2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 Convertible review: 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 Convertible

Dashboard technology and Comand Online
So far, I've had nothing but praise for the SL550 Roadster -- all of which is well-deserved, this is an impressive ride. However, things start to fall a bit flat in the cabin where the tech is concerned. Now I assume that the sort of person who buys a status symbol that starts above the $100K mark doesn't care about such things, but infotainment, particularly the new Comand Online feature, is the SL's Achilles' heel.

At its core, the SL's infotainment system is based on Mercedes-Benz' Comand interface, utilizing the now familiar console-mounted Comand control dial and a three-level Comand onscreen interface. The thing is that even though it's been around for almost a decade, I find that Comand is a challenge to get the hang of again every time I settle behind the wheel of a Benz. There's just too much dial-twisting, list-scrolling, and button-pushing to access basic features like switching audio sources or changing the map mode. The problem is that Mercedes-Benz has been constantly adding features to Comand, but hasn't really rethought the way it organizes all of that new information, which leads to the bloated and poorly organized system that we see in today's SL. We'll come back this shortly.

COMAND interface
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The Comand system should be familiar by now, but it suffers from feature bloat and poor organization. Josh Miller/CNET

Fortunately, there's a voice entry screen with above-average accuracy to rescue you from the hell of inputting a street address using the Comand controller. Drivers should take advantage of this system at every opportunity. I only wish there were more ways to use voice input for some of the more advanced features offered in this dashboard.

Comand provides navigation with traffic data. The map is crisply rendered, but (despite Comand being equipped with a data connection) lacks any sort of topographic or Google satellite imagery.

Audio sources include a six-disc DVD changer with MP3 and DVD-Audio playback, an iPod/MP3 media interface with a 30-pin dock connector and a USB connection in the center console, an SD card interface on the dashboard for audio playback, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, a chunk of the navigation system's hard drive dedicated to audio ripping and storage, and terrestrial AM/FM tuning with HD Radio decoding. Bluetooth hands-free calling with address book sync and Bluetooth A2DP audio streaming round out the SL550's standard audio sources that feed the standard Harman Kardon Logic7 5.1 surround-sound system. This audio rig features a nice feature called FrontBass that adds two 8.5-inch speakers mounted ahead of the driving position to create what Mercedes calls "a concert hall ambiance in a roadster." I think that's a bit hyperbolic, but the system does sound great.

Drivers who truly want that "concert hall ambiance" can elect to drop the extra dough on the optional 900-watt, 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen uberpremium audio system, which bests the Harman Kardon system by 300 watts, with two additional speakers, and with higher-quality components. It's also an additional $6,400 over the already premium Harman system.

The SL is one of the first new Mercedes-Benz vehicles to feature the new Comand Online connectivity suite, which includes an always-on data connection and a host of new Web-connected services such as Google Local Search, News, Yelp search, and Facebook. Unfortunately, here is where things really go wrong for Comand.

comand onlin
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The new Comand Online system is the weak link in the Benz' dashboard experience. Josh Miller/CNET

The main problem with Comand Online is that it is agonizingly slow. Just getting from the main Comand interface to the Comand Online home screen takes you through a 30-second load screen. Popping into any of the submenus takes an additional 5 to 10 seconds, which means that getting from the main map screen to the point where you can actually input a Google Search term can take over a minute, which is forever in car time and an eternity in consumer tech time. The fact that the system (rightly) locks you out of most of Comand Online's major functions when the vehicle is in motion means that in most cases it's faster to just whip out your smartphone to make that Facebook status update.

If you don't mind waiting (and are the only person reading CNET who doesn't have a smartphone), Comand Online lets you, first, use Google Search to find points of interest near a location. You can input search terms or select from a list of the most popular or your most recent search terms. Once the destination is selected from the list of results, you can call the location using the hands-free system, set the location as a destiation for navigation, add the location to your address book, or view a 360-degree Google Street View or collection of nearby Panoramio photos. It's slow, but Google search is useful.

Also useful is the Yelp integration, which gives another way to search for nearby businesses. However, I did run into a bit of weirdness here as well. Now, I'm not sure how the Yelp search algorithm works, but a search in the area of Oakland, Calif., for the popular and highly rated Zachary's Chicago Pizza yielded no results that matched the search term. While most of the results were for pizza places, the algorithm seems to place proximity to the Oakland city center at a higher importance than matching the search term to the title. After five pages of scrolling, I noticed that one of the results was for a popular Oakland bakery called Bakesale Betty, which is definitely not a pizza place, and decided to give up and just grab one of Betty's famous chicken sandwiches instead. For every Yelp entry found, I was able to view an average Yelp rating on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, see the total number of reviews submitted, read the most recent three reviews posted, view a photo or a Google Street View view, call the location using hands-free calling, or import the destination into the Benz' main address book.

