Mercedes tweaks its luxury liner: the best just got better

The latest S-Class does seem to have done enough to see off its rivals for now

 

With revolution in the air, it must be an uneasy time to be an executive at an old-firm car giant like Mercedes-Benz.

The motoring world is in head-on collision course with a tech revolution. Software firms are seeking to break into the market. Several legislators have sounded the death knell for diesel – and some for the combustion engine itself.

Meanwhile, the firm that contributed to the creation of the modern motor car is being dragged into alleged anti-trust with fellow German carmakers, while also having to update software to try and avoid being tied in with the wider emissions scandal enveloping European diesel cars.

In the midst of all this turmoil it’s hard to focus on the actual new cars. Yet even here, in the real world of motoring today, Mercedes faces challenges. It’s dominance of the luxury class has never been in doubt, but stiff competition has arrived in the form of the latest Audi A8 and BMW 7-Series. Can the S-Class keep its throne?

A mild facelift is probably not what was needed here. With the pace of technological change sweeping across the industry, having to wait until 2020 for the full-blown replacement of the current car seems like handing control over to its rivals.

Yet the latest S-Class does seem to have done enough to see off its rivals for now. While we can’t make a final judgment on this until we drive the best-selling diesel version for the Irish market – or get behind the wheel of the new A8 – the omens are good.

And there is more to the new S-Class than a change of leather trim or more angular grille; the new car has more than 6,500 new parts, including three all-new engines.

On the engine front, this means the return of the in-line six cylinder format to both petrol and diesel ranges, and the introduction of a 48-Volt electrical system to support all those electrics on board while saving fuel. A plug-in hybrid is on the way while top of the list is and an incredibly potent new 4.0-litre, biturbo V8.

While Audi is making much of its introduction of so-called “Level 3” autonomous driving technology – where the self-driving system takes over entire control of the car in certain circumstances –the reality is that the laws don’t allow its use on public roads just yet. There are a lot of legislative and regulatory hurdles to be overcome before drivers can start playing with our smartphones or taking a nap while their A8s trundle along at up to 60km in traffic on the M50.

Driver assistance

Mercedes has opted to stick with its current driver assistance technology, with some improvements. So that means you have to have your hands on the wheel, but the car does turn the wheels and “assists” with the steering, all the while controlling acceleration and braking. It’s ability to “drive” the car is enhanced by the matching of the various radar and camera data – such as road lines and traffic signs – with sat-nav map data.

That means it doesn’t have to use the camera or radar to identify a section of twisting road ahead, it knows what is coming up courtesy of the map data and starts to prepare the appropriate speed early on. Ultimately it makes for far smoother ride and handling when the system is engaged.

During our test route with the car we completed over 40km at one stage – a mix of twisting rural road and onto a busy autobahn – without having to touch either the brake or accelerator. Steering input during this time was negligible as well, largely confined to reassuring the car that I was still there, holding the wheel. Similarly the car manages lane changing with aplomb.

Simply indicate out and the S-Class uses its radar to scan the outside lane for a safe spot to feed into the traffic, then pulls out. It overtakes the vehicle on the inside lane and then with a flick of the indicator stalk you can get the car to move back into the inside lane.

The only problem I encountered was a sense of increasing futility behind the wheel and the fact you really need to be careful that you mind doesn’t start to wander: just in case you need to take back control at a moment’s notice.

The plethora of active braking systems should also seriously limit the chances of an accidental shunt into a line of traffic or, distracted by something in the car, hitting a pedestrian or cyclist. A series of tests on a closed runway with several crash test dummies and inflatable cars proved the S-Class’s active braking system should keep you from many collisions.

Aesthetically the S-Class has had the mildest of makeovers from the model that arrived in 2014, save for a slight adjustment to the front grille (more tech hidden behind it now), tail lights and the headlights are newer and shinier.

Inside the dash now boasts the enormous double-screen system showcased on the acclaimed new E-Class. What’s particularly impressive is that despite the enormous amount of features and menus, the user interface is one of the best in the business , with clear graphics and logical layout. Unlike some of its rivals, you don’t feel like you need a Phd in software development to work out how to change the radio station.

Remote control

Following on from similar systems introduced by rivals, Mercedes has also rolled out its Car-to-X communication, which means the S-Class can talk to any neighbouring Mercedes-Benz fitted with the system, so it can be told not to enter a traffic jam, while it also follows the BMW 7-Series by offering remote control parking, only this time via an app on your smartphone.

It’s a neat trick to see a car this size being remotely controlled by a bystander with a smartphone, like some adult version of a child’s toy. It’s a bit of a gimmick, but an impressive one nonetheless and it has great potential for development in the future.

Back to the engines, and the new 2.9-litre turbodiesel is incredibly smooth, putting out 340bhp with a whopping 700Nm of torque. Acceleration of 5.2 seconds from zero to 100km/h is very potent, while a fuel economy figure of 6.9 l/100km and a COe emissions of 150g/km make it incredibly efficient.

We got to test drive this in the S400d with 4Matic four-wheel drive, but we also tested the impressive S560 long-wheel base with its 4-litre V8 469bhp engine, and the AMG version of this powertrain with 612bhp in the AMG S63.

Mercedes talks about the S-Class offering the same level of comfort – particularly in the back seats – as a business class flight .The AMG version is where the business class flight turns into a ride in a fighter jet.

Across all the range, however, Mercedes has done a remarkable job in squaring the circle of an incredibly comfortable car to travel in, with the sense behind the wheel of a much smaller, nimbler car.

Simply put, a car this size should not handle this well. That’s qualified by the proviso that all our test cars featured the firm’s four-wheel drive system so that clearly has a bearing on its ability through the bends on damp road surfaces.

Mercedes has yet to announce prices for the new car, though they say it will only involve a modest increase on the current range, which starts at €92,210 for the S300d automatic diesel.

While the star billing goes to the improved assisted driving systems and its new engine range, first impressions are of a car that has been tweaked enough across every facet to keep a lead on its rivals.

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