Anyone who has had to navigate the sort of rutted roads we get in Detroit – indeed, in much of the country these days as cash-short road departments cut back on the patching crews – knows that sort of moment instinctively. You’re soaring along when you spot the sort of pothole or bump likely to jar your fillings loose. Likely as not, it’s too late to do anything but suffer the consequences and check to make sure your teeth are still intact.
Of course, it might help to have an extra set of eyes doing nothing but scanning the road ahead to give you fair warning of what’s coming. Unless you have a single-minded friend willing to ride shotgun, Mercedes-Benz has an alternative – one that might be a bit better, in fact – that it’s debuting on the all-new 2014 S-Class.
Dubbed Magic Body Control, it uses a stereoscopic camera system mounted just behind the rearview mirror to scan the upcoming pavement. What it sees is fed into the microprocessor that controls the new sedan’s suspension system. The results can be pleasantly delightful, Magic Body Control making all but the worst potholes, ruts and speed bumps vanish as if they never existed. It’s not perfect; the technology only works during the day – and only in Comfort Mode – and requires a clean windshield to see through. Nonetheless, it highlights the sort of thinking that went into Mercedes’ new flagship sedan.
Indeed, the fully loaded 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic we had a chance to drive in Ontario recently was nothing less than a technical tour de force – though the less digitally savvy among us might prefer to just think of all those electronic bells and whistles as a bit of Teutonic magic.
While there are still a fair number of drivers who are proud Luddites, preferring the purely mechanical, even the most basic of today’s vehicles are loaded with a wide range of high-tech systems, such as electronic stability control, digital engine controllers and the like. When it comes to the most sophisticated of automobiles, such as a fully-loaded S-Class, you’re going to be dealing with more electronics than you might find in an upscale home.
In fact, Mercedes has a term to describe how it all comes together, “sensor fusion,” or a blending of the various cameras, radar, sonar and other sensors that scan the world around the new S-Class. “It’s paving the way towards (fully) autonomous driving,” suggested Dieter Zetsche, the Mercedes brand boss and CEO of its parent Daimler AG, during a briefing prior to our first drive of the S550.
The technology onboard is designed to not only smooth out the pavement but also minimize your chances of getting into a crash – while reducing the odds of a serious injury or death in the event a collision is unavoidable. It will automatically squeeze itself into a tight parking spot. And it will make it easier to either work or relax in the cavernous back seat. In fact, if you’ve faced just a little too much stress during the day, you can even settle back for a “hot stone-like massage,” as we discovered in the back of our sedan which had just every box on a long, long list of options checked.
The good news, whether you’re a Luddite or just someone who believes in old-fashioned luxury values, the design team in Stuttgart wasn’t held back. Its first priority was coming up with a sedan that truly looked the part. That meant eliminating some of the more awkward details from the last-generation Mercedes S-Class, such as the almost comically oversized rear fender flares.
Now, not everyone is going to be completely pleased with the new results. While the back wheel arches are more well-proportioned on the new Benz sedan, the grille is decidedly larger than before. It’s framed by distinctive LED headlamps and a string of diamond-like LED running lamps that flow from grille to fender. It’s just short of too much bling, providing just the right sense of balance and prestige without the bloated feel of S-Class models of the past.
That said, there’s a bit of a generic luxury look to the sedan from some angles, especially approaching the new S-Class from the rear. But there’s no question that someone driving this vehicle has “arrived,” even if they’re just setting out on a long journey.
One of the more impressive details we discovered during the background briefing was the fact that the new S-Class has a drag coefficient, or Cd, of just 0.24. That’s a number that even some of the sleekest sports cars might envy, and it’s a figure that translates into improved performance as well as better fuel economy.
A number that was less impressive was the new S-Class mass, at around 4,600 pounds, or significantly more than some of the other premium-luxury competitors. But where Jaguar with the XJ and Audi with the A8 have migrated to primarily aluminum bodies and platforms, Mercedes stuck with a more conservative and traditional approach that retains a primarily steel construction.
That said, this is not the Teutonic tank of the 1990s, when Mercedes was using brute force and mass to deal with issues such as interior noise levels – going so far as to double up on window glass to keep the world outside at bay.
Our drive found that the new sedan is reasonably nimble and fun to drive despite the sheer size of this full-size luxury car. Slip into Sport Mode and you might have reason to want to get behind the wheel rather than just settle into the massaging back seat and hand the keys to your chauffeur.