The news app seemed to be the least useful portion of Comand Online system. From here, I could select from a number of news categories to view the latest headlines and read the top news stories on the SL's color screen. There didn't appear to be any sort of text-to-speech option to have the stories read aloud while I drove, but I was given the option to have any of those stories e-mailed to a preselected e-mail address for later reading.

Facebook in the dash
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Facebook integration is broad, but hindered by ridiculously slow performance. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Facebook integration is the most ambitious part of Comand Online, but also the bit that's most plagued by slow load times. From the Facebook menu, I was able to view nearby locations and check in, find locations that friends had checked into, view my news feed of friends' subscribed status updates and Like those that interested me, view nearby events that I'd RSVP'd to and navigate there, update my own status, and view the Mercedes-Benz Facebook fan page. The status update function allows users to choose from a few canned messages, such as "I'm currently stuck in traffic near [current location]," but there is the option to input a custom message using the Comand controller while the vehicle is stopped. Take my advice and just don't bother. I was able to input "I'm updating my status with the COMAND system in the Mercedes-Benz SL550. Don't worry, the car is p" before I reached the 100-character cap, and just those few words took about 5 to 7 minutes to input.

One particularly frustrating element of Comand Online is the inconsistent behavior of the Comand controller's back button compared with the rest of the Comand interface. On any other screen, the back button takes you backward one step in your current menu, but when online, the back button takes you all of the way back to the Comand Online home screen. For example, if you're viewing a friend's Facebook status update and tap the back button on the Comand controller (rather then selecting the virtual back button on the screen), you'll be kicked all the way back to the main menu, which means that you have to navigate through the menus again (and wait through all of the loading screens again) to get back to the list of Facebook statuses. This may seem like a nitpicky thing, but it makes the entire interface more difficult to deal with. After one too many accidental taps of the back button, out came my smartphone, which was infinitely better suited for social networking and searching while parked.

Similar app integration and connected services from the likes of Audi and BMW are noticeably faster and more inviting experiences than Comand Online. I also dislike that Mercedes' connected services seem to be sequestered from the rest of the entertainment experience. You gain no observable benefit in the form of more accurate traffic on the map screen or satellite imagery. You have to leave the navigation system and explicitly enter the Comand Online system to search for a destination. As a result I think most users will probably forget that it there after the first couple of weeks, especially because it's such a frustrating endeavor to use.

SL550 parked
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Fortunately, the issues with the technology paled in comparison with the rest of the SL driving experience. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In sum
The SL550 is a brilliant automobile. Sure, Comand Online is a train wreck, but it doesn't ruin the vehicle that Mercedes' chassis and engine engineers and designers have built around it. There's just so much to like about being behind the wheel of a big, red Benz that I find myself over 3,000 words into this review and I haven't even touched on the safety features such as the Mbrace telematics system, the lane-keep assistance system, the precollision warning system, the blind-spot monitoring, and the rearview camera with proximity detection and Parktronic parking assistance. If they never venture into the Comand Online menu, I think most owners will be pleased with their SL550 Roadster purchase -- at least until they see someone valeting an SL63 AMG.

Our 2013 model started at $105,500 before adding $900 for its premium leather interior. Illuminated door sills and an analog clock on the dashboard are take-it-or-leave-it options that add $350 and $250 to the bottom line, respectively. The Magic Sky Control glass roof is a nice party trick that will cost you $2,500, but if you're like me, you'll be spending too much time with the top down to really take advantage of it. The easy-as-ABC adaptive suspension is a $4,090 option, and a $4,900 Premium package adds Air Scarf, cooled seats, massage seats, keyless entry, and the rearview camera/proximity detection system that will keep you from scuffing the SL's pretty red paint. Blind-spot monitoring and precollision detection are part of a $2,950 Driver Assistance package and an additional $2,000 gets you the 19-inch AMG wheels with stickier tires and a host of go-faster and look-faster bits. Toss in a $905 destination charge to reach our as-tested price of $124,345.

That's a pretty penny -- certainly too rich for my blood -- but cars like the SL550 Roadster are all about a feeling, not a value, and this Roadster feels like it's worth it.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 Roadster
Trim n/a
Power train 4.6-liter biturbo V-8, RWD, 7-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 16 city, 24 highway, 19 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy n/a
Navigation Standard, HDD-based
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player 6-disc DVD changer
MP3 player support Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio, HD Radio
Audio system 10-speaker, 600-watt Harman Kardon Logic7 5.1 surround with FrontBass
Driver aids Rear camera, proximity detection (4 corners), blind-spot monitoring, lane keep assistant, adaptive cruise control, precollision warning, Attention Assist driver alertness monitoring
Base price $105,500
Price as tested $124,345

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