Eerie though it is, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class can see things before its driver.
A total 28 cameras, radars and sensors surround the sixth-generation S-Class, some of which are responsible for a duo of world-first technologies – Magic Body Control, where the windshield camera reads the road ahead and adjusts the dampers as it hits bumps; and Night View Assist Plus, which in the dark highlights pedestrians and animals in red on the colour display and flashes pedestrians only (animals get scared, apparently) with a particular strand of headlight beam.
When things aren’t going as planned, a rear seatbelt airbag and anti-submarining reclining seat airbag are other pioneering systems synonymous with the new generation of Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The technology (well, the active systems we tried!) works brilliantly.
Other safety stuff, which comes under the banner Mercedes-Benz Intelligent Drive, has already made its debut in the facelifted E-Class; Mercedes-Benz says the days when S-Class eventually trickled down technology to other models has tightened to the point where the safety kit designed for it this time around could also slip easily into the smaller E.
Driver-focused safety tech includes lane keeping assistance, which first buzzes the steering wheel then subtly applies one-side braking if it detects lane wander; distronic plus that between zero and 200km/h acts as an extended cruise control that follows the car in front (only if it is between white lines) or the white lines themselves and subtly moves the steering to keep the driver in the lane even around slight bends; and active high beam assist, which ‘blocks out’ the part of the beam only that affects the oncoming car.
There are also secondary active safety features that protects the S-Class from intrusions with third parties, including pre-safe plus, which detects if a rear collision is imminent and first flashes the rear hazard lights then tightens seatbelts and locks the brakes; pre-safe auto braking which avoids forward collisions – and for the first time detects pedestrians – at up to 50km/h and significantly reduces the impact at up to 72km/h; and cross-traffic assist that detects cars coming through intersections from each side and warns the driver (but doesn’t yet brake).
In foreign markets, Intelligent Drive will be optional, and Mercedes-Benz Australia is yet to confirm what will be standard locally, except to say our cars will be more highly specified compared with other markets.
For a tech-icon like the S-Class, the smart safety gear really should be standard.
The only thing that definitely won’t be available is traffic sign assist, which detects and displays speed signs, no-overtaking zones and no-entry signs, because Australia is too-inconsistent with signs. Unfortunate, but typical of our backward backwater nation.
For Australia, the first all-new S-Class in seven years will be available from the fourth quarter of this year in S350 Bluetec 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 and S500 4.7-litre twin-turbo petrol V8 specification in either short or long-wheelbase form.
Both were tested by CarAdvice at the international launch in Toronto, Canada, this week, in addition to the S300 Hybrid, which uses a 2.1-litre twin-turbo diesel four-cylinder and electric motor, but won’t arrive locally until the second quarter of next year.
Although the S63 AMG is set to arrive before the S300, between October and December this year, it hasn’t yet been released and wasn’t available to drive. Also arriving alongside the S300 between April and June will be the V12-engined S600 which is also yet to debut.
Perhaps even more impressive than the armour of safety equipment is the new S-Class interior.
Word is that the interior was designed for the next Maybach, but when that program was pulled, the finished product slipped into the cheaper S-Class.
It certainly seems that way. This is a cabin to make a Range Rover’s feel dated, a masterful modern interpretation of retro themes and a near-perfect blend of tones, textures and technologies.
There are few cars that can make a two-spoke steering wheel look cool, yet the S-Class does.
The circular vents are elegant and slick to rotate, again hinting at older design themes but executed with utter polish.
The cross-hatch leather dashboard stitching is optional, however, and the standard dashboard with slightly coarser leather-look grain fails to have the same high-grade effect – though again it is unclear what will be standard on what models locally.
Twin colour screens are both 12.3 inches in size, one showing the speedometer and tachometer, with trip/nav/night view functions in between, and the other displaying the Mercedes-Benz COMAND centre.
Each screen sits simply beside the other, and both are slightly raised from the dash, creating an elegant ‘floating’ effect.
