Mercedes-Benz S-Class: Model of safety

By Matt Greenop

This Benz nearly drives itself

The new S-Class will reach New Zealand towards the end of this year. Photo / Supplied
The new S-Class will reach New Zealand towards the end of this year. Photo / Supplied

There is no real change in expression on the old man's face as more than two tonnes of mega-luxury comes lurching to a halt just a few metres away from him.

There was absolutely no driver input into the evasive manoeuvre that stopped Mercedes-Benz's first new S-Class in a decade from slamming into his legs, but he didn't seem impressed in the slightest - although, of course, his head is made entirely of rubber.

The German safety engineer in the seat next to me is less subdued - "See?" he says triumphantly as yet another demonstration goes completely according to plan. "Just like I said it would."

It's hard not to get caught up by the sheer enthusiasm that this group of Mercedes engineers exhibits when talking about their latest safety systems - and although the old man is a dummy set on a slider to mimic pedestrian behaviour, it could just as easily have been the real deal.

German engineers have a reputation, and not one completely undeserved, as being staid and serious.

But all of these systems tucked into the company's flagship S-Class, in its traditional role as Benz's technology showpony, are their best work, and will show up further down the Mercedes model tree.

The car can essentially drive itself - although legislation everywhere is years away from accepting hulking metal machines capable of thinking for themselves - with a suite of high-tech goodies grouped under the banner "intelligent drive".

With the full complement of boxes ticked, the new generation S-Class can avoid pedestrians, making up for drivers who are ignoring their surroundings. It can tell the difference between people and animals and alter its reactions to suit. It can use active systems to prepare its passengers for the impact of an inattentive following car, and despite the silly name, its Magic Body Control can make hitting a judder bar or even a kerb at pace feel like running over a garden hose.

We're in Muskoka, a couple of hours from Toronto, Canada, at a small airport where the wealthy touch down in their Gulfstream jets before grabbing their seaplanes and heading for their weekend hideaways, according to an obviously envious local.

The S-Class models we're evaluating fit in with this theme quite well - even at the lower end of the spectrum this is a model that's well out of reach of the common man.

Pricing and final specifications for the Kiwi market are to be confirmed, but the line-up starts at $210,000, rising to $537,000 for the S65 AMG.

After experiencing some of these systems in the consequence-free simulator, transported from Germany to Canada alongside about 35 of the real thing, and having had an inspired explanation of how the systems work from one of the top engineers over dinner the night before using salt and pepper shakers (the S fitted into this demo quite nicely), there was no real preparation for a full run-through of the features.

Reading through the list of safety systems it's hard not to get confused. But hurtling head-on towards an oncoming car with a potential collision speed of 140km/h while an engineer gleefully explains why he doesn't have to touch any of the controls as the car applies a touch of brake to one corner to avoid the collision is convincing.

The S-Class is traditionally the model in which Mercedes introduces its latest technology - like anti-lock brakes and airbags - but this time many of the new tricks have already been revealed in the new E-Class.

Magic Body Control is one impressive feature that the E didn't get - and is exactly the type of thing that would be hard to believe without experiencing it.

Taking several runs at a large judder bar with the system on and off revealed a surprisingly effective technology that is perfectly suited to obstacles found driving in urban environments.

Hitting big judder bars or kerbs will usually at least send a nasty shockwave through the vehicle, or even break suspension and steering components. Magic Body Control uses one of the S-Class' eight cameras - a stereoscopic array mounted behind the rear view mirror - to map out road conditions, even recognising potholes.

The test judder bar set up at the Muskoka airport was not a pleasant experience at all when the car's suspension was set in sport, which disables the system (especially with an awareness of how much these cars are worth).

Switching to comfort mode, and thus re-engaging Magic Body Control, almost completely eliminated the shock as the car adjusted each corner to best cope with it.

A huge pothole on the test route was mitigated by the car pushing the threatened wheel downwards, again softening the blow. If I hadn't tried it, I wouldn't have believed it.

There's no doubting the car is clever - Mercedes staff at the launch event admitted that every S-Class iteration, usually onceevery decade, is a tough act tofollow.

But it's the luxury that sells the S, and a huge interior redesign has carried off the update, adding lots of functionality without making the interior too busy.

