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.

My advice: Treat the knob like the redundant fallback that it's become. My personal hack-arounds rely mostly on voice controls to switch audio modes and dial phone numbers, and hard keys on the dash to flip between audio and navigation screens, and the steering-wheel controls to tune the audio system.

An example: drilling down to Bluetooth audio streams. Those hard keys on the dash include one for the CD changer that's still offered for sale, against all odds, but none for streaming from your phone. Tapping the CLA's voice button turns out to be the quickest shortcut to choose "Bluetooth audio," or any other audio mode. You'll still have to use the COMAND knob to access Bluetooth audio for the first time after a start-up, though. The CLA could really use favorites buttons, programmable by the user, to let owners decide which of its many functions deserved a spot on the dash--and let them use it without resorting to the knob.

Voice commands aren't pervasive enough, just yet. You can't do something completely different ("dial XXX-XXXX") without stepping back into a main menu. And the accuracy isn't much better or worse than other systems we've tried, in terms of navigation. The CLA's system will accept destinations sent by remote computer or by voice commands, but the voice entry seems to be about 75 percent hit, 25 percent miss. In this case, you'll have to spin and click the knob.

The steering-wheel controls are the best bet for quick access to basic vehicle functions. The left set of controls can flip between audio stations or tracks, can check tire pressures and distance to empty, or toggle between the CLA's trip computer and the direction-arrow navigation readout between the gauges. The right set runs the phone and voice commands, with a mute button placed where it belongs--right in the middle of it all.

(The Multimedia package, by the way, also includes a rearview camera with good resolution and tracking lines for parking, and real-time traffic, which accurately predicted several traffic jams on I-85, offering up an alternate route that shaved a half-hour of traffic from a return trip home.)

Facebook and web from the car

COMAND lightens up a lot with the added-cost infotainment of Mercedes-Benz Apps. Whether it's delivered by iPhone in the form of DriveKit, or by a native data connection provided by Verizon, the app system opens up a world of web content inside the car, though it's mostly still delivered in COMAND's standard-issue, grey-on-black screens.

You can tap feeds from Facebook and Twitter and post to timelines via voice commands; perform Google Local Searches; scan Yelp for food and fun; even stream Internet radio, if you subscribe to one of the higher-tier mbrace packages. The nicest touch we've seen so far: a Google Street View of destinations on Yelp.

The letdown: having to use COMAND to get to the globe icon on the LCD screen, and the time it can take to access Verizon's data network. That, and if you already pay for Verizon, there's no way yet to bundle your car and phone data plans. 

Our CLA doesn't have the DriveKit, but we've used it in demo form--and it's the way we'd choose to consume our information on the go. You'll need an iPhone for it, at least for now, but it uses your phone's data, and connects through a much snazzier set of screens.

It's essentially an edited-down mirroring function, with icons upsized for safety. It's not true screen-to-screen mirroring, and that's our biggest complaint with the Apps--and with almost every infotainment system available today. One day, some automaker will be secure enough to fully mirror an iPhone (or Android) screen, to offer an environment that's instantly recognizable and navigable. They're all still waiting for someone else to go first.

After nearly a month of COMAND and Apps, we know exactly how we'd improve it. COMAND still could use some streamlining--steer some functions over to other buttons entirely, and give the look and feel a solid update. We'd also trim back on some of the input options--as a culture, we can probably get along with just Bluetooth streaming, a USB port, and an SD card slot, and a set of favorites buttons to replace most of the controls on the audio faceplate.

Finally, we'd set up mirroring, so we could steer our phones directly with the CLA's controls, even a touchscreen--and block out complex functions like text entry. It's a sure bet for safer driving, we think, having one interface instead of three.

We're taking the CLA 250 offline this weekend, while we pair up with its CLA45 AMG counterpart for some top-secret fun. Stay with us for the rest of this month, as we bring you more from our 30 Days drive.


Follow along with our Mercedes CLA coverage, and let us know what you'd like to see by posting to The Car Connection's Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages.

The Car Connection
See the winners »
The Car Connection
Ratings and Reviews
Rate and review your car for The Car Connection
Review your car
The Car Connection Daily Headlines
I agree to receive emails from The Car Connection. I understand that I can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy.
Thank you! Please check your email for confirmation.