First drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
THE S-Class will soon accelerate to resume its usual place at the head of the Mercedes-Benz pack. The big sedan has spent long enough staring up the tailpipes of the E-Class sibling.
For the past 12 months, the smaller and less costly E-Class has been the company's most technically advanced car. It will hold the mantle in Australia until December, when the improved S-Class arrives.
With its midlife upgrade, the flagship launched in late 2013 will surge ahead with even more advanced driver-assist tech and engines.
The coming S-Class is equipped with what Mercedes-Benz insiders call version 4.5 of its driver-aid tech, compared to the E-Class's version 4.0. Assistance tech boss Jochen Haab says the upgrade means the S-Class's set-up is among the most advanced in the world.
Haab says the update should make S-Class owners more relaxed on the road to the self-driving, or autonomous, car. "The changes are not on the safety side. The safety is the same. They're not on the technical side. They have the same sensors. It is on the comfort towards autonomous driving side,” he says.
"We improved the driving assistance features, mainly what was formerly known as Drive Pilot. Now it's called Active Distance Assist Distronic with Active Steering Assist.”
The lousy name, Haab jokes, is not the fault of the engineers working on the technology.
It's a longwinded title for what is very advanced active cruise control. The v4.5 upgrade gets access to even more data stored in satnav maps - the v4.0 E-Class can read speed limits but the new S-Class also knows to slow for curves, roundabouts and intersections.
"It's as if you have a virtual driver in front of you who knows the area,” Haab says. "And you can even choose if he's driving sporty or comfortably or economically.”
Different driving modes vary the way the S-Class (almost) drives itself when the active cruise control is working. The Benz will decelerate more for tight corners in Eco and Comfort modes than in Sport, for example.
On the beautifully marked roads of Switzerland and Germany, where the company introduced the updated limo to international media, the tech was very impressive. It was possible to drive for long distances - 20km to 30km - without touching accelerator or brake on a route with plenty of roundabouts, intersections, curves and speed-limit changes.
Hugely impressive but not quite flawless, the S-Class sometimes reduced speed despite the limit not changing but not once did it fail to observe a lower speed limit.
This technology will come to Australia. Haab believes it will be enabled soon after the updated S-Class arrives though some Mercedes-Benz Australia officials expect it to be available on the first examples to sell here.
A new family of in-line six-cylinder engines also debuts in the S-Class, in place of the V6s favoured for the past 20 years or so.
The 3.0-litre turbo diesels that power the 350d and 400d are smooth, quiet and strong but are overshadowed by the more powerful - and more interesting - 3.0-litre turbos in the S450 and S500, the latter with 48-volt primary electrics and a starter-generator between the engine and the nine-speed automatic.
This turns the car into a mild hybrid but Mercedes doesn't only use the high voltage to add an electrical kick to performance and efficiency. The lithium-ion battery also powers one of the two turbochargers, almost eliminating lag and making the big sedan feel sharply responsive from rest.
Mercedes engineers say 48V tech will appear increasingly on the six-cylinders, as the search continues for ever lower fuel consumption.
The 48V-equipped S500 will arrive a little later than the stablemates. The initial models will be the diesels, the S450, S560 (its V8 with fuel-saving cylinder deactivation), the S63 with an AMG V8 and the super-expensive S650 Maybach with a V12.
Expect prices to change little over the current line-up, so the extensive range will start about $200,000 and top out at $500,000.
As Mercedes marches ahead with tech, some aspects of the S-Class aren't keeping up. The interior is little changed and some of the interior trim options still imitate the feel of a pretentious brothel ... of the 1970s.