There’s a lot to say about Mercedes-Benz’s US-bound A-Class. It’s a car of many firsts: The first A-Class model to appear in the US when it hits dealerships later this year; the first A-Class sedan, well, ever (earlier Euro-spec models were glorious hatchbacks). And since we’ve been dutifully tracking the ways our cars are becoming more like smartphones, it’s important to note that this is the first vehicle to feature Mercedes’ voice-driven MBUX interface.
That might not seem particularly impressive when you consider the A-Class — the carmaker’s least-expensive luxury vehicle — also packs a more-than-capable straight-four turbo engine under the hood. But Mercedes’ goal with the A-Class was to capture the imaginations of a new breed of luxury-car owners: They’re younger, they have more nuanced expectations from their devices, and Mercedes is keen on keeping them for life. No wonder the infotainment system has received so much attention.
Smartphones have raised the bar for the kind of thoughtfulness people expect from their devices, and Mercedes seems to understand that very well. As a result, you can issue commands to the A-Class with a simple “Hey, Mercedes.” Importantly, commands that deal specifically with the car’s hardware are processed immediately without pinging a far-flung server, to ensure your cabin temperature is just right as quickly as possible.
Other tasks, like asking Mercedes to show you nearby restaurants on its spacious, center-mounted touchscreen, do require the car to pass your query to the cloud. The A-Class we tried was unfortunately stuck on the roof of an overly fancy Brooklyn hotel and running European software, so we couldn’t get a proper feel for the hardware or software just yet. That said, I’ve jumped into my fair share of new, smarter cars (a fringe benefit of being one of the few Engadget NY employees with a driver’s license), and little I’ve seen out there compares to MBUX’s thoughtful utility.
The “Hey, Mercedes” commands worked surprisingly well when automotive journalists weren’t jabbering in the back seat, and a company spokesperson confirmed that none of the car’s interface methods get locked out while the car is in motion. For better or worse, that means you — or whoever is in your passenger seat — is free to browse the web on Google Chrome while barreling down I-95.
Best of all, MBUX is capable of surprising intelligence. Over time, the system adapts to your behavior and personalizes your driving experience. Are there certain songs you like to listen to on your commute to and from work? Are there certain people you call at specific times? These are factors MBUX takes into account, and as a result, it feels like the most seamless in-car control experience I’ve come across yet. It’s not dramatically different from interacting with Siri or Google’s Assistant, and considering its a car maker, that’s among the highest compliments I’m able