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October 20, 2007

Mercedes-Benz 2007 S-Class GPS (COMAND) Review

Verdict: The best Benz yet. Still out-GPS'ed by portable units.

Mercedes Benz S65 AMG, Front

Adaptive cruise control, night-vision system, and radar-assisted braking are just a few of the features included on Mercedes' technological marvel, the 2007 S-Class -- an uber luxury vehicle brimming with high-tech features designed to improve driver comfort and safety. Also new on the ninth-generation 2007 S-Class is a completely re-designed GPS navigation system.

This week I take a look at Mercedes' flagship sedan, the $180,000 S65 AMG, and see how the redesigned navigation system (COMAND) measures up.

Mercedes Benz S65 AMG, Rear
Figure 1: Mercedes Benz S65 AMG, Rear

We'll be examining the navigation system (Mercedes calls it's integrated navi system "Command") on a 2007 S65 with the AMG package.

V12 BiTurbo
Figure 2: V12 BiTurbo

The Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG is powered by a whopping 612 hp engine that delivers 738 lb-ft of torque. That kind of power gets you from 0-60 in just over four seconds, and a top speed that's electronically limited to 155-mph.

19-Inch Shoes
Figure 3: 20-Inch Shoes

Twenty-inch wheels, composite brakes with twin calipers, and a bespoke body kit come with the S65's AMG package.

Dual Sunroof
Figure 4: Dual Sunroof

The S65 has an innovative dual front/rear sunroof design that gives rear passengers their own sunroof independent from the front sunroof.

Mercedes-Benz 2007 S-Class Interior
Figure 5: Interior

The ninth-generation 2007 S-Class has a richly luxurious interior that's finished in leather and wood. The vault-like construction of the S-Class is apparent when you sit in this beast and enjoy the silence.

Mercedes-Benz 2007 S-Class Interior
Figure 6: The 2007 S-Class' Dashboard

Mercedes' dashboard includes two large LCD display panels, used for the virtual analog speedometer as well as the COMAND navigation system. More on this later.

AMG's ICW Clock
Figure 7: IWC Clock

Another unique AMG addition to the 2007 S-Class: the standard dashboard clock is replaced by an ICW clock emblazoned with the AMG logo and a useless digital lap timer.

Driver Dashboard
Figure 8: Driver Dashboard

The temperature, gas, and engine RPM gauges are all analog. The main display area of the driver's side dashboard is a high resolution, aircraft grade 8-inch LCD panel.

Multi-Function 8-Inch LCD Display
Figure 9: Multi-Function 8-Inch LCD Display

Normally the 8-inch LCD panel displays a realistic-looking analog speedometer. However, the driver can cycle through various other types of information to be displayed on the screen, as shown above in figure 9. When navigating to a destination, the next maneuver can also be displayed in the center of the speedometer.

When backing up, the center display automatically activates the rearview-monitor system and taps into the rear-mounted night vision enabled camera.

COMAND Display
Figure 10: COMAND Display

A second 8-inch LCD, located just slightly to the right of the steering wheel, serves as the COMAND display. COMAND is Mercedes multi-function control system, used to control virtually all features in the car, including the navigation system (which will be the focus of this review).

An especially nifty feature is the ability to electronically rotate this screen so it can be angled toward the driver or passenger. The 16:9 format wide screen display can be adjusted approximately 20 degrees in all directions.

The COMAND LCD display uses the same high quality 8-inch display used for the speedometer, and can be easily read even in bright direct sunlight.

COMAND and Control
Figure 11: COMAND and Control

Mercedes' COMAND system is controlled via the single-knob iDrive-style joystick located in the center console. The knob can be rotated left and right, pushed down, and used as an 8-way joystick.

COMAND's joystick controller is connected to a force feedback system that limits the ability to turn the knob, depending on the contextual menu being displayed. For example, when navigating a long list of street names, the knob can be scrolled as you browse the list, and you feel a virtual "click" in the knob as you scroll down each line in the list.

