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Hands-On With Audi's Latest MMI System

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With the new A8, Audi is set to debut the latest version of its knob-based MMI system. It’s an enhanced version of the third-generation system – “gen-three plus,” marketing head Mischa Ehlers called it – that arrived across a number of other Audis in the U.S. about a year ago. At Audi’s display in Detroit’s Cobo Center, we had a chance to check it out.

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MMI has more shortcut buttons than competing BMW iDrive and Mercedes Comand systems. It’s easier to jump to specific menus, but there’s a lot of button clutter to sort through. The latest versions arrange things more logically, at least, placing audio controls into a separate cluster. That leaves the MMI knob front and center, flanked on the left by a new touch-pad. The pad uses black-panel technology to display six radio presets – you tap on the preset number to go to that station – or revert to a blank tablet for inputting navigation destinations or other letter-heavy functions.

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If you’re a veteran of PDA styluses, you should have no problem inputting letters for a navigation destination. It’s far easier than selecting them with the knob, though you can do that, too. The system on display picked up most of my letters, but it wasn’t perfect, mistaking a B for an M on one occasion. So you can keep your eyes on the road, MMI audibly repeats the letter you’ve inputted. (If you’re entering a navigation destination, though, you really should pull over or let a passenger lend a hand.) Deleting what you wrote is a simple PDA-style reverse dash; adding a space bar, however, requires going to a separate menu, not inputting a forward dash.

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The pad also enables directional scrolling on the navigation map – effectively replacing the short joystick atop the gen-three MMI knob – and allows a few cool freehand movements, like navigating a DVD menu or flipping iPhone-style through your albums. A number of functions still require the MMI knob, though. For example, you cannot zip through setup or navigation menus with the touch-pad. “We want to have the six radio stations available most of the time because this is the feedback we’ve gotten from customers,” Ehlers said.

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Mercedes’ Comand still feels more intuitive, but Audi gets style points for this latest MMI. The system’s graphics are still top-notch, but that’s no longer becoming a differentiator — rival systems look equally sharp. The touch-pad is a nice touch, and once you get the hang of it, inputting a destination is as easy as using a touch-screen keyboard. But I’ve never been a fan of throwing radio presets on a screen, touch-pad or otherwise – it’s hard to feel out the individual buttons without looking down – so I’ll have to get some time behind the wheel of an A8 before deciding. Ehlers said the enhanced MMI will be standard on the A8; we can probably expect it to arrive on other Audis in 2011 and beyond.

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Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price. Email Kelsey Mays

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