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.