Speaking of chauffeurs, Mercedes faced a particularly perplexing challenge in developing the newest take on premium luxury. “The challenge is how do we harmonize the differing world demands,” noted Mercedes USA’s CEO Steve Cannon. The big difference is that Chinese luxury car buyers tend to prefer sitting in a lavish back seat, so, “We designed the front of the car for the U.S. and the rear for China,” he laughed.
The maker did a surprisingly got job of bringing the two worlds together, but there’s no question that rear passengers make out especially well. Tick all the option boxes and you not only get the massaging function but seats that can fold down along the lines of what you’d expect in a business jet. There’s a new infotainment system with large screens built into the back of the front seats, and a 24-speaker Burmester audio system. And the new S-Class offers an in-car WiFi network to improve your connection to the outside world, whether for work or play.
You won’t feel entirely jealous up front, however, Mercedes integrating two huge 12-inch video screens into the instrument panel, one replacing the traditional gauge cluster, the other handling a wide range of infotainment and vehicle control functions.
As for that owner who actually likes to drive? Eventually, the new S-Class will be offered with a wide range of powertrain options, including a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid version set to debut at the upcoming Frankfurt Motor Show and, of course, the requisite AMG high-performance model.
For the moment, S-Class buyers will have to “settle” for the S550 in long-wheelbase mode. That will yield a 4.7-liter twin turbo V-8. While the engine may be a carryover, Mercedes engineers are inveterate tinkerers and they’ve worked still more magic here, bumping the horsepower count from last year’s 429 to 455, while the 2014 S550 now makes 516 foot-pounds of torque – which come on fast and reach peak at just 1,800 RPMs.
That power is pumped through a deliciously smooth seven-speed gearbox that does a reasonable job of shifting in manual mode, though the closest most buyers likely will get is the occasional foray into the Sport setting. Nonetheless, despite its mass, the new Benz will launch from 0 to 60 in just 4.8 seconds and keep the engine working until it reaches an electronically limited top speed of 130 mph.
(Mercedes-Benz reveals new S63 AMG 4Matic. Click Here for more.)
While Mercedes promises to deliver 20% better mileage than the outgoing S550’s 15 City/25 Highway rating – 24 mpg with the 4Matic — it has yet to put the new sedan through final EPA testing. One factor that should help is the addition of a new Stop/Start function. The better news is that this feature – which shuts down the engine while idling then automatically fires it back up when you’re ready to move – operates nearly seamlessly. You might not even notice on your daily commute.
You also might miss some of the other magic at work as you cruise around town facing oblivious pedestrians and texting teens who blast through red lights. Thank the real magic Mercedes has worked with a range of new digital safety features we’d have to double the length of this review in order to describe.
There’s the latest version of the Mercedes Distronic technology, using both cameras and radar to watch what is happening ahead and around the new vehicle. It lets the new S-Class keep pace with the traffic flow, come to a complete stop in a tie-up and then start rolling again. It will trigger the brakes if a collision seems likely and even turn on the flashers when one does occur. The latest in lane departure warning systems will even take control if a drowsy driver starts to drift into an adjacent lane.
(Click Here to read about Mercedes’ spin on the golf cart of the future.)
The vehicle will constantly watch for pedestrians and animals and in urban driving can bring the big sedan to a complete halt if one walks in your path. Out on a highway, the newest-generation Night Vision system will help spot not only pedestrians but deer and other animals. The system will even flash a spotlight to warn people out of your path. Meanwhile, a smart lighting system can block the brights from blinding oncoming drivers without having to switch to regular beams.
When it comes to lighting, Mercedes officials note that the new S-Class is the first automobile to completely dispense with conventional light bulbs, opting instead for more advanced LED technology for everything from the head to taillights, and all those little indicators, reading lamps and mood lights in-between. All told, there are 300 LEDs in the interior alone, 56 in each headlamp and another 25 in each taillight. Oh, and you can choose from seven different colors for the interior lighting, with five dimmer levels and four distinct lighting zones.
All told, it took the maker 104 pages of press release material to explain the features of the new S-Class. We’ll mercifully cut things a bit shorter here. But there’s no question that the new S-Class sets a new benchmark for in-vehicle technology. The big question is whether it will be more than the typical motorist can cope with.
Overall, it was difficult to be anything short of impressed, even overwhelmed, by the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic we drove. The vehicle is handsome, if in a slightly generic way, and as lavishly equipped as one could begin to imagine. It’s powerful, quick, and as nimble as one might hope for in a vehicle of this size.
(Mercedes planning to introduce an S-Class plug-in hybrid. For more, Click Here.)
We can imagine plenty of buyers are already calling their local dealers and plunking down cash deposits to get behind the wheel of what is unquestionably the new benchmark in the premium luxury segment.