2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 – Review and Test Drive

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TELEMATICS AND INFOTAINMENT: COMAND ONLINE

The 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL was one of the first cars from Mercedes to feature the newest version of Comand, which means it also gets the new Comand Online suite.  It was also my first exposure to the new system.

Comand itself hasn’t changed terribly much.  It’s controlled by the control dial and the user interface will be familiar to current Comand users.  Comand has changed less than BMW’s iDrive, for example, and this means that Mercedes has had to add new features to Comand without changing the overall menu structure, resulting in a system that could benefit from better organization at the very least.  On the plus side, Comand’s voice command system does an excellent job of converting speech to text and makes inputting such details as street addresses a non issue.

Comand Online includes a data connection and such features as Google Local Search, News, Yelp, and Facebook.  While this sounds good on paper while at the same time being competitive with what BMW and Audi are offering, it suffers from one fatal flaw: it is excruciatingly slow.

During my week with the SL, I tried using Comand Online from multiple towns and cities with the hope that it would somehow speed up, perhaps if it found itself in a location with a faster data connection.  That didn’t turn out to be the case and the problems start when selecting Comand Online.  You might start to yearn for your 2400-baud modem while the main screen loads.  Submenus aren’t any faster and the system locks users out of most functionality when the car is in motion, which means the passenger can’t do data entry while you drive.

The functionality that Mercedes includes, however, is useful.  Google Search allows you to find points-of-interest at your current location, at your destination, along the route, or somewhere else.   Frequenty-used topics such as parking, gas stations, restaurants, and hotels allow you to drill down when searching.  You can enter a search term such as “cafe” or the name of the establishment and the system saves recent search queries.

Once you see the search result you want, you can see further details, set it as your destination, see the destination using Google Street View, or see photos of the destination on Panoramio, a photo-sharing site.  You can also save the information to the car’s address book.

It may take a while, but you will get the information you need from the system and it is fully integrated with the navi.  All of this, however, may be far quicker from your smartphone, which you hopefully wouldn’t use while driving.  The smartphone, of course, won’t tell the navigation system where to go directly, but using the Mercedes mbrace app’s Send2Benz feature on your smartphone, which sends a destination to the car’s navi, could turn out to be faster if you have a 4G device.

With respect to search, the Yelp integration is also useful for this purpose as it provides an alternative way to locate local businesses including restaurants and shops.  I found it worked better for me than Google Local Search when I was looking for a Japanese restaurant nearby.

Another app is news, which provides headlines.  I had expected the system to read me the story (BMW’s iDrive has been doing this for several years now) but it doesn’t have that option.  I can e-mail myself the story to read later, but that is marginally useful at best.

The Facebook app has potential but it too is slow.  I could see news feeds of my friends’ status updates, find places and check in, and see where my friends have checked into.  I could also update my own status from a menu of messages or type my own, but doing so was tedious at best.

One thing that did drive me crazy in using Comand Online was what I first thought was random behavior on the part of the controller’s back button. I later discovered that I should have been using an on-screen back button instead.  I had incorrectly assumed the two back buttons were one and the same, but it turns out they weren’t.  The physical back button takes you back to the main menu and is probably not where you intended to go while the on-screen button goes back one screen.

Comand Online is Mercedes’ first foray into in-car Internet in the U.S. and, while I have no doubt that the experience will be improved upon, it is still a work in progress at this time.   Comand Online is available in model year 2013 vehicles equipped with the mbrace2 telematics system and Comand with navigation. Mercedes says that the Comand Online system speed should be equivalent to a 3G mobile phone and, while this very well may be the case, I suspect that the system overhead in the Comand Online system is greater than that of a typical iOS or Android smartphone and the speed the user experiences as a result will almost always be faster on a phone.

BOTTOM LINE

While some have derided the design as ungainly – in particular, the front is high to meet European mandated pedestrian safety standards – I find it far more attractive than the most recent vintages of the SL and it reminded me of the elegant and sleek first and second generation SLs that are not only icons, but highly sought after to this day.  It may be hard to believe but it’s been 60 years since the original SL rolled off the assembly line and the sixth generation SL is its most worthy successor yet.

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