However, once you reach the end of the list, the magnetic controls kick in and the knob cannot be rotated any further. This type of physical feedback makes navigating menus and lists must easier, as you can feel each notch when turning the knob, and the feedback mechanism only allows you to rotate the controller when the screen options allow it.

Unlike previous Mercedes GPS systems that relied on costly, slow DVD discs, Mercedes-Benz's 2007 GPS navigation system uses an internal 20GB hard drive for map storage. I found the 2007 COMAND system noticeable faster than previous models.

Navigating With COMAND

Navigating with COMAND
Figure 12: Navigating with COMAND

Virtually all electronic functions are controlled via Mercedes' COMAND system, including the integrated GPS navigation system.

Accessing the NAVI System
Figure 13: Accessing the NAVI System

Like most functions on the '07 S-Class, the NAVI system can be invoked via the i-Drive-esque joystick, or by pressing the TEL/NAVI shortcut button, as shown above in figure 13.

Entering a Destination Address Using the S-Class' NAVI (COMAND) System

NAVI Main Menu
Figure 14: NAVI Main Menu

Pressing the NAV button on the console brings up the main navigation screen, shown above.

From here, you can route to a saved destination from your address book (From Memory), enter a new destination address using a street address (Address Entry), route to a previous destination (From Last Destinations), search the Points of Interest database (From POIs), or select a destination using the cursor on the map (Via Map).

2007 S-Class NAVI Main Menu 2006 SL55 NAVI Main Menu
2007 S-Class NAVI
2006 SL55 NAVI
Figure 15: MB's Updated NAVI Main Menu

It's worth mentioning how significantly improved the '07's NAVI display and UI is over previous COMAND systems. Take a look at figure 15 above, and notice the S-Class' improved LCD display quality, resolution, colors, and use of contextual menus versus the '06 SL55's dated interface and dimmer screen.

In this example, I'm going to be entering the destination address of 135 Central Park West in New York City, so I'll choose "Address Entry" using the joystick to continue.

Choosing the State
Figure 16: Choosing the State

By default the Mercedes' NAVI system defaults to use the State you are currently located in. To enter a destination address in a different State, you have to scroll over to "State / Prov" and press down on the joystick.

State Selection Menu
Figure 17: State Selection Menu

Clicking, or pressing down on the joystick, on the "State / Prov" brings up the State selection menu, shown above in Figure 17.

From here you can choose to use a previously used State (Last States / Providence), enter a new State (States), or if you're in Canada you can choose a province.

I'll be entering an address in New York State, so I'll scroll down to "States" and press down on the joystick to move on.

Spelling The State Name
Figure: 18: Spelling The State Name

Using the joystick, you scroll around the on-screen keyboard, spelling out the State name one letter at a time. Notice how the Mercedes only allows you to select letters that would spell a valid city name - a nice time-saving feature that both speeds data entry and reduces the likelihood of misspellings.

State Results List
Figure 19: State Name Results List

Once enough letters have been entered that only a few (or only a single) possible matching names could be found, NAVI displays the matching name or names in the menu shown in figure 19. The desired State can then be selected using the joystick.

I'll be navigating to an address in New York State, so I'll choose "New York" from the list and continue on to the next step.

Entering the Street Name
Figure 20: Entering the Street Name

Now that the State has been entered, NAVI needs to know the street and city we'll be navigating to. A nice feature on the COMAND's NAVI system is that you can enter the three elements of an address (State, City, Street) in any order you like. So if you're not sure what city an address is in, but know the street and State, you can enter the address in that order and the system will search for all cities within that state that have street names matching your entry.

To begin entering an address, scroll over to the "Street" icon (as shown above in figure 20) and tap down on the joystick to select it.

Entering the Street Name
Figure 21: Entering the Street Name

Spelling out the street name is identical to the process for entering in the State name. Only letter than spell valid street names (within the selected State) can be chosen. Note in figure 21 above how only the black letters can be selected, while the grayed out letter cannot.

