When you’re at the top of your game, you have the luxury of making evolutionary improvements instead of radical changes. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has been the best-selling car in its class for decades because it looks good (unlike the BMW 7-series), it has a reputation for quality (unlike Cadillac and Jaguar), and the three-pointed star on its hood is a beacon of status and wealth (unlike Audi). The outgoing S-class, codenamed W220, wasn’t the best car in class to drive (stand up BMW 7-series), and its interior wasn’t spectacular (that would be the Audi A8). But it did everything pretty well and nothing particularly badly.
So it should come as no surprise that the new S-class (code name W221 for the short-wheelbase model and V221 for the long-wheelbase model) is not a radical departure from the old. Crisper lines, a Maybach-style two-tiered rear, and faux-pontoon fender flares distinguish the new S-class, but you’ll have to forgive the unwashed masses for not noticing the difference. Unlike the current BMW 7-Series, this S-class doesn’t polarize; it just looks nice. Everything’s grown an inch or so: the length, the height, the width, and even the wheel diameters, which now start at eighteen inches in the U.S. While the outgoing model was offered with short and long wheelbases, the new S-class will come to the U.S. only in stretched form.
Inside, the gear selector has moved up to the steering column where it appears as a BMW 7-series-like toggle stick. In its former place on the console is an aluminum dial that looks suspiciously like an iDrive controller. You know the one, that stupid little rotary encoder that BMW introduced in the 2002 7-series that requires the hand-eye coordination of a Jukebox Hero and is about as popular as Foreigner’s latest album. In the S-class, the dial adds a new dimension of complexity to the Comand infotainment system that’s been baffling owners since its debut six years ago. Mercedes is quick to point out that its system has more so-called hard buttons–single-purpose physical clickers–than iDrive, but a quick stint behind the Comand wheel reveals that the system is similarly annoying for all but the most basic functions.
As in large BMWs, an LCD screen sits high to the right of the instrument binnacle creating a wall of displays in front of the driver. Shorter pilots will feel like they’re peeking over the edge of a tall bathtub as they try to see down the road. Perhaps they’ll just watch the optional night vision display that, when activated, appears directly in front of the driver in place of the analog speedometer, which is actually a picture of an analog speedometer generated on a computer screen. It’s just as well to turn the speedo off, as the color and intensity of the faux needles don’t exactly match their honest counterparts immediately adjacent to the display.
If you ever want a chuckle, ask a Mercedes engineer how Lexus manages to use a touch-screen interface that neither dominates the view forward nor requires the use of Satan’s joystick. After a lot of hemming and hawing, the answer is that Mercedes offers more functions in its system, so a touch screen allegedly wouldn’t work. Mercedes engineers confided in us that, in focus group testing, Americans had a far lower aptitude for mastering complex control systems than European and Japanese testers. Even though the U.S. is the S-class’s largest market, the new Comand system was designed primarily for German tastes. To placate Americans, certain functions were removed in cars coming stateside. Thanks.
Other than the dominant Comand system, there isn’t much revolutionary in the cabin. An attractive plunging line of wood and chrome trim on the dash is accentuated by indirect LED accent lighting and metallic switches using a similar material to the seat controls in new Porsches, something Mercedes calls galvanized composite. It looks shiny, but it feels no more substantial than plastic. The interior is more spacious in every dimension, especially in the long-wheelbase model slated for the U.S. An available panorama roof includes a fixed rear panel and a sliding front section that rests atop the rear section when open.
We haven’t yet driven the S-class, but Mercedes claims all the usual things: the body is more rigid, the handling more agile, and the ride more supple. Mercedes hasn’t switched to an electric power steering system, claiming rather simply that its engineers couldn’t achieve the desired feel with such a setup. That’s a welcome departure from recent Mercedes-think where new systems were introduced seemingly as a form of engineering self stimulation but in many cases succeeded only in proving that they were launched prematurely. The hydraulic steering assist teams with another traditional favorite: hydraulic brakes. The electric braking system that’s been so trouble-prone in the E-class is officially dead in all Mercedes models as they get redesigned heretofore.
