Mercedes S-Class: More smarts, no slumming

Riding in the back of Mercedes’ upgraded S-Class is a fine experience, but so too is driving the flagship large sedan.

TEN minutes spent travelling oligarch style, lazing in the back seat, several hours at the wheel.

Which is the better way of enjoying the car that presents the pinnacle of Mercedes’ achievement?

In fact, with the updated S-Class, both experiences deliver immense appeal; a good news outcome, surely, given the Kiwi buyer preference to maintain direct control.

All the same, there was certainly no complaining about spending time in the back. A S560 kitted out with the fullest back seat package you can buy for this Benz (without, that is, spending all the more on the Maybach model), presents no hard labour.

Regardless that price honing has made the latest car more accessible to a wider audience, standards have not dropped. Assuredly, the core comforts and conveniences that factor into the S-Class holding historical status as the limo of choice for heads of state are still all there.

Ticking off the cost-extras meted the car I rode in makes an impressive luxury ambience all the more six-star. It’s a real treat to be able to settle back in an infinitely adjustable rear seat upholstered in rich leather, the massage function ironing out any aches as you engage in world-watching – not simply the immediate one wafting by but also, because it has excellent multi-media technology, the one beyond. The S doesn’t quite manage to cater to every conceivable passenger whim and care – there’s still no on-board wine cellar or chef, the media presents on a flat screen attached to the back of the front seat rather than in holographic format – but it’s by no means a letdown.

So Kiwi owners’ families and friends are in for a real experience. Whereas the keyholders, of course, will assuredly continue to do as they always have. Having the wherewithal to buy into a high-level luxury car like this doesn’t diminish our hands-on preferences; there’s about as much call for chauffeurs in Australasia as there is for lion tamers. We like to physically take control and, assuredly, Benz is fine with that too: That’s why, we were reminded during the media preview, that the S-Class relies as equally on driver appeal to impress as it does its impressive size and premium kit-out.

Thus, while the prestige bent takes clear priority, the conviction that this car can be an actual power player in a performance sense is why it not only loads up, in every version, with more driver and drivetrain assists than any other model but also issues in a format some rivals dare not have: A full-out hotrod.

Unfortunately, the S63 AMG was only the launch as a ‘look, don’t touch’ display prop. Our actual driving experiences were limited to the ‘other’ petrol V8 in the family, the S560 that is expected to account for 80 percent of NZ volume, and the S350d which, though the cheapest and thriftiest edition out here, is nonetheless set to be a niche performer, Benz identifying that Kiwis only show interest in diesel luxury when it packages in an SUV format. In the Benz world, that’s the GLS.

Except, of course, at the moment there’s a world of difference between the top soft-roader and this big sedan.

Thought that the former is pretty much a higher-riding version of the latter has perhaps driven GLS sales to race ahead of the S-Class’s, but reality is that anyone who is seeking to keep on top of the technology wave will have to revert to the sedan.

The obligatory once-over cosmetic changes that come with this mid-life update might provide the first clues to change, but the more important enhancements are mechanical (with a new engine) and technical. The S will always be the first recipient of latest three-pointed star gizmoes; and while it is playing catch-up – in respect to the addition of Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, wireless phone charging and even clever multibeam LED headlamps (because Audi got there first) - it also evidences with improved driver assistance and safety features that are not just perhaps years away from reaching the GLS, or any other Benz, but also stand as class firsts.

An enhanced safety repertoire lifts its game; the fitment of Active Braking Assist, Crosswind Assist, Evasive Steering Assist, Active Lane Change Assist, drowsiness protection and the occupant protection system PRESAFE is impressive indeed. For 2018, the flagship adds PRESAFE Sound, “which prepares human hearing for the anticipated accident noise when there is a risk of a collision”.

However, it’s the improvements on the automated front that will elevate it geek status all the more. Those not prepared to place trust in this machine are going to see a lot of talent going to waste.

There are active proximity control and active steer assist functions and ability for the car, when operating on cruise control, to automatically adjust its speed ahead of curves and junctions – its knowledge of the terrain being GPS-based - and to suit speed zones. The S-Class will also brake automatically for pedestrians and hazardous situations, such as rear impacts.

Its step up to Level two ‘hands off’ autonomy is also something that will prove gloat-worthy at the golf club. The primary functionality centres on the active lane assist. The first Benz with ability to self-steer from one lane to another, predictably working best by far in a motorway scenario, while it was operating hands-free was the E-Class; having set the active cruise control, you simply had to touch the indicator and it would seek to effect its own right-side overtake.

The S Class does this too, but its system is smarter. Again, you can have your hands off the wheel, and though the indicator still needs to be touched, it now requires but a nudge. That’s enough to trigger the car to ‘look’ for a space in the adjacent lane for up to 10 seconds (against just two seconds for the E) and when it sees the lane is clear, move itself over. And if the adjacent lane is not clear? The car will cancel the indicator signal and wait for its moment.

Yes, a bit of a novelty and, assuredly, one that puts German interests first – that it only works at 80kmh and above suggests it was foremost sorted for the autobahn.

Still, there is no little amount of wonder and awe operating here, not least when the cruise control picks up that the car needs to slow for a bend and so responds accordingly. This behaviour is most noticeable in the default Comfort driving mode, when the car can slow considerably enough to perhaps leave other motorists feeling concerned about the ‘driver’s’ level of ability. It carries more momentum through corners in the sports settings.

Other improvements include implementation of Active Steer Assist, also first seen on E-Class, that help keeps the car, when operating on active cruise, within its lane – though, again, it’s for motorways, rather than lesser roadscapes. Benz cites that ASA’s functionality is best evidenced on straight roads with clear lane markings and ‘mild bends’. Certainly, as with the E-Class, it is easily flummoxed by more involving conditions; anyone expecting this cart to self-steer through a succession of decent curves with imperfect line markings is in for a rude wakening. You’ll have your hands back on the wheel in double quick time.