Choosing the Street Name from the Results List
Figure 22: Choosing the Street Name from the Results List

Once enough of the street name has been entered that NAVI can reduce the list of matching street names to just a few, the Mercedes presents a list of possible street names that match the letters you entered. In this case I'm trying to input 135 Central Park West as the street address, so I'll scroll down to "CENTRAL PARK W" and press down on the joystick to continue.

Entering the House Number
Figure 23: Entering the House Number

With the street name and State already entered into the GPS, only the house/building number remains.

One annoyance with the Mercedes NAVI system is that it doesn't automatically step through each of the required address input fields. Instead, you have to manually scroll over to each item (State, Street, House no.) using the joystick.

Valid House Number Range
Figure 24: Valid House Number Range

Entering the house or building number is a simple matter. Notice how Mercedes displays the valid range of possible house numbers along the chosen street name (1 to 499 in this case). I enter 135 as our desired house number and tap ok to continue.

Choosing the City
Figure 25: Choosing the City

In this example we entered the State and Street name first. We could have entered the city name first, however. If you enter a street name before a city name, as we're doing in this example, the NAVI system will display all cities that have matching street names. Looks like Mercedes allows either Manhattan or New York City as acceptable city names. I'll choose Manhattan using the joystick on the armrest.

Address Entry is Complete
Figure 26: Address Entry is Complete

Now that we've entered the city name, street name, and house number (sort of), the navigation system has all the information it needs to start routing us to our destination address, and displays the screen shown above. I'll choose Start to begin navigating to our destination address.

NAVI's Minimalist Display
Figure 27: NAVI's Minimalist Display

This is map view displayed when navigating to a destination. Unlike most handheld GPS units, Mercedes' GPS lacks a 3-D map view, it is 2-D only. NAVI's map view is so sparse (the only information overlayed on the map is the scale, shown in the lower-left corner) that I found myself wishing I could turn on a few key pieces of information. Given the large, sharp color LCD display, it's a curious decision that none of the following are displayed on the map:

  • Time to destination
  • Time/Distance to next turn
  • Name of the current street you're driving on

There are ways to briefly see this information, but there's no way to have it automatically appear on the map when navigating.

Navigating with Mercedes' NAVI

Accessing the Menu While Navigating
Figure 28: Accessing the Menu While Navigating

By default virtually nothing is displayed on the map screen when navigating to a destination: the map itself, vehicle icon, and planned route and that's about it.

So if you want to view additional information about the planned trip, or access any of the other navigation features, you'll need to bring up the menu. Pressing down on the joystick activates a menu displayed across the bottom of the screen, as shown above in figure 28.

Route Info Menu
Figure 29: Route Info Menu

If you want to know how long it's going to take to arrive at your destination, you'll have to navigate over to the "Route Info" menu, as shown above.

It's a curious design decision that Mercedes has buried such basic information 2 menu layers deep rather than displaying it on the map screen. In almost every case the driver will want to know how long the trip will be, and what the estimated arrival time will be. Most, if not all, other GPS systems display this information clearly on the map view rather than requiring additional menu clicks.

Additionally, it is very useful to see the remaining distance and arrival time throughout the trip, so that the impact of traffic or taking alternate routes can immediately be reflected in the arrival time. Mercedes-Benz would do well to re-think their strategy of showing only the most simple map when navigating.

Route Info
Figure 30: Route Info

Selecting the "Route Info" menu option displays the route summary screen, shown above in figure 30. The route summary screen displays the destination address, remaining distance to destination, time, and remaining drive time.

There's a lot of unused screen space here and not much information displayed. For example, it would be interesting to see a text-list of remaining turns, any potential traffic issues along the route, etc. Or, given the large display, why not have this menu display the map in the lower half so that you can continue to see any upcoming maneuvers?

Route Browser
Figure 31: Route Browser

Mercedes' Route Browser allows you to browse the remaining turns along your planned route. Each leg of the trip is highlighted in blue on the map, and each turn can be viewed in greater detail by clicking on the magnifying glass in the lower right.