The best part is that there is no fussiness, no button overload or overdone design. The COMAND system works simply, although a single gripe is that there is no climate control button to change the vent direction – it can only be accessed through the Climate menu.
As you’d expect in what is often a chauffeur-driven car, the seats both front and rear are superb and, depending on the model, they can warm, cool or massage your buttocks with various modes available.
Twin screens (optionally) entertain the rear occupants placed in either a static bench, or optional individual seats (37-degree recline or 43.5 degrees). Also available is an aircraft-inspired 'First-Class rear suite' with full-length console, chilled or heated cupholders and twin tables. An iPhone app can even remotely change seat (and other) settings…
One large (small) caveat is a lack of boot space (only 510 litres in either short-wheelbase or long-wheelbase) and no split-fold rear seat capability. For a car stretching beyond five metres, it offers sub-large-car cargo carrying capacity.
If the interior rivals the safety story as the most impressive aspect of the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, then the aforementioned Magic Body Control trumps both.
Let’s quickly note the drivetrains, all of which are excellent, but none of which are new. With 190kW of power and 620Nm of torque, and rated at 5.5L/100km combined, the 3.0-litre turbo diesel V6 is an ultra-quiet, smooth-spinning device that also shifts the 1995kg sedan – 50kg less than before – from standstill to 100km/h in 6.8 seconds.
The most remarkable drivetrain is the S300 Hybrid, which has a 150kW combined system output and claims 4.4L/100km. But it also sounds a bit weedy and, well, four-cylinder-diesel-like when pressed. It runs a fluent automatic with seven gears, as with the rest of the range, but it also decouples from the engine when coasting to further save fuel.
The S300 and S350 have all the motivation an S-Class needs, but the 4.7-litre twin-turbo petrol V8 may be the engine well-heeled buyers will want.
With 335kW at 5250-5500rpm and 700Nm from 1800rpm to 3500rpm, the S500 runs 0-100km/h in 4.8 seconds, yet its 8.6L/100km claimed consumption isn’t too outrageous (although we saw 12.2L/100km during mostly freeway and backroad driving).
The V8 also sounds terrific, still quiet but with a timbre thicker than a Canadian cedar log house.
The best reason to choose the V8 isn’t for the extra performance, however, but rather because it is the only one available with optional Magic Body Control (MBC). The regular cars ride as superbly as many modern-day Mercedes-Benz models like the C-Class and E-Class do. But with MBC, the S-Class becomes quite possibly the finest-riding car in the world.
Using the front windshield camera to look 15 metres in front of the car, the computer then ‘reads’ the road surface depth and calculates when the front and rear wheels will hit the bump. The dampers can then ready themselves for the best possible response to the bump.
Over a speed hump in the regular S350, there’s a slight hint of float on rebound. In the S500 with sport mode activated (which deactivates MBC) the same bump was securely, but still comfortably dealt with. In Comfort with MBC active, however, the speed hump simply felt like a road plate. Apparently, the shocks electronically ‘pull’ themselves up when the bump is hit, then ‘push’ back down on the descent, keeping the body untouched. It is flawless.
Although our test drive in Canada bypassed most twisty roads, one particular detour over bumpy and tight bitumen revealed the short-wheelbase S300 Hybrid to be sweetly balanced, controlled, compliant and surprisingly light on its feet. In every S-Class, the electro-mechanical steering is beautifully judged – light, consistent, quick-ish and direct.
While the standard Mercedes-Benz S-Class models are impressive, it’s the S500 with the up-spec interior, full suite of safety gear and Magic Body Control that makes it a solid five-star car.
But a full score requires more time behind the wheel, and is largely dependent on whether Mercedes-Benz Australia can make the most noteworthy technology standard. In its full specification, the new S-Class leaps beyond its BMW 7 Series and Audi A8 rivals, and steps into territory once occupied by Maybach…