► We ride in a new Merc S-Class
► Experiencing the tech and comfort
► Full reveal on 2 September 2020
He’s gonna crash.
I can almost hear it, brace myself with eyes closed, waiting for the - carrunch! - as the kerb first fouls, then kicks up the off-side rear wheel. Except, somehow, he didn´t crash in a tight, empty parking structure facing the Mercedes customer service centre in Stuttgart-Sindelfingen.
How did he not crash?
Instead of answering, Jürgen Weissinger – the S-Class’ chief engineer – takes a run at the subsequent on-ramp. A brief dab on the throttle, a sharp left turn and another squeeze of the accelerator is all it takes to safely speed up to the second level. The chief project engineer doesn’t even bother winding on a slightly wider radius before tackling the 90deg left-handers, one screeching sickbag turn following the other. A single, quick, well-timed flick at the wheel makes the ‘Honey, they shrunk the new S-Class’ change direction as swiftly as the petite A-Class. I count five zigs and six zags before the gyro inside my head is finally granted a brief breather.
Even though the wheelbase of the standard model was extended by 71mm to a roomier yet potentially cumbersome 3106mm, the manouevrability of the 2021 model year 5200mm best-seller feels decidedly more sports coupé than limousine. You guessed it: what totally changes the dynamic low-speed character of this full-size Benz is the optional rear-wheel steering which can be had in two calibrations. While the entry-level version restricts the steering angle to 4.5 degrees, the more radical application permits a previously unthinkable 10 degrees, with both systems switching from countersteer to synchrosteer at around 35mph. Expect rear-wheel steering to become more apparent in future Merc models.
The S-Class is clever, then…
That’s just the start. Where the law permits it, the new S can cruise in hands-off Level 3 DIY mode, it has the ability to pull over and help forming an emergency lane, and Pre-Safe Plus can momentarily lift the body by 80mm so that the sills (rather than the doors) can play a bigger part in the more comprehensive side impact protection. Despite the added complexity, the redesigned suspension module complete with integrated RWS is actually lighter than the previous assembly.
My chauffeur is waxing lyrical when he describes the steering feel as “beautifully progressive, totally precise but never nervous, nicely balanced and transparent at all speeds. This four-wheel steering is all about feedback, control, enhanced agility and rock-solid stability.” With the exception of RWS, our demo car is not particularly well equipped: standard instead of long wheelbase (which gains 51mm over the predecessor), straight six in lieu of a V8, Airmatic rather than the sophisticated hydropneumatic suspension also known as E-Active Body Control.
Tech secrets of the new Mercedes S-Class
Fed by the 48-volt system, E-ABC employs a batallion of cameras, sensors, pumps and activators to detect surface irregularities and individually lift the spring struts concerned to mitigate or even neutralize the ride-disturbing effect of said obstacle. While the Comfort setting is allegedly a match for cloud nine, the Curve position converts the big bold Benz into a lean machine which can up to a point offset intrusive g-forces. Another key comfort booster are the truly amazing seats. Made in-house, the body-hugging and conveniently oversize singing-and-dancing chairs incorporate up to 17 motors for a quite special heated, ventilated and pneumatic wellness experience.
Going cleaner and more digital inside
This ECU-studded high-tech carriage is definitely not your father´s Benz. Your father might, in fact, struggle to come to grips with the advanced touch-and-talk ergonomics and the sleek but trick controls.
‘To eliminate confusion, we took out 27 buttons, switches and levers,’ rejoices the man in charge. What he does not say is that the design and infotainment wizards added simultaneously about 1000 new features, or at least it feels like it. Among them is the latest generation of MBUX which proves to be a perfectly competent invisible multi-talented en route assistant. It can´t lip read just yet, but it monitors the driver´s eyes (for fatigue and when he or she turns round for reversing in which case the rear sun shade drops, pronto) and hands (for possibly dangerous moves like opening the door when a vehicle approaches from behind in which case a red warning light that runs the full length of the side panel starts flashing). As long as you pay extra for it, the main instrument binnacle relays its content via impressive ultra-deep and crystal-clear 3D graphics, the augmented reality head-up display projects information on the road ahead rather than on the windscreen, the giant touchscreen and the multi-functional steering-wheel provide joint (and often redundant) access to all menus and submenus.