Unfortunately, there's no way to get a list of all maneuvers at once, displayed as text. A text-list of turns can be a handy way to verify the route the GPS has plotted out, and confirm you are taking the "best" route. It's also a nice way to get a quick overview of the whole trip.

Nevertheless, Mercedes' map display is crisp and easy to view.

Upcoming Turn Split Screen
Figure 32: Upcoming Turn Split Screen

When approaching a turn, the map screen automatically changes into a split-screen mode, as shown above in figure 32.

The left side of the screen displays the 2-D map view while the right side of the screen displays a close-up 2-D view of the pending turn, along with a countdown bar displayed vertically along the right side of the screen. Audio prompts also accompany the split-screen, notifying you of the next turn in a computer-generated female voice.

Lane Indicator
Figure 33: Lane Indicator

A useful feature not found on many other GPS units is the lane of travel indicator. When traveling along a multi-lane roadway, such as a highway, Mercedes' NAVI system displays the desired lane of travel, as shown in the red circled area above in figure 33.

Knowing the correct lane you should be driving in is extremely handy for complex highway interchanges.

Using the Detour Feature

Detour
Figure 34: Detour

Every now and then you'll want/need to detour around problem areas along a planned route, such as traffic jams, accidents, and road closings. Mercedes' Detour function allows you to do just that.

Detour Menu
Figure 35: Detour Menu

Selecting Detour from the map menu brings up the Detour Browser screen, shown above. This map screen allows you to view the planned route, and select how much of the planned route you want to avoid. Clicking on "More" lengthens the distance, "Less" reduces the number of miles you'll avoid the planned route.

Saving Your Current Position

Position Menu
Figure 36: Position Menu

Saving your current location is possible via the "Position" menu, shown above.

Saving Your Current Position
Figure 37: Saving Your Current Position

The Position menu has three options:

  • Save Position - saves your current vehicle position to the address book
  • Vehicle Position Map - displays the vehicle's position on the map
  • Destination Position Map - displays the vehicle on the map at the destination address (where you'll be upon arriving at the destination)

Canceling the Current Route

Cancelling the Current Route
Figure 38: Canceling the Current Route

The Route Menu, shown above, is home to the following options:

  • Cancel Route Guidance - cancels the current route
  • Address Entry - Enter a street address as a destination
  • From Memory - Route to a saved destination in the address book
  • From Last Destinations - Route to a previously found destination
  • From POIs - Route to a business, such as a restaurant, hotel, or gas station
  • Via Map - Pick a spot on the map to navigate to
  • Stopover - Add a stop along a planned route
  • Save Destination - Save the current destination to the address book (memory)

Setting Route Preferences

Accessing the Route Preferences
Figure 39: Accessing the Route Preferences

Mercedes' navigation system provides four different routing preferences to choose from. Depending on your particular trip and preferences, you may want to adjust the default routing and set additional avoidances (such as avoid highways). To view or change the current settings, activate the on-screen menu and click on "Navi", as shown above.

Mode Menu
Figure 40: Mode Menu

The routing preferences are hidden within the cryptically named "Mode" option.

Setting the Route Preference
Figure 41: Setting Route Preferences

There are four routing preferences to choose from:

  • Minimize Highways - Checking this box will avoid highways whenever possible
  • Minimize Toll Roads - Avoid Toll Roads avoids tolls
  • Minimize Tunnels
  • Minimize Ferries/Motorail

Note that settings any of these avoidance preferences is a persistent setting that will remain in place until it is removed.

Navigating To A Point of Interest (POI)

Choosing "From POIs" from the Map Menu
Figure 42: Choosing "From POIs" from the Map Menu

Like most other GPS units, Mercedes' integrated NAVI system comes pre-loaded with millions of POIs, or Points of Interest. In GPS speak, a "Point of Interest", is a business address saved on the GPS.

Think of the POI database as a pre-loaded yellow pages. Most modern GPS devices come pre-loaded with a Points of Interest database, allowing you to find nearby businesses, such as restaurants, gas stations, hotels, parking garages, and more.

