The new Mercedes S-Class is the most relaxing ride this side of a private jet trip, writes Noel Ebdon.
The new Mercedes S-Class is in a different class
Ah, the hot stones on my back start to radiate heat into my weary, well-travelled bones. I have the lounge seat fully reclined and my feet are up (shoes off) on the comfy footrest. My biggest issue is that I can't decide what to watch on the TV.
Now before you wonder where this is going, please let me point out that I'm not describing how I relax at home, as oddly I'm actually still at work. I'm on the move, travelling across Canada on the outskirts of Toronto on a media launch. Now you'd normally guess that I am in business class on a plane or a private jet, but I'm not. I'm being expertly chauffeured in the back of the brand new Mercedes S-Class.
So was I joking about the hot-stone massage? Of course not. As manufacturers search for something new to add to their gadget-laden vehicles, the list of options available at the dealer gets more and more bizarre. For me, a hot-stone massage has to be the strangest so far (if you discount Toyota's Land Cruiser falcon perch) and just has to be tested.
I've had a proper hot-stone massage in the past, and the Mercedes one really isn't anything like it. But it's still very nice and, as a place to have a nap after a long business meeting, few things can beat the S-Class's fully reclining rear seat. What basically happens is that the front passenger seat moves fully forward (after working out if anyone is sitting in it first, naturally), then part of it pops up to create the footrest.
You have to feel slightly sorry for the driver, who not only has to sit and watch as his front passenger is retired to the boot, but also has to put up with a pair of sweaty socks (or worse) parked right next to them for the rest of the trip. Luckily, there's also a perfuming system that can temporarily individualise the smell of the interior. But as the current wearer of the sweaty socks, I can tell you that the back of the S-Class is one of comfiest places on the planet.
The rest of the interior is also absolutely top level. It's one of the best-trimmed cars that's been manufactured. Ever. The leather is sumptuous, the stitching perfect. Each component is ideally placed and there really is nothing not perfectly thought out.
But with few owners employing the services of a driver for their daily commute, what's the rest of the S-Class's interior like? The dash is excellent and the controls very well-placed. I'm not keen on the gear selector, but only as I'm not used to it. Given a few more days with it, I'm sure that it would become second nature.
Once on the move, the best phrase for it would probably be "elegantly remote". It's quite lovely to drive, but suffers from Mercedes's insistence that we all don't want to drive our cars anymore. They have built in so many "helpful" driver aids, that getting it to go anywhere isn't so much done by command, but by debate. This is not a car; it's a multinational company with a number of electronic employees, all trying to run it.
The Active Lane Keeping Assist lane departure system is by far the most difficult department to deal with. If you don't indicate when changing lanes (which is fine if there's no one behind you) it assumes you are wandering and fights back. That's OK unless you are approaching a car or obstacle ahead, and suddenly find the steering fighting back.
There are also some clever parts that are genuinely helpful, such as the Distronic Plus system with Steering Assist and Stop & Go Pilot, which can follow vehicles in traffic tailbacks semi-autonomously. Then there's the brake-assist system, BAS Plus with Cross-Traffic Assist, which can apparently help to avoid rear-end collisions and even collisions with crossing traffic. Add to that the Adaptive High Beam Assist Plus, which allows the high-beam headlamps to be kept on permanently without dazzling traffic by masking out other vehicles in the beams' cone of light.
It doesn't end there, either. The S-Class can also see in the dark with its Night View Assist Plus, which uses a thermal imaging camera to see the potential danger posed by pedestrians or animals in unlit areas in front of the vehicle, by automatically switching the speedometer to a crystal-clear night view image and highlighting the sources of danger. A spotlight then flashes any pedestrians detected ahead, which attracts the driver's attention to the danger and probably scares the person on the side of the road into getting away from the kerb.
