work far better in later iterations. Now we simply get a giant key fob from Aston Martin. Maybe it’s designed to impress your friends when you plop it down on a table. I’m not impressed. It’s time for Aston to simplify its key strategy.
Speaking of showing off, Porsche gives you the option to pay $540 to have the key fob painted to match the exterior color of your car. While I don’t see why you’d want that, Porsche does throw in a bulky leather pouch for one of the two keys. Unfortunately, it simply gets in the way when trying to start 911 models like the GT3/GT3 RS/GT2 RS, which don’t offer Comfort Access (keyless start).
The Italians, unsurprisingly, don’t run under the radar in this arena either. A Ferrari key is bright red with large, chrome ‘FERRARI’ badge on the outside. You’d think the $1856 ‘Scuderia Ferrari’ fender shield or $8100 20-inch “diamond” forged wheels added enough attention for the owner of a new F8 Tributo. No. At least the Ferrari fob is an OK size and the Italian company does provide a nice spot to stash it inside the car.
Over at Lamborghini, you get an Audi key with a few minor changes, including the bold bull logo. It’s a good size key on the latest models, unlike the older Aventador setup. That fob was also Audi-based, but with a huge lump of metal with a Lambo logo stuck on the bottom of the key. Bigger must be better.
Oh, and there’s one more Brit to pick on in the world of keys. Wait, make that two. Both Bentley and Rolls-Royce seem to love a large and heavy fob, just like Aston Martin. Bentley gets bonus points (but like golf, a higher score isn’t good here) for putting a huge letter ‘B’ on its key. You wouldn’t want people to mistake your Bentayga for a Porsche Cayenne, in case they missed that extroverted front grille.
But the ultimate key fail was by BMW. Offered on the 7 Series and certain other models, the gigantic Display Key featured a built-in touchscreen. It was interesting on paper but far too large to be practical and you had to be quite close to the car for any of the remote features to work. Plus, you really needed a cheesy Nextel-style belt clip to carry the paperweight-like key. It made the latest Aston key look downright small. Speaking of pocket computers, now that you can control the remote features on your BMW with a smartphone, there’s no point in offering this type of key. BMW knows this, and no longer sells the Display Key.
Then we come to good keys. Before you think I’m picking on England, McLaren gives owners a nicely designed key. It’s small, light, and a pleasant shape. And it only has a small, subtle logo on the outside. Mercedes’ latest key is also impressive. It’s an agreeable design and the right profile for sliding into your pocket. One of my favorite keys of all time came on the early BMW i3. It’s thin and light, and a lovely overall design. Clearly, BMW can design a good key.
I also still enjoy the act of inserting a physical key into the ignition and twisting it to ignite an engine. That’s the case with my Toyota 86, though the jagged edges of the old-school key do tend to make it trickier to pull the key in and out of your pocket. I liked BMW’s E46 3 Series key and Audi/VW’s old flip key, with the smooth-cut key design. And the original Acura NSX titanium-look key and the Ferrari F40 hinged key were both fantastic. Simplicity at its best.
But who knows how long keys will stick around? BMW’s new Digital Key and Tesla’s Phone Key let you unlock and start certain models with your phone, and manufacturers such as Hyundai are also offering such technology. Surely, facial and fingerprint recognition are being considered for the future. But how will Porsche make money off their painted keys if we no longer need keys? There goes my crazy brain again.