Mercedes-Benz S-Class review: The best car in the world?
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has always been a beacon for the future of the automobile. Powertrain, chassis tech, safety, luxury, impossibly indulgent bells and whistles — you see it first in an S-Class and 5, 10, 15 years later you experience it in more mass-market vehicles. Except, we all know the future is going to be electric, and in that sense the diesel engine silently rumbling away under the hood of this S400d doesn’t really point the way to the future. And truth be told this new S-Class doesn’t shatter new ground in the way it drives.
No, what overshadows everything else, what makes it impossible to argue with the self-proclaimed ‘Best Car in the World’ tag line is the cabin. Sure, the likes of Rolls-Royce and Bentley use finer hides and plusher carpets and so too will the Maybach but the technology, digitisation, equipment, quality and furnishings — even the re-imagining of the smallest detail like the air-flow control of the air-con vents — makes this the best automotive interior, period.
Screens are a big talking point on the S-Class
Where do I start? The screens of course! Bigger is always better and Mercedes has gone BIG with the infotainment. 12.8-inches in portrait orientation, the central screen dominates the cabin and this is the optional 1920×1728 OLED screen (standard is 11.9 inches), not the regular LCDs like in more run of the mill cars including the GLS. Not that I’m an expert on this subject but in terms of clarity, this is the best I’ve ever experienced. In terms of response there’s nothing in the automotive world that comes close; there’s no lag, no delay, no repeated jabbing of icons to get it to do what you want. The menus swipe seamlessly. Tap and immediately what you tap opens up. No wait. Zero frustration. The functionality of 27 analogue controls of the old S-Class has been incorporated into the central touchscreen and, while in normal course, that would have been a recipe for disaster not so in the S-Class. The new S shows the rest of the automotive universe how touch screen controls should and can be done. The air-con controls have their dedicated section so you don’t have to hunt through menus to set the temperature. The screen has gesture control, not the swirling of the finger to control volume like in BMWs but hovering your finger in the near vicinity of the controls is good enough to activate it. No need for pin-point precision. Even cooler is the car notices where you are looking so look at the left-wing mirror and it knows you want to adjust that, no need to punch the left/right mirror buttons! It even claims to turn on the passenger light when you’re hunting for something in there and drop the rear sun blind when you look over your shoulder but we couldn’t figure out how to make that work.
3D digital instrument cluster and “energisers” that let you feel the music
All around the cabin are 250 LEDs and 64 colours to choose for the ambient lighting turning it from a banging nightclub to a boudoir and even calming the whole thing down when you take your parents out for a drive. And I really mean banging, cause the seats thump bass into your back and bum. The Burmester sound system also incorporates “energisers” into the seats that physically thump bass into you in sync with the music. 4D music sound gimmicky but I have experienced it and now nothing else will ever feel the same. There are also 31 speakers including a massive subwoofer in the boot and 1750 watts not only sounds awfully good it can blow your ear drums.
Back to the screens. Look ahead and you get a 12.3-inch virtual cockpit, though calling it that is just so underwhelming. It has 3D display! And you don’t need 3D glasses for it to work. Select the full screen navigation and the directions float on top of a 3D render of the map that includes buildings as you pass by. Click the sport mode and you get red concentric circles diving deep into the screen. Select the reduced display and you have dials floating above the sun-kissed desert, the colours in sync with the ambient lighting. And the ambient lighting tricks! Reduce the temperature and you have blue bullets flying across your side of the cabin and into the doors, increase temperature and you have red bullets flying. And each of the four occupants in the cabin are treated to this trick. One more trick. The blind spot warning while not only flashing in the mirror also gets the entire ambient lighting on that side of the cabin to flash red — it’s just one of the 20 standard driver assistance and safety features that use five radars, 12 ultrasonic sensors and a 360-degree camera. It all pings, pongs, dings and dongs like crazy when you’re driving in typical Indian traffic situations, taking over the brakes also at times — not even the cleverest systems can account for the chaos of Indian roads.
And on safety, the 10 standard airbags also include airbags in the back of the front seats. This is the first-time rear seat passengers get a frontal airbag.
Arguably the most exquisite materials used in a car
Let’s now dive into detailing. Turn on the music and the Burmester tweeters in the A-pillar swirl out. This is nothing new except the way it does it, swirling seemingly endlessly, has everybody whipping out their mobile phones. Everything you touch is metal. The seat adjuster is the usual seat outline on the door except these are all-new controls finished in metal with a knurled metal effect and doesn’t physically move but are pressure sensitive. The entire seat control panel also looks like its floating against the door pad, ringed by ambient lighting. The stalks are new, a knurled metal effect for the wiper control and a new gear selector stalk that also has a metal finish. The air-con vents are a thing of absolute beauty and the intensity isn’t controlled by a rotary dial but a metal button that’s a tactile delight. The screens seemingly float against a panel of polished wood that flows into the doors. The headlamp control is a nice big dial on the right of the steering wheel, mounted on the door, and the engine-start is a mirror image of it on the left of the steering wheel. And the ’wheel itself is a new design, thick-rimmed, flat-bottomed, and dotted on the grips for extra pleasure. There are touch controls and two sets of it, the left operating the infotainment, the right operating the digital cockpit and below that are the controls for the driver assistance systems and audio controls. The paddle shifters are in metal, not plastic like even on the GLS Maybach. This gorgeous helm is the AMG ’wheel that’s standard on the first 150 cars brought to India, which also gets the AMG Line styling kit on the outside together with 20-inch rims and 4Matic all-wheel drive. We will drive later, for now let’s continue pampering ourselves.
