30 Days of the Mercedes CLA: Going Mobile With Apps

October 24, 2013

We're winding up our 30 days of seat time with the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 this week. As we drill through another few hundred miles on our $36,320 CLA 250, we're deciding which of its infotainment and connectivity features are must-haves--and which ones we'd control/alt/delete.

All of the CLA's infotainment features are rooted in its COMAND interface, but the fun ones poke holes in the cumbersome interface, and clearly embrace a future where smartphones are your car's command center, not just a grafted-on layer.

MORE: Read our 2014 Mercedes CLA review

The 2014 CLA 250 comes with standard Bluetooth and basic smartphone connectivity via Mercedes-Benz's mbrace2, all displayed on a 5.8-inch screen. There are options for iPod connectivity and a couple of navigation setups, one delivered over data paths, the other delivered via an add-on box.

Most American drivers will want the upgraded multimedia package, which was included on our 30 Days CLA. The package bundles a 7.0-inch screen with COMAND, which includes the resident navigation system, a DVD changer, a 10GB music drive, an SD card, and voice command capability.

COMAND continues to be a frustrating system to use on the go, but after more than three weeks spent running it from Park and Drive, we're more familiar with it than ever, and more at ease with the shortcuts available by buttons on the dash and steering wheels, and by voice commands.

Beyond that, Mercedes' newer layers of connectivity deliver the best of smartphones, largely bypassing COMAND. There's a basic mbrace2 system, including a $280-yearly subscription with embedded Verizon data, emergency alerts, valet mode, remote unlock and lock, and the ability to send destinations and routes to the car via Google Maps. A higher tier of service, for another $20 a month, factors in local weather and traffic reports, speed alerts, and the ability to download destinations on the go.

For ever more advanced connectivity, there's the new Mercedes-Benz Apps package, which for $14 a month, allows drivers to access all kinds of web services on the go, including Facebook, Yelp, traffic cameras, movie times, and streaming Internet radio. And if you have an iPhone, there's the $599 DriveKit, which taps into most of those apps through the phone, while also enabling Siri-assisted search.

It's all controlled by four distinct pathways with lots--and lots--of redundancy built in. The COMAND knob and its related Back and "Clr" buttons are the primary route; hard keys on the dash act as shortcuts; steering-wheel controls adjust functions finely while driving; and Bluetooth-driven voice commands cover many of the transitions missing in the hardware, while opening up the whole orbit of natural-language commands and searches to the CLA.

Don't touch my panel

Most of the primary work can take place with the COMAND knob controller, but it gets tedious, quickly. COMAND itself exists only because German luxury automakers have decided collectively that touchscreens are dangerous--ignoring the attention deficits caused by pushing or rolling the knob to select different functions, though many functions are blocked out at speed.

They've influenced others, too: Hyundai's Equus has a knob-driven infotainment controller, and touching is also not allowed.

COMAND's essential problem--just like iDrive and MMI--is that it It requires a lot of scrolling and toggling to get to basic menus, or even to switch some modes, something inevitably accomplished much more easily by the other methods of input.

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