Although proximity sensors, enlarged icons and angled zoom effects do lower the anxiety threshold, the good old rotary interfaces for failsafe temperature and volume adjustments are sorely missed by members of the pre-hip-hop generation. The latest MMI can either be summoned by order of thumb or by reaching for the distant touch bar at the bottom of the largest in-dash monitor.
The index finger ID pioneered (and later discontinued) by Audi is back in the S-class to clear on-the-spot payments for parking tickets or toll fees. Other noteworthy novelties are full-size frontal airbags for the rear passengers, lit belt buckles, inflatable belt bags, an extended 3D surround-view camera system and state of the art adaptive multibeam headlamps incorporating one thousand laser elements for a so-called ultra-range high-beam performance, visual messaging and select light projections like lane guidance or dedicated signalling.
Asked to name his favourite digital innovation, Jürgen Weissinger answers like a shot: “Even after all those test miles, I am still fascinated by the new head-up display. It fuses the visual content - navigation, assistance, entertainment - in the forefield of the vehicle so that the driver must no longer switch between two focal distances. Blue arrows help to de-stress complex traffic situations like sudden lane closures, deviations and temporary hazards.”
In case the conventional grab-and-pull door handles are too mundane for you, Mercedes will at cost install flush-fitting devices which pop out when approached by an accepted person to automatically pull shut again when boarding is complete. The car can memorize up to five rather complex user profiles, it will in a fluent voice command dialogue instantly identify the person and seat concerned, and it is happy to lay on a variety of different instruments graphics ranging from loud, red and sporty to analogue, matte silver and reduced.
What powers the new S-Class?
In contrast to these novel high-tech functionalities, the engine selection at launch time is relatively conventional. There will again be two diesels (S350d, S400d), two sixes (S450, S500) and one V8 (S580). Even the V12 is given a fresh lease of life, but this time the full dozen is reserved for the even longer, taller and ritzier Maybach S650. The standard mild hybrid combines a 48-volt electrical system with an integrated starter generator good for an extra on-demand 22bhp. Our chariot for the day is a black S500 powered by an electrically assisted 3.0-litre straight-six good for an unchanged 435bhp and 384lb ft, good for a 4.6sec sprint. The only version which can do the job in under 3.5sec is the upcoming 800bhp-plus S63e AMG.
Although we are not in a hurry and have a full tank to play with, time flies and the impressions are too numerous to memorize them all. The rear-wheel steering is of course the undisputed centrepiece of attention because it makes the luxury liner shrink to speedboat size through the twisties while virtually stretching the wheelbase on the autobahn.
To demonstrate the wide spectrum of attitudes, Jürgen W keeps scrolling through the drive select menu. Surprisingly, the new S feels equally at home in Comfort and in Sport plus - but we´re talking base suspension and standard-size tyres here. From the co-driver´s increasingly frustrated vantage point, the most compelling chassis virtues are suppleness, refinement, smoothness and - to sum things up - splendid isolation. Perhaps it´s old age, but the noise level is so low one can barely hear the tyres, the wind which is well tamed by a record drag coefficient of only 0.22, and the hushed drivetrain. Later on, our tour guide opens the padded bonnet and demonstrates the comprehensive U-shaped sandwich insulation assembly which virtually double-walls the engine in combination with the firewall. Even on “the worst sealed road within a 50mile radius of Stuttgart”, the ominous Poltergeist keeps sleeping the sleep of the just. Only once, when an overtaking manoeuvre had to be sped up, the in-line six made itself heard by intoning a subdued high-rev purr.
The compliant ride is another free-of-charge forte. Plenty of mass and the extended wheelbase lay the thick-pile magic carpet foundation which is complemented by generous wheel travel, a high-tech adaptive suspension and the fastest chassis software at this point in time. The S500 can detach itself from rough terrain almost as well as a Hovercraft, but this quasi-floating physical state is at all times paired with a ground-effect sure-footedness. Somehow, W223 manages to filter out vagaries without compromising road contact; it is sufficiently proficient to establish and roam its own kinematic orbit, and it is keenly connected to a widespread range of dynamic talents. The two steering systems appears to create an expertly tuned concerted effort. The nine-speed automatic packs upshifts in cotton wool and initiates downshifts with jovial ease. This particular engine hasn’t in it to peel tarmac or frighten the marshalls on the Nordschleife, but it does muster enough grunt to make the tyres chirp in places, thereby broadening the grin of the lucky man at the wheel.
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