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July 26, 2013updated Jul 29, 2013

First Look: Mercedes-Benz S-Class Redux

By Chris Boyle

By Robert E. Calem

Mercedes-Benz_1Mercedes-Benz has always used its flagship S-Class to show off its technology prowess, and the 2014 model arriving at dealerships this fall is perhaps the most boastful example yet.

From headlights to taillights, the big sedan can be outfitted with new kinds of advanced driving assistance and safety systems not yet available in any other vehicle, as well as technology for luxury’s sake — including cruise control that steers the car around curves, a suspension system that electronically eliminates the jarring effect of speed bumps, an audiophile–quality surround sound system that adds a sense of height, and an interior air freshener system that disseminates any fragrance the owner desires.

Systems for safer driving…and safer pedestrians

Mercedes-Benz_2Ushered in with the 2014 S–Class, there’s a new moniker for Mercedes’ advanced driving assistance systems overall: Intelligent Drive.

And one of the newest of those systems is DISTRONIC PLUS with Steering Assist and Stop&Go Pilot, an adaptive cruise control system that takes over steering the car and keeps it centered in the lane or, if no lane markings are visible, centered behind a leading vehicle.

The system uses both radar and a forward–facing stereoscopic camera to detect vehicles ahead and to the side of the S–Class, and it works at speeds up to 124mph (with steering assistance by lead vehicle tracking alone at speeds up to 37mph). But while it’s capable of steering the car around slight bends in the road, it won’t work around sharp curves.

Moreover, the system will shut down temporarily when the driver activates the turn signal, so the driver must steer the car into a lane change or an intersection.

Because Mercedes wants the driver always to remain ready to take back control of the car, DISTRONIC PLUS with Steering Assist and Stop&Go Pilot also requires the driver to have at least one hand on the steering wheel at all times. It looks for slight movements of the steering wheel by the driver as evidence, and if none are detected for 10 seconds will give a warning before shutting down the steering assistance five seconds later.

In my own tests of this autonomous steering system, I often found that I was holding the steering wheel too steady, effectively fooling the system into thinking that I was not holding the steering wheel at al. The result was a series of warnings to which I immediately responded with slight twitches, keeping autonomous steering active.

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DISTRONIC PLUS with Steering Assist and Stop&Go Pilot is included in the optional Driving Assistance Package ($2,800).

Some other driver assistance systems in the package are:

  • BAS PLUS with Cross-Traffic Alert, a brake assist system that uses the stereo camera to detect other vehicles and pedestrians about to cross in front of the car and boosts the braking power of the car in anticipation of the driver pressing the pedal.
  • PRE–SAFE Brake, which automatically brakes the car to avoid hitting a detected pedestrian, at speeds up to 31mph (at higher speeds, the collision will occur, but the impact ferocity will be mitigated).
  • Active Lane Keeping Assist, which detects traffic in an adjacent lane — including oncoming traffic — and corrects any attempt to switch lanes at the wrong moment.
  • PRE–SAFE PLUS, which detects when another car is about to hit the stopped S–Class from behind, and proactively applies the brakes to prevent the S–Class from being pushed forward (to avoid whiplash injuries and a secondary impact), while deploying Mercedes’ PRE-SAFE “anticipatory occupant protection measures,” including pre–tensioning the seat belts.

Night View Assist PLUS ($2,260) uses a thermal imaging camera to detect both pedestrians and animals at the side of the road — who may be otherwise invisible in an unlit area — and automatically shows what it sees on an LCD screen behind the steering wheel, highlighting the person or animal within an outline box. Additionally, a spotlight built into each headlamp unit will automatically flash three times at the detected pedestrian, both to warn the pedestrian and light him up for the driver (animals are not flashed because their responses are too unpredictable, Mercedes says). 

Parking made easy, speed bumps barely felt…and LEDs everywhere

The new S–Class can also take full control of itself for parking.

Its PARKTRONIC with Active Parking Assist system will accelerate, brake and steer the car into any parallel or perpendicular parking spot, relying on the driver only for shifting the transmission into “Drive” or “Reverse” (with or without his foot on the brake pedal). It worked flawlessly in my tests, and I found the perpendicular parking function — in which the car backs itself into a space — to be most impressive.

PARKTRONIC with Active Parking Assist is included in the optional Premium 1 Package ($4,500).

Some people won’t ever want to let the car drive itself. But it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking Mercedes’ new Magic Body Control system ($4,450) offered with the two–wheel–drive S-Class.

It uses the same stereoscopic camera to look for undulations on the road surface ahead and adjusts the car’s air suspension within milliseconds to mitigate the effects in the passenger cabin. It works at speeds up to almost 80 MPH. I tested Magic Body Control at speeds between 30mph and 40mph over a pair of speed bumps spaced a short distance apart, several times, and was awestruck; the bumps were just barely perceptible.

Mercedes’ S–Class engineers also focused on lighting, creating more automotive world’s firsts.

The S–Class is the first vehicle in the world with no lightbulbs inside or outside. Instead, there are LEDs (light–emitting diodes) — almost 500 of them, including up to 56 in each of the headlamps, up to 35 in each of the tail lights (plus four more for the rear fog light), and approximately 300 in the cabin (including those used for ambient lighting, which can be set to any of seven color choices and five brightness levels across four zones).

The tail lights house another world’s first for a car: automatic brightness control. Their intensity is reduced both at night and when the car is stopped at a traffic light, as a courtesy to drivers in cars behind, Mercedes says.

Coddling taken to a higher level

Inside, the high–tech hits keep coming with two surround sound systems from a new supplier, Germany’s Burmester Audiosysteme GmbH.