Setting the POI Search Scope
Figure 43: Setting the POI Search Scope

After choosing "From POIs" in the previous menu, the GPS needs to know where we want to search. Three options are available:

  • Current Position - Search for POIs near your current location
  • Other Town - Enter an address to search near
  • Global POI - Search for a worldwide POI

In this example I'll be searching for a restaurant near my current location, so I'll choose "Current Position" and continue.

Choosing a POI Category
Figure 44: Choosing a POI Category

The Mercedes system ships with 40 POI categories to choose from, ranging from monuments to gas stations to pharmacies. I'm searching for a restaurant, so I'll scroll down and choose "Restaurant".

Choosing a POI Sub-Category
Figure 45: Choosing a POI Sub-Category

Some POI types have sub-categories available. For example, when searching for a restaurant, you have the additional option of specifying a cuisine type.

For this test, I want to see a list of all the restaurants near my current location, regardless of cuisine type, so I'll choose "ALL" from the restaurant type sub-category and continue.

Viewing the POI Search Results List
Figure 46: Viewing the POI Search Results List

Unfortunately the Mercedes NAVI system displays the POI search results listed alphabetically rather than sorted by distance. So there's virtually no way to see which restaurants are closest to your current location.

Searching for a POI Within the Results List
Figure 47: Searching for a POI Within the Results List

If you know the name of the restaurant you're looking for, you can filter the results list by typing out the restaurant name. Once enough letters have been input that only a few possible matching restaurants are found, the GPS produces a list of names to choose from, as shown above in figure 47.

Start Navigating to the POI
Figure 48: Start Navigating to the POI

After choosing the desired restaurant from the POI search results list, NAVI displays the restaurant name, city, and State. We can start navigating to the restaurant by clicking on "Start" in the above menu screen.

One obvious omission from Mercedes-Benz's POI database is the telephone numbers of POIs. For example, if we wanted to call the restaurant and make a reservation, or ask if they're open for business, seeing the restaurant's phone number and being able to dial it using the car's built-in cell phone (or Bluetooth connected phone) would have been a nice touch. This feature is available on most stand-alone GPS devices that support Bluetooth.

Using Voice Recognition

Accessing the Voice Menu
Figure 49: Accessing the Voice Menu

Mercedes' 2007 S-Class certainly isn't the first GPS system to boast voice recognition, but it's definitely the best one I've used to date.

The voice menu is accessed by clicking on the ear icon from the map menu, shown above in figure 49.

Voice Menu
Figure 50: Voice Menu

Clicking on the ear icon (shown in figure 49) activated the voice menu, shown above. One the voice menu is activated, the car begins "listening" for your command.

In order to test the voice recognition system, I'll enter a new address using only my voice. Note that when using the voice recognition, the system automatically lowers the stereo volume if any music is playing.

Speaking a Street Name
Figure 51: Speaking a Street Name

Entering a destination using voice recognition is identical to non-voice entered addresses, except you spell the words one letter at a time. As you speak each letter, the GPS displays the letter it heard so you can visually confirm it is hearing you correctly.

Using Voice Recognition To Choose A Street
Figure 52: Using Voice Recognition To Choose A Street

Once enough letters have been spoken that the GPS can narrow the results to a short list, a list of matching street names is automatically produced.

Notice that each street name is numbered; speaking the corresponding number selects that street. For example, in the figure above, speaking the word "six" will select "Central Square" as the desired street name.

Inputing Numbers with VR
Figure 53: Inputting Numbers with VR

Entering the house number with voice recognition is simple and works well.

Saving an Address
Figure 54: Saving an Address

Once an address has been fully entered, you can begin navigating to the entered address by saying "Yes", or save the destination into the address book by saying "Save destination".

