Mercedes may be better known for timeless styling, brawny engines and leather-appointed interiors than cutting edge in-dash technology within its cars, but don’t declare victory just yet, Ford: The Germans are not asleep at the wheel. On Monday, the auto manufacturer unveiled Mbrace 2 at CES 2012, the next generation of its in-car navigation and entertainment system. We had a chance to go hands on with the system before it makes its way into wood-paneled dashes across the globe, and while it won’t put Mercedes at the cutting edge of in-dash technology, it adds a number of crucial improvements to the original Mbrace.
The most significant of those crucial improvements is the addition of apps, of which there will be seven at launch, including Facebook, Yelp, and an open browser. The integrated iPhone app also returns, with some new features like the ability to chirp the horn and flash the lights from its faux keypad (apparently a highly requested feature from absent-minded owners who need a little help finding their Benzes in the Crate & Barrel parking lot).
Mbrace 2 apps are filed away in a fairly standard carousel configuration, which you can roll through quickly with a control knob. Yes, a knob. Unlike touch-happy competitors like Cadillac’s Cue and MyFord Touch, Mbrace still relies on an old-school knob you can use to quickly flick through options, then press the center to select. Mercedes seems to have rationalized keeping this rather anachronistic system because previous owners are already familiar with it, but we still can’t see the harm with adding touch as a secondary – and very intuitive – way to interact with the system.
Although Mbrace 2 uses a fairly high resolution screen, the yellow-themed interface is conservative, bordering on dated, and moves around with the sluggishness you would expect from a 399MHz ARM processor. That much is excusable, but text input via a dial is not something even the most diehard Mercedes fan will likely relish. Fortunately, the accompanying smartphone app saves some of the trouble by allowing you to input addresses via the phone then zip them off to the car.
Interface aside, there are actually some cool features buried here. A “digital journal” can log your driving automatically and spit back stats on average speed, distance, and other tidbits. After selecting a destination, you can jump into Google Street View – an easier way to see where you’re headed than envisioning it from a map. With the Drive2Friend feature of the smartphone app, you can plug in a friend’s telephone number to send them a text, which, if they reply to with a “Y,” will send their GPS coordinates to your car and spool up directions automatically. Impressive.
The Mbrace 2 has CMDA 3G access built right in, so the system has been designed for seamless over-the-air updates. In the future, Mercedes told us, these could unlock a number of cool features. For example, since Mbrace 2 can actually communicate with other systems in the car, like the engine computer, Mercedes could release an update with improved engine timing to get better gas mileage. Or tell you when you need to change your oil. Or patch a software glitch that would otherwise require a visit to a dealership.
The 2013 Mercedes SL class will be the first to offer Mbrace 2 when it comes out in April, but all future 2013 vehicles will offer it standard.