Your feet, though, can relax. The side to the system that Benz has now fully sorted is its ability to self-regulate spacing behind the vehicle in front. Placing the active cruise on its second distance setting (the first is a bit too close) allows the car to self-run confidently, not only does it maintain good distance, even when chasing through winding roads, but also brakes smoothly, right down a stop. It also has ability to then get going again without intervention; but you need to pick those moments. It’s god for stop start traffic streams, less prudent to rely on when departing controlled intersections.

The big Merc also gets traffic sign recognition for 2018 (Traffic Sign Assist), and though its only as good as the quality of signage, this is again a great feature, not least during periods when authorities are foregoing any latitude.

Naturally, it still gives every chance for full driver control. While the S560 and S350d are not exactly rocket ships with race track potential – a different story, perhaps, for the AMG edition (which, though meted quiet exhausts, does have a Track Pace menu that can record lap times; a Drag Race page can measure acceleration, quarter-mile times, and braking distances) - neither are they dull steers.

Reflective that it can muster the least power among these choices, some 210kW, the six-cylinder S350d is slowest off the line, but its 600Nm torque is not to be discounted; there’s decent mid-range shove. It’s also really smooth and generally very quiet. And the economy is pretty good; Benz cites a small car-like 5.4L/100km combined.

Go to the absolutely new engine in the family, the 345kW/700Nm biturbo petrol V8 and, of course, the focus changes. This unit is reasonably good on the juice by capacity and cylinder count standards, but you’re not out be as much of an environmental champion, that’s for sure. But hey, more profligate fuel burn is a small price to pay. You got the power!

Incredible to think that this mill is basically third tier in the catalogue in respect to punch – even though it respectively gives away 105kW/113kW and 200-300Nm to the engines in the S63 and Maybach (which gets a V12) – because it never feels breathless, sounds strained and has loads of seamless stonk rolling out with even a slight throttle tap. Integration with the nine-speed auto is impressive; most gear changes are like winning Lotto numbers – you just cannot pick ‘em.

Benz had us routing along through pretty easy country, basically the favoured route from Melbourne airport through to the Yarra Valley, around 100kms inland, but it doesn’t take much exploring to find decent roads.

Where the S-Class is not too shabby. It pays to toggle the drive mode into Dynamic, which speeds up the gear shifts and throttle response and also adds sharpeness to the power assisted steering. Passengers won’t necessarily enjoy the car being thrown around, but it does allow this kind of behaviour with enough decency and grace to show that schlepping around cities and autobahn-zooming is by no means the be-all of its talent.

The suspension, featuring adaptive damping and Airmatic air springs as standard, but it’s not simply for comfort; you'll be surprised at how agile and willing the car can be, even if the low-speed ride quality is compromised a tad in this guise. Thanks in part to the variable ratio steering, it really does shrink around the driver and is far more engaging than any luxury sedan has any right to be. Of course, that’s a German thing, too: the Audi A8 and BMW Seven Series are no barges, either.

It’s perhaps pertinent, all the same, that Mercedes does expect its drivers, with exception perhaps the AMG lot, to behave with some decorum. What else explains the provision, this time, of a feature that seems just a touch too ‘new agey’. The Energizing Comfort menu that purports to create an interior ambiance via audio, lighting, seat massaging and fragrance. The choices are Refresh, Vitality, Joy, Well Being and Training. Um, yeah … right. The Mercedes’ man explaining this feature must have spent all night practising looking serious when explaining the merits of this. From our side of the table, not so much. A little bit of wackiness never hurts, but anything about this approach that is supported by scientific value then it hasn’t been explained. Points for trying, Mercedes, but it’s an option I wouldn’t bother with.

The cabin ambience doesn’t need any titivating anyway. It’s pretty much familiar from the original car, so rich in appointment and trim, with the main changes being a switch to a three-spoke steering wheel (in the S63 it gets a squared-off rim wrapped in leather and microsuede) and a new standard inductive charging pad on the centre console (and an optional second one in the rear). You can dress it up with nappa leather interiors and carbon-fibre trim with brushed-metal accents, but even the base treatments are good enough to impart a special ‘I’ve made it’ feeling.

And specifications are rich. The S 350d is more ‘entry’ than ‘base’ in featuring keyless entry and start, a panoramic sunroof, digital television tuner, power closing doors and bootlid, a Burmester 13-speaker sound system, front seat heating and ventilation, head-up display, 360-degree camera and 19-inch alloy wheels.

Distinguishing the 560 models are special trims, the Air Balance package, Nappa leather, anti-theft protection and heat and noise-insulating glass. The one I rode in was the L version that also gets luxury head restraints and a rear-seat entertainment system. It’s not listed as a showroom model for NZ, but they can get it in easily enough, as Australia takes it.

The AMG package is offered with the Dynamic Select driving mode suite, carbon-composite brakes, sports suspension and red brake callipers. It takes seat warmers, multi-contour front seats, AMG-specific styling treatments and an AMG sports pedal cluster. Above that resides the Mercedes-Maybach S 650, again a special order item, fitted with a 6.0-litre bi-turbo V12.

Standard equipment over the S560L includes a 24-speaker Burmester surround sound system, design roof liner with DINAMIC microfiber, Maybach door sills, Nappa leather upholstery, and 20-inch forged wheels.

Obviously, it’s an expensive car, and even though prices have been slimmed (along with the lineup), it’s still not an inexpensive buy-in, with a spend span ranging from $176,900 through to $359,990 (for the Maybach), with the S560 that is expected to lead sales slotting in at $219,900.