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First look: inside the new Mercedes S-Class
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d assumed the ‘mainstream’ luxury car class was on the wane. The wealthy are buying SUVs and Bentleys, not poshed up German saloons that look a lot like lesser models (step forward, Audi A8), aren’t they?
Well unsurprisingly, Mercedes doesn’t think so. A new S-Class lands later this year, and we’ve been to see it. Well, when I say see it, we were taken, having handed over our phones, into a pitch black studio, the only light coming from the interiors of the three cars sitting within.
This is what Merc wants to communicate - that the exterior of the S-Class doesn’t matter too much - it’s the inside that counts. So we were allowed to have a play and learn all about the new tech Merc is working on; tech that, a few years down the line will be in the A-Class, Golf and probably any Kia and Hyundai you care to mention.
Is it revolutionary? No, the driver still sits on one side, there’s an engine at the front, a boot at the back and you still have to get in and out of regular opening doors. But from there on the focus and dedication and effort that’s gone in is staggering.
The design is a massive step forward - it’s sweeping and elegant, makes heavy use of ambient lighting, and has a floating instrument panel that comprises two 12.3-inch screens, the quality and resolution of which is like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else and makes the new Range Rover’s hesitant, low-res screen seem years behind. It’s quite something as animated S-Class’ open their doors and wheel across the screen as you try to configure various settings for colour of light or strength of massage.
Yes, provided you tick the right options box, your new S-Class will be able to give you a Hot Stone massage, simultaneously using 14 air cushions in the seats and separate heating elements to pummel your back. Other massages are available. The headrest alone adjusts in six directions. You will never, ever, find exactly the right seating position.
The seats and steering wheel are both heated, and concerned that you might develop a chilly elbow, you can even have armrest warmers. Really. For £350 or so you’ll be able to have the Air Balance package that ionises the air and includes a perfuming system. I’m not convinced - this was something Citroen was messing about with five years ago, but of course Merc has gone the extra mile, developed four scents that come in pots and mount in the glovebox. The scents will cost about £50 each and last about a year, or you can refill the canisters with your favourite aftershave.
I don’t know where to start with the satnav and infotainment system, nor with an on-board data system that comprises not only Bluetooth, but wireless and KleerNet and allows you to run the whole car from your iPad if you so desire. There’s a 200gb hard drive, app functionality and the optional Burmester stereo has 24 speakers and 1540 watts of power. I’m no expert on in car sound systems, but I can’t recall anything else that has had better 3D effect, vocal clarity or so completely deafened me.
The rear seats come in a variety of formats depending on which of the three wheelbase lengths you choose. What’s new is that the backrests no longer mount to the rear bulkhead, but float free. This reduces noise and vibration levels and allows the seat to adjust in more directions. Like the old Maybach, top spec rear seats include separate electric rests for your feet and calves. More interestingly, each rear seat also has two built in airbags. Because you can now recline to 43 degrees, Merc found that in an accident, a rear passenger could submarine under the seatbelt, so one airbag mounts under the seat base to shove the leading edge up and another is built into the seatbelt itself. How much must all this development have cost? The man in charge of the seats told me that development had taken three years and there were separate teams responsible for the massage, the base structure, the materials, the design, the safety…
The chaps in charge of NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) have what they call an articulation index - how easy it is to talk and be understood at speed. They looked at the pitch and tone of most human voices and worked with the sound insulation, vibration reduction and aerodynamics to ensure that any noise that did come in was at a different frequency, this improving the understandability of speech.
Any firm going to this much trouble means business. Merc is reinforcing the fact that, since Maybach bit the dust, the S-Class is its flagship and it will go to any lengths to make it the ‘best car in the world’. I’m not sure that this amount of effort will be reflected in European sales, but I doubt Merc will mind too much about that. China and Asia are expected to be the big markets. So, we’ll have to wait for full tech details - Merc admitting there will be a hybrid, but going no further than that - and in the meantime reflect on whether the back-seat of an S-Class is actually a better place to kick back and relax than your own front room.