The driver gets a razor-sharp LED display through the old-school two-spoke steering wheel, and another, longer screen to the right of the wheel displays everything from media and 3D-rendered navigation to seat heater, cooler and massager settings.

The advanced mulitmedia brain can even feed content to the two rear-seat screens, and adjust the audio system so only those who want to hear music, for example, are in the firing line.

Smartphone apps for iOS and Android devices can control functionality and stream media over Bluetooth.

Amazingly, there are no lightbulbs in the car at all; instead 500 LEDs handle illumination duties. They include 300 for the interior, 56 in each of the headlights and 35 in each tail light, which can dim and brighten according to conditions so as not to blind following drivers.

The Burmester audio system is impressive, to say the least, with 27 speakers and about 1500 watts peak of Class D power, but one criticism is definitely reserved for the
overtly bling speaker covers in brushed aluminum, highlighted by the car's customisable interior light system.

It's a touch more likely to be welcomed by buyers in China where big, shiny grilles and ample back seat legroom are essentialfor good sales.

And for those who prefer to be driven like many S-Class buyers, especially in that chauffeur-loving Chinese market the two rear seats are so comfortable that they're
bordering on decadent.

Plush leather seats with all of the luxury settings, big screens, electric blinds and aeroplane-style folding tables (engineered far better than the aviation inspiration behind them) make the S-Class one car that tempts even the most driving-enthused to hop in the back and be taken for a ride.

With the ''intelligent drive'' system gaining cleverness at an alarming rate, autonomous cars might allow this sooner that we'd expect.

The S-Class model range won't be seen in its entirety in New Zealand there's even a hybrid version of the S500 on offer in Europe and the US, as well as a battery-toting S300 with fuel consumption figures as low as 3.5L/100km that are unlikely to get to us.

The S350 Bluetec is the sleeper in the range, with a three-litre V6 offering 190kW and 620Nm and doing so very quietly indeed. Acceleration is surprisingly punchy in
the smaller S, but for the effortless acceleration that most S-Class buyers would be expecting, the S500's turbocharged V8 with 335kW and the floating comfort of Magic
Body Control would be the obvious choice.

New Zealand will see the first cars in the last quarter of this year, when we'll get the S500 in both short and long wheelbase versions, a BlueTec 350 diesel six cylinder in short
wheelbase, and for enthusiasts with a bit of demerit wiggle room left, the short wheelbase S63.

Next year we'll see a twin-turbo V6-powered S400, and a diesel version, as well as the monstrous long wheelbase V12 S600.

Mercedes-Benz New Zealand boss Ben Giffin expects the S500 to be his best-seller.

Safety first

Mercedes-Benz S-Class tops with safety features:

DISTRONIC PLUS: Adaptive cruise control par excellence maintains distance from the car in front, even when there's no road markings. The driver's hands must be on the wheel, but no inputs are needed and the car does it itself.

ACTIVE LANE KEEPING ASSIST: Steers the car back on course if it crosses a centre line if the driver doesn't respond to warnings.

BAS PLUS: Avoids head-on collisions and even watches for cross traffic threats if warnings aren't heeded. Can bring the car to a full stop if required.

PRE-SAFE: Watches for vehicles and pedestrians, and can prepare the car for an emergency stop by winding up windows, applying brakes and pre-tensioning seatbelts.

PRE-SAFE PLUS: Warns vehicles approaching from behind by flashing tail lights and locks brakes in event of an imminent collision.

ADAPTIVE HIGHBEAM ASSIST: Keeps high-beam on but screens oncoming traffic and vehicles in front from being blinded. Can see other cars from up to half a kilometre away.

NIGHT VIEW ASSIST PLUS: Recognises pedestrians and animals, highlighting them on the dash, and will flash a strobing LED at people to make them easier to spot. Animals don't get lit up, as their reactions are unpredictable.

COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST: Between 7 and 250km/h the driver is warned of an impending crash and if there's no response will attempt to brake the car safely in the optimum stopping distance.

ACTIVE PARKING ASSIST: Finds carparks that can accommodate the car, tells the driver and then offers the option of doing the parking for you. The driver need only put the car in drive and reverse to manoeuvre in and out of parks.

- NZ Herald

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