Mercedes- Benz S-Class

Semi-autonomous tech makes this your (big) ticket to ride

PETER ROBINSON

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE SUCH is the complexity of the range and options available on this facelifted S-Class, that Mercedes- Benz claims no two cars built will be identical. When the updated version of the classic German luxury sedan goes on sale in Australia in December, it will offer six separate engines across a smorgasbord of models: S350d; S400d LWB; S450 LWB; S560; S560 LWB; AMG S63 LWB and, finally, the S650 Maybach – the only V12 to survive a cull of models at the very top end of the sedan range.

Underneath the familiar exterior appearance, refreshed by a prominent chrome grille, modified bumpers, and new LED headlights and tail-light graphics, is a subtly updated version of the previous S-Class’s MRA platform shared with the smaller C- and E-Classes, with unique S-Class structural components at the rear.

While the S-Class gets Air Body Control air suspension as standard, unlike the threechamber system unveiled in the latest E-Class, the S-Class maintains the simpler single chamber air suspension set-up of the old model. Inevitably, the S-Class’ electrical architecture has been significantly upgraded, and predictably, it now supports the widest range of driver assistance systems of any Mercedes.

We drove a variety of engines at the international launch, but with the 400d LWB – boasting a 3165mm wheelbase, 130mm more than the standard-bodied version – expected to be the local best seller, we focused on its new 2.9-litre twin-turbo inline six-cylinder diesel that replaces the old 3.0-litre V6. All S-Class models sold in Australia are reardrive, as the 4Matic in this test car is limited to left-hand drive setups (at least until the next-gen model).

The new powerplant delivers 250kW (up 10 percent) between 3600-4400rpm and a mighty 700Nm across a range from 1200- 3200rpm. It features a stepped bowl combustion process, multichannel exhaust gas recirculation system, and, for the first time, variable valve lift control.

The cabin feels utterly isolated from the dramas of the outside world

Significant as the performance and economy are (0-100km/h in 5.4sec, 5.2L/100km combined consumption), it’s the new engine’s refinement and smoothness that really impresses.

In this respect, it’s a huge step over the old V6. From the wheel, the engine is barely audible at idle, it revs quickly while delivering virtually linear power, changing up at 4500-4600rpm under full tilt, somewhat shy of the 5250rpm redline. It even sounds good.

The new 9G-Tronic gearbox works with a 2.47 final drive – seventh to ninth are overdrives – to have the engine wafting along at around 1200rpm at 110km/h.

Despite the twin-turbo set up, there is the merest hint of lag at very low rpm before the engine is in the peak-grunt zone.

The diesel lacks the 48-volt electric compressor assistance of the also impressive 3.0-litre inline six petrol S500 (see sidebar), yet speed builds quickly with just a distant hum from the engine.

With double-glazing standard on Australian cars, the cabin feels utterly isolated from the plebeian dramas of the outside world.

You don’t buy an S-Class for driver involvement. This is a big, especially wide and heavy car that’s utterly at home on the Autobahn. In its default Comfort mode, where the car’s character is all about the exceptional ride comfort, there’s a hint of float and even roll. Selecting Sport cures its composure, with only a marginal impact on ride, though the driver is always aware of its mass in tight corners. The creamy steering is a little vague and light at low speeds in Comfort, but it seamlessly builds effort if you toggle to a more precise sports setting.

Mercedes’ engineers have taken the S-Class’s new cruise control a step beyond the functionality of that in the E-Class. It is now able to automatically adjust its speed for curves, intersections, changes in speed limits, and toll gates, based on its GPS data. The result is a cruise control system that allows the driver to use it – and even its steering-assist function – much more often on secondary roads and not just on motorways. This is the biggest advance in the technology since adaptive cruise allowed its use in heavy traffic.

Initially, it’s harder to trust than simple adaptive cruise control systems. In Comfort mode, the system will slow the car for corners – more so than you might do – before quickly accelerating back to the set speed. In Sport, it doesn’t slow as much and carries more momentum through bends. The system also responds to speed limit signs, though occasionally it disregarded the signs and failed to speed up.

Learning to trust the car to slow on its own when approaching intersections is more disconcerting as the driver must be ready to brake for oncoming traffic at a roundabout or stop sign. If there’s no oncoming traffic and braking is not required, the driver can let the car do it all.

Active Lane Changing Assist lets the driver change lanes with a flick of the turn signal; the car checks the road ahead and the traffic behind to ensure the coast is clear, before oozing across the road.

All this technology is impossible to operate on Mercedes’ old single cruise control ‘wand’. Because of that, all cruise functions are relocated to the steering wheel spoke. Long-term S-Class owners who are accustomed to the old wand won’t be pleased.

Inside, the front seats offer tremendous comfort over longer journeys. The cabin styling has been subtly refined, and in the rear, the long wheelbase provides the exceptional legroom and comfort that is expected of cars at this end of the luxury spectrum.

With a clear choice of models, this latest version sets out to meld graceful speed and ultimate comfort with cuttingedge technology. Nobody does that better than Mercedes-Benz.

PLUS & MINUS

Engine refinement; brilliant cruise control tech; cosseting qualities Feels wide on-road; new cruise control buttons; low-speed steering

01 A BROADER VISION

New dash houses the previous pair of 12.3-inch TFT screens together so that they appear as a single unit. The centre screen’s functions are navigated via a console-mounted dial and touchpad, or a tiny touchsensitive nub on the wheel.

02 KEEPING WITH THE TIMES

S63 has a Track Pace menu in the centre screen that records lap times. A Drag Race page displays acceleration and 400m times, and braking distances.

Its Race Start function is easier to access: hold the brake pedal with the left foot while flooring the accelerator with the right.

03 HANDS FREE

Legally, the S-Class can’t steer by itself for more than 30 seconds at a time. However, the autonomous accelerating and braking functions of the new cruise control system are a step toward fully automated driving that M-B promises will be part of the next S-Class in 2020.

Pouring petrol on it

While we weren’t able to sample the S350 and S400 versions at the international launch, we did drive the 320kW S500 with a new 3.0-litre inline six petrol engine paired to a 48-volt electrical system that runs the starter, water pump, and air-con compressor, thereby eliminating power-sapping pulleys and belts. The engine also uses an electric compressor, which uses 48V juice to add boost before the conventional turbocharger spools up.

The engineers claim the system delivers 10 to 15 percent efficiency gains, and enables a smoother auto stop/start system.

OR TRY THESE...

BMW 730d $217,500

The driver’s choice in this class, though its 6.1 seconds to 100km/h acceleration is slower than the rival S-Class. Engine not quite as refined or – at 195kW/620Nm – as powerful, nor the ride as comfortable.

Audi A8 $215,000 [est]

All-new, highly advanced A8 due next year. No outsider has yet driven the car. Evolutionary styling, wide engine range, 210kW V6 turbo-diesel competes with Benz and BMW rivals. Features active suspension and 4WS.