The only thing we know for sure right now about the new S-class’s performance is that its engines will be more powerful. The volume seller in the U.S. will be the S550 which has a new 32-valve, 5.5-liter V-8 that makes 388 hp and 391 lb-ft, enough to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in scarcely over five seconds, according to Mercedes. To put that in perspective, that’s quicker than the normally aspirated 2001 S55 AMG was, and like many modern Mercedes models, this puts the V-8 S-class ahead of its Audi and BMW competitors in straight-line acceleration times and power-to-weight ratio (the new S-class is only about 60 pounds heavier than the old, largely due to increased feature content). If blowing the doors off your neighbor’s new V-8 750i isn’t enough, a revised version of the twin-turbo V-12 in the S600 will make 517 hp and 612 lb-ft when it debuts in the spring of 2006. Sadly, the sweet supercharged V-8 from the outgoing S55 doesn’t return. In its place will be an all-new 6.2-liter normally aspirated V-8 which will likely be smoother and comparably powerful if not quite the raucous tire burner that its predecessor was. The seven-speed manu-matic transmission from the outgoing model handles shifting for all V-8 models now, even those with 4Matic all-wheel drive, which will be available shortly after launch. The S600 still makes do with a five-speed manu-matic, which serves the force-fed twelve just fine due to that engine’s broad torque curve.
What if all that power gets you in trouble? In addition to the usual abundance of air bags and electronic stability control, Mercedes is introducing a number of new and improved safety systems on the new S-class. The most exciting is Brake Assist Plus (BAS+). Instead of trying to figure out if you’re initiating a panic stop just by judging how hard and fast you jam your foot down on the pedal (that’s regular old Brake Assist, which you get if you don’t order Distronic Plus active cruise control), BAS+ uses short- and long-range radar to determine how far you are from the traffic in front of you and what your closing speed is. If the system can tell that you’re closing in on forward traffic too quickly, or that the guy in front of you just nailed the binders, it will increase the brake force (only after you’ve started braking) with the necessary gusto to avoid a collision. We know what you’re thinking: I have eyes and a right foot; I don’t need some system to help me. Mercedes testing shows that almost nobody reacts as quickly as BAS+, though. We learned this the hard way when, running without BAS+, more than one journalist failed a braking reaction test and nailed the rear end of a PT Cruiser. Thankfully, this was in Mercedes’s fancy simulator, and the damage done was only to their egos.
Another technology aimed at reducing rear-end collisions is the so-called adaptive brake light. Basically, it strobes when you brake hard. Mercedes claims that its research shows a marked reduction in rear-end collisions when cars have the blinky brake lights, but the U.S. government stands unmoved; the system will be offered on all S-classes everywhere else in the world, but in the U.S., only a limited number of S600s with the technology will be sold because it isn’t approved for widespread use.
The western shores of the Atlantic will see the second generation of Pre-Safe, an accident anticipation system originally introduced in the 2003 S-class. Like the original Pre-Safe, if the system foresees a crash, it will move the passenger seat into a lower and more erect position, yank the seatbelts tight, and close the windows and sunroof. The second-generation system also clenches the side bolsters to keep you better planted in the event of a side impact. Aggressive drivers get an added bonus: the seat gooses you every time you hit the brakes hard.
Another new technology that combines safety with comfort is the new Distronic Plus radar-guided cruise control system. Like the original Distronic system, it can vary your speed on the highway to maintain a safe following distance. Also like the original system, it’s far too conservative for urban U.S. conditions, so if you leave the system to its own devices (even set to follow as closely as possible), a steady stream of cars will file into the too-large space in front of you. The new Plus system adds the ability to brake the car to a halt and inch along in stop-and-go traffic. While we haven’t tried this out yet, we fear the system will once again lack the cutthroat maneuvering tactics of our fellow countrymen and leave users accelerating too little, too late to maintain the required two-micron following distance necessary to avoid getting cut off. Distronic Plus’s low-speed operation is made possible by the same short-range radar used in the Brake Assist Plus system, so the two systems are optionally available only in conjunction with one another. With all the plusses featured, Mercedes could make a call to Lane Bryant about doing a launch edition of the car instead of defaulting to the predictable Neiman Marcus pairing. While we aren’t holding our breath for that to happen, we can guarantee a full test of the S-class closer to its arrival on U.S. shores in January of 2006.