The standard audio system comprises 13 speakers and a nine–channel digital amplifier and puts out 590 watts. The optional “High-End 3D Surround Sound System” ($6,400) comprises 24 speakers and 24 separate amplifier channels (one for each speaker), and has a total output of 1,540 watts. A “3D” setting utilizes three speakers in the roof and digital signal processing to create a sense of height when listening to surround sound audio.

Both sound systems also incorporate a new woofer packaging scheme named Frontbass that was developed by Mercedes. It places the woofers in the car’s firewall, using an almost 40–liter space in the body structure as a resonance chamber, rather than using the car doors to hold the subwoofers. Mercedes says this improves the soundscape and creates room for more storage in the doors.

Mercedes-Benz_3For when the new car smell wears off, or any time sooner, there’s the new Air Balance Package ($350), which includes an “active perfuming system” that blows air over any cologne or perfume stored in a bottle in the glovebox, and distributes the scented air through the climate system vents.

The perfuming system can be switched on or off at will and the fragrance intensity can be adjusted, as well. Mercedes says the tiny scent molecules that the system creates won’t adhere to fabric surfaces or clothing and won’t permanently change the car interior’s aroma

Mercedes offers four “mood” scents of its own, named Nightlife, Sports, Downtown and Freeside.

Appealing to the sense of touch, Mercedes developed two more world’s firsts for the car’s optional Dynamic Multicontour seats: a “hot stone massage” function and an “active” cooling ventilation system. The former is a component of the seat’s ENERGIZING massage feature that uses 14 separately actuated air cushions in the backrest, some of which can be warmed.

Six massage styles are available, and two of them — dubbed hot stone massages — use the warmed air cushions. The active cooling system uses “reversing fans,” which draw cooler surrounding air onto the surface of a hot seat and lower its temperature. After four minutes in reverse mode, the system automatically switches the fans to a blower mode. 

These massages and active cooling aren’t just for the driver and front passenger; rear seat passengers can enjoy them, as well, if the Executive Rear Seat Package ($3,500) is selected.

That package also includes two other innovations: the “beltbag” and the “cushionbag.”

The beltbag is an airbag built into the seatbelt. It inflates during a head–on collision to protect the rear seat passenger’s ribcage. The cushionbag is an airbag under the rear seat cushion upholstery. It prevents the passenger from submarining under the seat belt during an accident when the seat is reclined (right–side Executive Rear seats recline up to a 43.5–degree angle).

Beltbags are also included with the slightly less expensive Rear Seat Package ($3,000), which also reduces the right–rear seats recline angle to 37 degrees.

Upgrading to the Executive Rear Seat Package PLUS ($5,450) reduces the number of rear seats to two by extending the center console all the way back, but that extension adds two airplane–style folding tray tables and two thermoelectric cup holders, which will cool down or warm up drinks. 

Traditionalists may prefer old–fashioned gauges in the instrument cluster, but Mercedes apparently does not. The driver gazes at a pair of 12.3–inch wide, high–resolution color LCD screens (with an 8:3 aspect ratio) positioned side–by–side.

The left–side screen provides all the gauges and information usually found in an analog instrument cluster. The right–side display shows the navigation system and other features usually relegated to an LCD screen in the center of the dashboard. Both are prominent enough for the front seat passenger to view them easily, but the optional SPLITVIEW function ($710) enables the right–side screen to show different functions or features to the driver and front–seat passenger.    

The rear seat entertainment package ($2,650) comes with remote controls to operate the dual 10–inch LCD screens attached to the front seats, but passengers in the back may also opt for the new Mercedes–Benz Touch remote control app (free) for the iPhone or iPod touch.

Both the remotes and the app will control the rear seats’ massage functions (if present) as well as the vehicle’s infotainment features. Those include audio and video from a pair of DVD players (one up front in the dashboard and one in the rear), two USB connectors and an AUX socket, streaming Bluetooth audio, radio sources, audio stored in a section of the same hard disk drive that serves the navigation system, and Internet radio. The last is supplied via the TuneIn app that is among the Mercedes–Benz Apps available in the car along with Internet access, enabled by the car’s built–in cellular modem.

Each of the three passengers in the vehicle can have individual access to any of the audio/video sources (listening via headphones), and the driver can choose to route the audio from one of the playing sources through the car’s many speakers.

Pricing, availability and other details

Base prices for the three versions of the 2014 S–Class — S550, S550 4MATIC (all–wheel-drive) and S63 AMG 4MATIC — are still to be announced, though Mercedes says they will be in range of model–year 2013 pricing.

The S550 will arrive at dealerships in September, and both the S550 4MATIC and the S63 AMG 4MATIC will follow in November.

Technical and performance specifications for the three have been released.

Both the S550 and the S550 4MATIC are powered by direct–injection, twin–turbo V8 engines that produce 449 horsepower and up 516lb.–ft. of torque, propelling either car from 0 to 60mph in 4.8 seconds. Each is also equipped with a seven–speed automatic transmission.

The S63 AMG 4MATIC is powered by a direct–injection, twin–turbo V8 engine that produces 577 horsepower and up to 664lb.–ft. of torque, propelling the car from 0 to 60mph in 3.9 seconds. The hand–built AMG engine, which features start/stop technology for better fuel economy, is mated to a multi–clutch seven–speed automatic transmission.

Fuel economy is to be announced, too, but Mercedes says it expects the new S–Class to be as much as 20% more efficient than the outgoing model, which is rated at 15 MPG in the city and 25 MPG on the highway.

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