If you think that lighting up innocent pedestrians is amusing, be warned, the S-Class can also turn the tables on the driver. Attention Assist picks up on inattentiveness and drowsiness and warns the driver with an audible sound (no spotlights in the face, thankfully). It also then informs you of the nearest service areas in the Mercedes "Comand" navigation system.
Mercedes actually admitted in the press conference that they could build an S-Class that could actually drive itself, without the need for a driver. However, laws in most countries prevent that from being legal. I'm not sure who Mercedes think might buy that car, but I asked a wide group of friends and not one thought it was a good idea. It's not just Mercedes, as many manufacturers are busy trying to remove us from the equation. I've personally had to fight with a Lexus and a Volvo to stop them doing something stupid.
If you switch everything off, which thankfully the S-Class lets you do, and drive it like a car (which, is after all, what it is) then everything falls back into place. The big Mercedes is incredibly smooth and has more than enough power under your right foot. It's not an instant rush of power, as there's a lot of weight to haul around underneath you, but once it's kicked off its heels, there's no telling how fast the S-Class would actually go. Mercedes limits it to 250kph, which is wise. No one wants to see a luxury car orbiting the planet just yet.
In the corners, you can again feel the car's weight, but it isn't unstable or worryingly soft. If anything, the opposite is true. It sticks to the road really well, so the chassis engineers have clearly been busy in their laboratories.
One of the most incredible suspension advances is the new Road Surface Scan system, which, as the name suggests, scans the road ahead looking for bumps and poor surfaces. If it spots anything, the amusingly named Magic Body Control steps in and deals with the bump. Joking aside, the system is incredible. As a demo, Mercedes had the assembled hacks drive over a 20-centimetre-high speed hump with the system on and off. Switched off, the result is the same as any large saloon. Switched on and the bump simply disappears, as the suspension absorbs it into the arches. It's a very odd feeling and a system that I think we'll see spreading rapidly across the Mercedes range over the next few years.
The brakes are also excellent, coping extremely well with the 2,000kg weight of the S-Class. They're positive, solid and give great feel. Performance is swift enough, with 100kph coming up from rest in just 4.8 seconds, and the 4.6L V8 produces 455hp, with the bulk of the power coming in at around 5,000rpm. Torque is a very impressive 700Nm from low down in the rev range, hence the turbine-like delivery. The gearbox is the incredibly smooth 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic unit, and I was hard-pressed to notice the shifts under normal driving conditions.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the S-Class redesign is that everything seems to have been concentrated on the inside and the technology underneath, as the exterior is by far the subtlest change from the previous model. In the past, S-Class design has always been a sea change, but this time it's less so. That's not a bad thing, as the previous model was a looker.
The new one is just as handsome a car though, with a more modern, sleeker front end with a larger radiator grill and a much neater back end. Above the rear wheels, a large shoulder gives it an aggressive feel, and the clever relationship between the C pillar and the rear screen give it a slightly coupe look from the rear three-quarters.
Incredibly, the S-Class doesn't have a single bulb anywhere on the car, including the interior. Everything is lit with LEDs, the first car to completely do away with the common or garden light bulb. LED technology has gone a bit mad in recent times, with the S-Class at its zenith. There will probably be no body panels soon and we'll all be riding around in the LED cars from the Tron movies. I'm guessing the first one will be a Mercedes.
So is the new S-Class a big step forward? Absolutely, but those who remember the quantum leaps between previous models might feel that the design could have gone further. Personally, I think it's spot on from a design perspective, and has one of the best interiors you could ever want, or need. The driving experience is marred by some of the interfering electronics, but those can be switched off, creating the sort of driver's car that you expect from the three-pointed star.
The S-Class is sleek, clever and, with the press of a few buttons, a joy to drive, unless you employ someone else to do it. In that case, you can simply enjoy the marshmallow-esque interior and drift off into a deep sleep. Whatever you choose, the S-Class is a giant in the ultra-saloon world, so from that point at least it's not changed one bit since day one.
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