By Tony Whitney

I guess you’d have to be living on another planet not to know at least a little about the phenomenal success of Apple’s iPod MP3 music player system. The iPod has become something of a modern-day talisman – a “must have” for the young or the young at heart and a product that’s probably won more media coverage than almost any device in the history of electronics. Although it started as a youth market product, usage has spread to every imaginable demographic and two of the most dedicated iPodders I know are both over 60.

The iPod is not only a thoroughly well-thought-out music playing system that has sold in the millions, it’s also a brilliant piece of industrial design – whichever model you look at. The top iPod photo model will accommodate something like 15,000 songs (60 gigabytes of storage) and even a basic mini version will easily carry 1,000.

Given this impressive capability, it’s not surprising that automakers have been falling over one another to develop iPod compatible vehicles. After all, if you were planning a long trip, which would be your choice – dozens of CDs scattered around the car interior or a tiny iPod packed with hundreds, or even thousands, of easily-accessible pieces of music.

Several automakers have already offered models with some kind of iPod compatibility, but Mercedes-Benz is claiming that the most advanced system yet is being made available with its upcoming B-Class models. I recently evaluated both the B-Class and its iPod interface and both came out looking very good indeed.

The B-Class is what Mercedes calls a “sports tourer” and will be the German automaker’s entry-level automobile. It’s a surprisingly roomy 4-door hatchback and promises to appeal to a new group of younger buyers not previously Mercedes customers – hence the iPod interface.

i-Pod set up
i-Pod set up. Photo: Mercedes-Benz. Click image to enlarge

Mercedes’ iPod interface is located in the glove box and you simply plug your iPod into it. It will also charge up the iPod batteries, even while music is being played. It creates what Mercedes calls “a veritable audio archive on wheels” and that’s quite a good way of putting it. I don’t know how much space you’d need to stow CDs carrying 15,000 songs, but it’d probably be considerable (Mercedes estimates five standard pieces of luggage).

Once the iPod is plugged into the car, it’s automatically linked to the audio system and the driver navigates around the iPod menu (it’s normally shown on a screen on the device itself) using buttons on the standard-fit multifunction steering wheel. The central display on the dashboard, between the major instrument dials, provides the driver with all relevant menu and music track information – song title, artist and play mode. Songs can be skipped or repeated and volume is also operated from the steering wheel. Incidentally, hooking up the iPod does not cut out the existing CD changer because the interface kit is connected separately to the audio system. Neither does it affect the functions of the navigation system, if fitted.

2006 Mercedes-Benz B-Class
2006 Mercedes-Benz B-Class. Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

There’s been much talk in recent times about driver distraction, but at least the iPod interface in the B-Class places all information in a very easy-to-scan location. And the steering wheel controls mean that the driver doesn’t have to reach over to the central console or information panel to operate the sound system. With a bit of familiarization, I found that the whole process was very intuitive and easy to use. The iPod itself is a simple device to figure out and transferring your “expertise” to a vehicle application is a snap. The system works with Generation 3 or higher Apple iPods, iPod minis, iPod photos and U2 models. The accessory will be available from Mercedes-Benz dealers and ultimately, the system will be available for many other models from this automaker.

According to Apple Computer, many automakers have some kind of iPod interface available, or are planning to offer one. In addition to Mercedes-Benz, both BMW and Mini have been iPod compatibility pioneers and other automakers will surely follow. There are also aftermarket kits available for both Apple and other makers’ MP3 players, though I haven’t tried any of those.

It’s worth adding that if you own an iPod, there’s another way of playing its stored music in your vehicle. I have a Griffin iTrip, which attaches neatly to my iPod mini and plays music wirelessly through an unused (or weak) FM band on the vehicle sound system. The advantage of this type of system is that you can carry your iPod from car to car and simply tune in to the FM station you’ve set and play your tunes. The disadvantage is that if you drive into an area where the FM channel you’ve chosen is in use, your music will battle for clarity with whatever radio station uses that wavelength. Even so, it’s an inexpensive and simple way of getting the best out of your iPod in a vehicle that doesn’t have built-in compatibility.

Of course, there many excellent MP3 players on the market besides iPods and some can be used with an aftermarket vehicle interface, but it’s the Apple system that’s gained most attention from automakers.

Incidentally, audio manufacturer Alpine, which produces OEM sound systems for several automakers, has an iPod interface kit for some 2004 and all 2005 aftermarket sound system units. Other audio firms are following suit.

Things are changing in the car audio field and there are certainly some exciting times ahead for music-lovers who like to take their favourite tunes with them wherever they drive.

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