I WONDER if we realise just how fast the age of electronic communication is taking over our lives, and shaping them and ruining them. Unless you are a slipper and sherry enthusiast, you will be aware of a computer game called Call of Duty. The idea is simple. You run about shooting people in the face with a selection of large weapons. And then, if you believe the nonsense, you go out for a pizza and are overwhelmed by a sudden need to stamp on a tramp.
Of course, you can play by yourself or with friends. But, staggeringly, you can also play against unseen people in Canada or Israel or Siberia. It is incredible. And all the people you’re trying to kill are being operated by unseen tramp-stampers in sitting rooms and shops and offices all over the world. If you have a microphone, you can even speak to them as you play, whooping whenever you fire a 12-gauge shotgun directly into their testes.
Unfortunately, like nearly everything powered by ones and noughts, it sounds brilliant but it doesn’t quite work. You start the game. It tells you it’s searching for other people in the world. It finds some. It does some electronic wizardry. And then it says the connection has been lost. So you go through the process again. And then again. And then again. And then you have a game of Scrabble instead.
We see the same thing with wireless routers. Wonderful. A must-have accessory. But, as I’ve said many times before, they work 10% of the time and you spend the other 90% of your life with your head in a cupboard, on the phone to a man in India. The problem is, of course, that electronics companies always want to be first with a new idea. So the idea makes it onto the market before it’s completely ready. This is why nothing electronic ever quite works.
Satellite navigation is a prime example of this. In the early days it was hopeless and would try to send you through Leicester Square, which was pedestrianised by William Pitt. The system in my last car refused to acknowledge there was such a thing as the M40. And we were constantly reading stories about people who’d obeyed the electronic voice of reason and ended up in a river, with a crab in their nose. But that was probably their fault for being idiotic.
Today you’d imagine that all of the mapping issues had been resolved, and to a certain extent they have. But the back-room boys — the sort of chap who wears a black T-shirt, lives with his mum and doesn’t wash terribly often — are always shoehorning new submenus into the setup. And those are being rushed out as well.
Take the traffic warning technology. The idea is that the map informs you of hold-ups ahead so that you can plan a route around them. Very clever. It cuts congestion, saves fuel, spares your temper and keeps the polar bears happy. But the system in the Mercedes CLS that I’ve been driving for the past week is forever getting its northbound and its southbound muddled up. Which means I spend an hour dribbling along a country lane, with my door mirrors in the blackberry bushes, avoiding a queue that is going the other way.
What’s more, a stern-sounding woman interrupts Chris Evans to say in a weird voice that there is a queue ahead. She even gives you the average speed in the queue and adjusts your estimated time of arrival accordingly. Because of one of her warnings last week, I realised that I would not make it to the restaurant I’d booked before it shut. So I called to cancel the reservation, phoned home to disappoint the children and plodded onwards towards the jam. WHICH WASN’T BLOODY THERE.
There’s more. One of the features provided is a list of all the restaurants in the area. It asks what sort of food you want and then takes you to the nearest eatery that is equipped to help. The trouble is that people only ever want Chinese, French, Italian or Indian. But it would be racist to limit the list to just four options. So, to keep everyone happy, it comes up with every single country in the world. If you have a modern Mercedes and you live in the highlands of Scotland, do please enter “Balkan” and let me know what on earth it comes up with.
I was also amused by the other things it will help you find. Many are useful. Hospitals, police stations and so on. It will even help you locate the nearest mosque, which is clearly important if the sun is going down and you are a Muslim. But then the black T-shirt brigade obviously thought: “Uh-oh. We can’t list just mosques, because it looks as though we are favouring the children of Muhammad over those who support other teams.” So, it will also find the nearest synagogue. But — black mark here — it does not seem to think that Methodist chapels are worthy of a mention.
Also, it could not find the Devils Dyke pub on Devils Dyke Road, just north of Brighton. And it will not let you enter a seven-character postcode. It ended up making me very angry. The command-and-control system in my old Mercedes is very good. This new one? It’s so clever, it’s actually a drooling vegetable.
And then we have the phone system. Until very recently Mercedes fitted an actual telephone that was hardwired into the car. What that did was work. Now the nerds in the back room have decided that Bluetooth is good enough. It isn’t. People speaking on Bluetooth sound like deep-sea divers, and that’s when they’re both in an anechoic chamber. Communicating with someone in a car on Bluetooth is like trying to communicate with a corpse. Electronically, then, the Mercedes CLS has taken a couple of steps forwards and about five in the other direction.
It’s the same story with the shape. The original CLS is said to have been designed by a young stylist who wanted to see how a Jaguar would look if it were made by Mercedes. It was weird, but undeniably attractive. From the front the new one is even better, but, as with other new Mercs, there’s a styling detail over the rear wheelarch that simply doesn’t work at all. Styling details need to be there for a reason — a hump in the bonnet hints at great power beneath, for instance — but this one is just fatuous. I pretty much hate it.
I also hate the gearbox. The old seven-speed auto has been replaced with the double-clutch flappy-paddle system found in the SLS. It’s electronic, so it works well, except when you are in town going slowly. Then it’s jerky and unwilling to respond when you want to exploit a gap in the traffic.
The rest of the car, though. Wow. It’s been festooned inside and out with lots of neat bits of jewellery that stop just short of being blingy and, in the case of the CLS I’ve been driving, add £27,000 to the £80,000 price tag. And then there’s the engine. It’s AMG’s new twin-turbo V8 — with, on my test car, a performance upgrade to 550bhp and 590 lb ft — and it’s much more muted than the old 6.2. Under big acceleration you still get some machinegun noises from the tailpipes, but it’s quieter, more civilised. I’d go so far as to call the driving experience imperious. When slower drivers see this coming, they get out of the way in a big hurry. You feel a bit like Idi Amin. Or was that just me?
Overall, however, I think that some of the original CLS’s appeal has been lost. And, as a result, if I wanted to buy a big, stylish four-door saloon, I’d just walk past this and go for the Maserati Quattroporte.