Pros

  • Well-integrated with the rest of the car
  • Large, 8-inch color LCD display makes the map easy to read from either the driver or passenger seat
  • Dashboard display shows navigation prompts right under the speedometer, reducing the need to look at the 7-inch console display
  • GPS speed sensor connected to the airbag accelerometers, providing map tracking even when the GPS can't get satellite signal. This is especially handy when driving through long tunnels.
  • NAVTEQ mapping data
  • Mapping updates released every year
  • Navigation system integrated with the car's stereo speakers and hands-free speakerphone. The system even lowers music playback volume to announce a maneuver, then raises the volume back.
  • Good routing engine
  • GPS gives good amount of advance warning of a pending turn. For example, when driving on a highway, the GPS will announce the next maneuver at 3 miles, 1.5 miles, 1000 feet, and 250 feet
  • Display panel can be angled 20 degrees left or right for easier viewing from the driver's seat
  • Voice recognition works well and virtually all operations can be performed via voice
  • COMAND joystick controller conveniently located within arms reach for one-handed operation
  • Maps stored on internal 20-GB hard drive instead of slower DVD-ROM discs used on previous Mercedes systems
  • Supports multi-stop trips (only 2 stops can be entered)
  • Ability to use zip codes when entering an address
  • GPS positioning takes place even when COMAND is off
  • Supports off road navigation (although not to coordinates)

Cons

  • Overly complex instruction manual (it's more than 700 pages)
  • No easy way to view a turn-by-turn route summary
  • Address input is time consuming compared to other GPS systems
  • Map screen lacks essential pieces of information (no ETA, time to next turn, etc.)
  • Overly complex instruction manual (it's 700 pages long)
  • No 3D map view (2D only)
  • Erratic displaying of street names on the map. Sometimes you really want to see the street name, and the GPS just doesn't display the name, no matter what zoom level you choose
  • Map updates are expensive (~$200)
  • No real-time traffic data
  • LCD is not a touch screen. All controls are operated via iDrive-esque joystick
  • Cannot route to longitude/latitude coordinates
  • GPS signal performance not as strong as SiRF's StarIII
  • No route optimization feature (ability to enter a group of addresses and have the GPS order the stops in the most efficient manner)
  • Text-to-speech voice sounds computer generated, stilted
  • Relatively few configurable options
  • No ability to enter custom POIs
  • No ability to watch video on the 8-inch display (in the USA. Apparently the European version does allow this)
  • POI search results are listed alphabetically instead of by distance
  • POI database lacks phone numbers for businesses (restaurants, etc.)
  • Only 1.7 million POIs

CONCLUSION

For Mercedes-Benz fans, there is much to rejoice about in Mercedes' 9th generation (2007) S-Class. The car itself is an engineering masterpiece worthy of being called Mercedes' top model. This new model packs more electronics than any previous S-Class, and integrating all those systems into the new COMAND system was surely no easy task for MB engineers.

The GPS (NAVI) system itself is by far the nicest Mercedes has produced to date. A beautiful, bright 8-inch LCD panel is easy to see in even the brightest sunlight. The dated "soft keys" and "pushbutton switch" found on previous S-Class models have been replaced by the unified iDrive-like joystick. Although not popular with everyone, I actually found the new system considerably easier to use than previous systems. Menus are more intuitively named, and overall system performance is significantly improved thanks to a faster CPU and hard disk based storage instead of DVD-ROM discs used in the past.

The new NAVI system includes some welcome enhancements over previous versions, including multi-stop routing, hard drive based map storage, and voice recognition (that actually works) for operating the GPS hands-free.

The S-Class has lots going for it. Yet the GPS (NAVI) system lacks some basic features found on even the most inexpensive portable GPS units. For example, the map view is 2-D only. There is no 3-D aspect view. The POI database includes a paltry 1.7 million entries. Garmin's nuvi units, on the other hand, come pre-loaded with over 6 million POIs. There's also no way to tell the NAVI system if you prefer shortest distance, shortest time, least use of highway, or most use of highway when calculating the route the GPS will take. Real-time traffic information is also notably absent.

The 2007 S-Class is Mercedes' best NAVI GPS system to date, and a considerable update from previous models. However, in terms of ease of use and features, a portable GPS still comes out on top.