Maybe we've been driving too many very nice cars lately, but the 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550 didn't excite us much when it arrived in the garage. It's hard to follow acts like theand the , and we tend to like shorter, more nimble sports cars. But the SL550 won us over with its handling on winding mountain roads and its striking looks with the sun blazing overhead and a nice ocean-scape in the background.
We were also prepared to be disappointed in the car's cabin electronics when we saw the old-style Mercedes-Benz interface, a plastic OK button surrounded by four directional buttons. But delving into this system, we discovered updated electronics behind the rather poor front, including a hard drive-based navigation system, iPod integration, and Bluetooth cell phone support.
Test the tech: Nav-off
We put Mercedes-Benz's new navigation system to the test by pitting it against the . Generally, automakers are at a disadvantage over consumer electronics companies due to the difference in product cycles. A car model may be out for 5 years before it gets an update, while a portable GPS device might get displaced in six months by a newer model. And even though the system in the 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550 is new, the car still had to go through a couple years of development time. It seemed like the Nuvi 880 would have no problem beating the Mercedes-Benz system.
Both navigation systems show similar route-guidance graphics.
For our first test, we used the map input function to choose a location on one of our favorite mountain roads, Highway 9 heading down to Santa Cruz from Skyline. On the SL550's system, we had to put the system into map-entry mode, then use the directional buttons to scroll the map south and west from our current position. The large screen helped us keep an idea of where we were scrolling, and the hard drive refreshed the map quickly so we didn't have to wait for it to redraw. The Nuvi 880 uses a touch screen, which we had to continually drag south and west. The smaller screen made this task more difficult, but it also refreshed quickly. The Mercedes-Benz system had the advantage here.
The route was easy, but the Mercedes-Benz calculated it just a little faster than the Nuvi 880 did. Both GPS devices offered good graphics to display upcoming turns, but the Nuvi 880 was able to read out the names of streets, and also showed how many miles to the next turn, something missing in the SL550. We like the text-to-speech functionality of the Nuvi 880, so give it the advantage for route guidance.
We tried a few locations from both systems' points-of-interest databases, and immediately found that the Nuvi 880 was fuller than the SL550's. For example, it was easy to find a Home Depot hardware store with the Garmin, but the SL550 doesn't offer all shopping locations. As it was lunchtime, we settled on a local fast food place, which both systems were able to pinpoint. Each calculated different routes, but they had the same pros and cons. Just for its bigger points-of-interest database, the Nuvi 880 gets an advantage.
We get a little crazy and add a third navigation system to our setup.
For our final test, we added the, as we happened to have one on hand. With all three nav. systems running, we, of course, felt like total dorks, but programmed in the address for CNET headquarters anyway. The street address was easiest to enter with the SL550's system, as it had predictive text entry, not offered in the Garmin or TomTom. The Garmin was most optimistic about our ETA, while the TomTom suggested the trip would take longer. But none of the system's ETAs were anywhere near accurate, as there was a big traffic snarl when we hit San Francisco. Both the TomTom and Garmin have traffic capability, which we hadn't connected, while the SL550 doesn't, giving the advantage to the portable devices.
In performance and interface usability, we felt the SL550 had the clear advantage, but the portable systems both offered more fringe benefits, such as extra points of interest, traffic, and text-to-speech. Route guidance was pretty comparable between the systems.
In the cabin
The white leather and wood trim in the cabin of the 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550 gives the car an appropriately luxurious look, but we were thrown off by the plastic switchgear for the cabin electronics and the decidedly cheap feeling of the climate controls. Our test car came with Mercedes-Benz's Air Scarf system, which blows warm air around your neck so you can drive with the top down in colder weather. But it didn't seem to work as well as that same system in the we tested previously, which might have to do with the cabin configuration.
These vents blow warm air on your neck, making cold weather drives with the top down comfortable.