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For a remarkably affordable price, the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport model gives you better cabin tech than we've seen in Mercedes-Benz models costing more than $100,000. To be fair, the C300 is a 2008 model, and we've only seen 2007 models so far (of the more-upscale models). But the way cabin tech upgrades go, it might be a couple of model years before we see these tech upgrades in something like the CL550.
Mercedes-Benz seriously updated its C-class for 2008, and now offers the C300 Sport, the C300 Luxury, and the C350 Sport, all in sedan form. For stylistic differentiation, the Sport model gets a three-bar grille with a big Mercedes-Benz badge in the middle, while the Luxury trim gets the badge as a hood ornament. We were very impressed with the C300 Sport we tested, which sits at the bottom of Mercedes-Benz's U.S. lineup. Along with its new cabin tech features, it drives very well, presenting some serious competition, both in performance and price, to Infiniti's G series.
Test the tech: Voice versus buttons
When we got the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300, we noticed that its voice command system worked very well, offering a lot of intuitive commands to control the navigation, audio, and phone systems. And we also took note of the updated COMAND system, a knob on the console that mimics the interface in the S550 and CL550. To test out both systems, we selected a guinea pig from the office here, one of our colleagues who was unfamiliar with both interfaces. We wanted to compare the interfaces and also see how a novice handled them.
Her next task was finding a music station she liked on Sirius Satellite Radio. Using the dial and buttons of the COMAND system, she quickly found the audio selection menu, moved to the Electronic channels category, and selected Area 33, taking only 26 seconds. Using voice command she was helped along by screen prompts showing available commands, but instead of dialing right to her station, she used the Next Station and Previous Station commands to find Area 33, taking 1 minute, 20 seconds. She could have saved some time by issuing the command "Station Area 33," which this voice command system understands. That's two points for COMAND over voice.
In the cabin
The cabin of the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300 uses a lot of cool, new features. We're very pleased that Mercedes-Benz updated the COMAND interface, improving the switchgear and the software interface over what's found in other lower-end Mercedes-Benz models. We've too often seen the faded blue maps and fiddly plastic joysticks in cars sporting the tri-star. The updated system uses better-looking maps, a more refined audio and phone interface, and the console-mounted knob and back button.
And, as a step up from more expensive models, the C300 gets a hard drive-based navigation system. This means faster response times and no extra slot for a map DVD. Although we think the look of the maps is definitely improved, we are a little annoyed that you have to put the map view on maximum zoom to see all street names. Fortunately, a mere twist of the COMAND knob zooms the map in all the way. Generally we found entering destinations easy, although, as illustrated above, just entering in the name of a particular POI didn't produce results. We're also surprised that, with all the space afforded on a har-ddrive system, it doesn't include POIs for most retail stores. Instead, it just gives you a category named "Shopping Centers."
We liked the system's route guidance. For one test, we drove the car down the coast, on Highway 1, then set a destination using the map. We were easily able to move the map around, picking a spot on a particular road. With the destination set, the system quickly computed a route, highlighting it in blue. The system also let us browse through a few alternative routes. Once begun, the system's female voice gave us ample warning of upcoming turns. However, it doesn't have text-to-speech, so it wouldn't try to pronounce the names of streets.