GRAVENHURST, ON – Mercedes-Benz says its all-new 2014 S-Class is the "best car in the world." I’ll let others, including Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Porsche, debate that claim, but I can assert that it is the most technologically advanced vehicle on the planet.
That’s not a surprise, given that each generation of Mercedes’ flagship luxury sedan has been ahead of its time, setting new technology/engineering benchmarks for others to pursue. The advances in this iteration, however, raise the bar to heights one has difficulty comprehending.
One thing this car makes apparent is that Mercedes-Benz is intent on leading the industry toward the totally autonomous driving experience – one where the car does all the work and you’re just along for the ride.
One M-B engineer explained this goal as being a means to relieve drivers of the boredom of typical commutes or long-distance runs. "The systems take over and the driver can relax," he explained.
When asked how this would appeal to those of us who enjoy driving, he responded that all the systems M-B is developing can be deactivated whenever the person behind the wheel wants to take over.
This new S-Class isn’t capable of total hands-off operation, but it does come close. There’s a whole suite of technologies loaded into this luxurious sedan, including more than 20 safety-specific features.
To go into detail is too taxing a task even for company engineers – they simply refer to the package as Intelligent Drive.
Night View Assist Plus
One example, however, is the Night View Assist Plus system.
This is the first modern car ever produced without a single light bulb onboard. Up front, Mercedes has replaced conventional headlight bulbs with up to 56 LEDs – and thereare another 35 in the taillights. (Interior lighting is provided by about 300 LEDs.)
Combining this new headlight system with onboard cameras and sensors, the Night View system can detect objects along the roadside ahead. Using more than 1.2 million images scanned into its computer, the car can determine if the object is a human or an animal.
The image is highlighted on a 12.3-inch screen in front of the driver, temporarily replacing the instrument display. In addition, if it’s a person, the system targets it and flashes additional light to: a) further alert the driver there’s someone on the roadside; and b) alert the person a car is approaching.
However, if the object is an animal –a deer, dog or cow, for example – the system doesn’t flash the lights because such action could spook the creature, perhaps right into the car’s path.
This lighting technology can also recognize oncoming vehicles and react by masking out a section of the high-beam light to avoid causing glare for the approaching driver while maintaining the high-output illumination peripherally.
It can also adjust the intensity of the rear lights. In a simulator set up at the world launch of the S-Class in Toronto, the effectiveness of these lighting systems was amazing.
Unfortunately, Canadians won’t get to experience its benefits as our federal government safety regulations, which lag far behind the global auto industry’s advancements, prevent such adaptable lighting technologies in this country. What a pity!
Magic Body Control
One other technology that I found extremely impressive was a new automatic suspension adjustment system Mercedes calls Magic Body Control. It, too, uses cameras mounted in the windshield to scan the road ahead. When it detects an irregularity in the road surface, it adjusts the springs and dampers to absorb the impact.
During our media drive from Toronto north to the Muskoka region, I purposely approached a railway crossing well marked with a "bump" sign, at a good clip. The hit was a ripple at most, hardly noticeable.
In a similar demonstration of the system on a test track set up at Muskoka airport, the obstacle was a couple of speed bump-like humps across the roadway. Again, the system soaked up the impact like magic.
Again, however, this technology is something Canadian buyers will only be able to read about as it won’t be available when S-Class models start arriving in showrooms here in the fall.
Limited model range for Canada
Mercedes-Benz Canada is only bringing two models to this market – the S550 in short- and long-wheelbase iterations. Only one engine from the S-Class’s international list of choices will be offered – the twin-turbo, gasoline-fuelled, 4.6-litre V-8 that generates 449 horsepower at 5,250 rpm and 616 lb-ft of torque at 1,800 revs.
That output is channelled through a seven-speed 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox to Mercedes’ 4Matic permanent all-wheel drive system – and therein lies the problem. The Magic Body Control is only compatible with rear-wheel drive drivetrains.
Markets other than Canada and the U.S. will have a choice of powertrains that include a 3.0-litre V-6 BlueTEC diesel (258 horsepower), a BlueTEC hybrid combining a 2,143-cc, four-cylinder diesel with a 20-kilowatt electric motor that produce 204 horsepower; and a 3.5-litre V-6 gas/electric hybrid that generates 306 combined horsepower.
An S63 AMG version will be coming later with a 5,461-cc, bi-turbo V-8 that will crank out 577 horsepower and 664 lb-ft of torque – and this model will be available in Canada.
Technologies available here
Some of the other impressive technological innovations available to all S-Class buyers include Parktronic active parking assist and an active lane-keeping system that activates when the driver allows the car to drift out of its lane. The system applies the brakes on one side of the car, pulling the car into the lane.
A new Distronic Plus system also assists with steering. In addition to an intelligent cruise control function, this system’s forward radar also latches onto the vehicle ahead and ensures your S-Class follows in the middle of the lane. You can even take your hands off the steering wheel for about 10 seconds and the system will continue to keep your car in the tracks of the preceding vehicle. Not quite autonomous driving, but getting close.
The Pre-Safe brake system can detect pedestrians crossing into the path of the car and, at speeds up to 50 km/h, will apply the brakes to avoid contact. Likewise, if it detects an object or other vehicle ahead and if the driver fails to react, the system will automatically stop the car.
If the system detects a rear-end collision is imminent, it will flash the S-Class’s rear hazard warning lights at a fast rate to alert the approaching driver. If a collision is inevitable, the seatbelt tensioners are activated and the brakes are applied to minimize the possibility your new S-Class will be punted into further danger.
Luxury and elegance
All this focus on technologies tends to overshadow the incredibly luxurious experience one enjoys inside an S-Class. It defines the word "elegance."
For example, while the standard 10-speaker audio system is no doubt excellent in its own right, opting up to the high-end Burnmester 3D surround sound system turns the spacious cabin into a concert hall. With 24 speakers and 1,500 watts of audio power, it has to be heard to be truly appreciated.
Then there are the seats – they simply redefine comfort. I thought the front seats were wonderful, including the hot-stone massage feature. When winter returns, I’m sure the heated armrests will equally appreciated.
But the only way to truly appreciate the level of luxury in this S-Class is to occupy a rear seat. Not just sit, but recline. I was driven back to the Muskoka airport from our afternoon stop at a Lake Rousseau summer home and used the opportunity to check out what Mercedes calls the First-Class rear suite.
The two seats fully recline at the push of a button, and there are also power flip-up leg extensions to enhance the experience. The seatbacks are topped by the softest pillow/headrest I’ve ever laid my head on – I’d love to have that pillow on my bed at home.
Between the seats is a centre console that includes a folding work table, additional storage space and provision for your cell phone, as well as a remote controller for the video screen attached to the back of the front seat.
Not only can you watch movies, but it’s possible to surf the web or connect with the car’s navigation system. Of course, there’s also a chilled compartment to store beverages. But who would want to work in this environment? I just stretched out and soaked up the luxury.
For those fortunate enough to afford such luxury, pricing for the 2014 S550 4Matic (short wheelbase) will start at $106,600, while the long wheelbase S550 will start at $115,200.
These prices are actually lower than the current models, which are $119,400 for the short wheelbase and and $128,500 for the longer S550, respectively. Pricing for the extensive list of upgrades offered on the 2014 models will be announced later this year.