Connectivity on the new S-Class
Connectivity? You get wireless CarPlay so leave your phone on the wireless charging pad and forget about it. MBUX recognises Indian accents so you tell the lady, ‘Hey Mercedes! I’m stressed’, and it will switch on the Joy program in the Energising Comfort which plays a gold-themed graphic on the infotainment, matched by gold-hued ambient lighting, calming music, turns on the seat massagers and gets you to relax. All seats get massaging (19 motors!) together with comfort and exercise modes, plus heating and cooling, and all are operated individually.
And all of this is future-proofed with over-the-air capability allowing for remote software updates for more than 50 different components including the MBUX, displays and assistance systems via an embedded SIM card. The Samsung tablet integrated into the rear armrest (not every expensive looking or feeling in this car, to be honest) updated itself when we were shooting.
The seats themselves are the most comfortable ever fitted into a (sort of) mass produced car. You sink into it except you don’t physically sink into it. It sucks the tiredness out of you and that’s even before you turn on all the different modes. Got a crick in your neck? There’s a neck warmer. And of course, the head restraint pillows are the fluffiest yet, something you’ll appreciate even more from the VIP seat.
Press the boss-mode or whatever that button is called and the front passenger seat tips all the way forward, the left rear seat reclines, the foot rest extends and you can stretch out. There’s 16mm more head room, 11mm more elbow room and crucially 24mm more leg room so I — 5-foot-nine-inches tall — can stretch my legs out completely without a bend in the knee. And it’s all thought through wonderfully so even the screen adjusts itself automatically to your eye line, unlike say, the GLS Maybach where you have to physically tilt it down when the front seats slide ahead. And in neither can you reach the screen when you’re in full lounge mode, that’s where the Samsung tab comes in handy to control the MBUX. There are two HDMI ports so you can plug in your Amazon Fire Stick and binge on Netflix on the 11.6-inch screen, complete with 4D sound quality. And both the rear passengers can watch their own separate content via two separate Fire Sticks. Physical and social isolation taken to the next level!
New Mercedes-Benz S-Class chassis
The new S-Class is based on a heavily re-engineered version of Mercedes’ MRA platform (Modular Rear Architecture) and despite intensive use of aluminium, weighs just 10 kilos short of 2 tonnes. It has grown — 34mm in length, 22mm in width, 13mm in eight and 51mm between the wheels. The wheelbase is 3216mm in this longwheel base and overall length is a gigantic 5.3 metres.
To manoeuvre such a massive car, the S-Class now gets rear-wheel steer, similar to the A8 and 7 Series. There are two setups, 4.5 degrees and 10 degrees, and the India-spec cars get the former where you can visibly see the rear wheels turns in the opposite direction to the fronts to reduce the turning circle while parking. This also makes the S easier to drive in traffic while on the open road, at speed, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the fronts to improve stability and handling.
Stick the S400d in Sport mode — a proper physical button — and the body control noticeably tightens up but without much deterioration in the ride comfort. It’s a wonderful thing to pilot. Like a boss on all kinds of roads, there’s performance and handling to waft along at considerable velocity. Rear-wheel steering has to be credited for the ease with which you can drive such a vast car and there’s also 4Matic contributing to the 5.4 second 0-100kmph time. Though with 325bhp and 700Nm from the 3-litre straight-six, you won’t miss all-wheel-drive when it is knocked off the list when local assembly starts.
Brilliant ride quality completely isolates you in the cabin
Of course, more than the handling the focus is on ride comfort and the S gets Airmatic air-suspension as standard together with ADS+ (Adaptive Damping System) and height adjust to clear the nastiest speed breakers. It soaks up small imperfections quite beautifully and you do get an incredible sense of plushness. Of course, the S-Class always offered a wonderful ride quality and this time round the focus in even more on the supreme cabin isolation. Even better news is that when the S-Class begins local assembly (and with it a much-needed price rationalisation) the wheels, in all likelihood, will down a notch from 20 to 19-inches and that should again aid the ride quality.
You also get the option of E-Active Body Control just like the GLE and GLS, though that isn’t offered on the Indian cars. Which is surprising! You probably are already aware of the eye-watering Rs 2.2 crore price of these launch-edition cars and these cars are fully specced, except for the lack of E-ABC. I’ve experienced it on the GLS, cameras scanning the road ahead and softening the dampers in anticipation of bumps and extending the stroke for potholes, all the while ensuring the body stays flat and unaffected by bumps. The system works in enhancing — quite significantly — the ride comfort and it’s not like legislation is preventing it from being offered on Indian cars since the GLS Maybach has it on the options list.
A challenge for regulators to catch up
Legislation though needs to catch up lots of other stuff that the S-Class can do but hasn’t been homologated for. It has a finger print sensor and three-step authentication that enables payments with the car. The digital lights can even project hazards, say road closures, on the road ahead to warn you; it can light up pedestrians, light up road signs, and has a 650-metre illumination throw. The setup uses 1.3 million micro-mirrors to refract and direct the light from three hugely powerful LEDs, which is equivalent to 2.6 million pixels and — theoretically — you can play a movie on wall with the resolution that’s already there.
In Germany, later this year when legislation is implemented, the S-Class will be able to drive itself fully autonomously at up to 60kmph, the legally mandated max speed Level 3 autonomous driving. When legislation raises that speed, an over-the-air update will upgrade the Drive Pilot system. Then there’s Park Pilot auto parking which works within the confines of a networked parking garage where the car can drop you off at the porch and then goes off to find an empty parking spot and park itself there autonomously.
This is the future that has long been predicted but now it’s here, right at our door step. This S-Class I’m driving can do everything I spoke about; it has the tech already baked into it. The challenge is for regulators to put together the necessary standards and infrastructure to test, certify and homologate it. Basically, get ready because, like always, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class previews tech that the cars of the future will sport.
Location courtesy: The Pavilion Mall, Pune