A new S-Class is not a thing to be taken lightly. Especially when it gets a dollop of spanking new tech.
Only a few cars have managed to close the gap that the S-Class leaves with every new generation. The benchmark in mainstream automotive luxury has ruled the roost for over four decades, and on the eve of the launch of its newest iteration, the stunning backdrop of the Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad provided the perfect setting for another episode of history in the making. BMW’s new 7 series is barely a couple of years old, Audi’s latest gizmo on wheels, the A8, is yet to arrive in a 2019 guise, so that leaves the facelifted S-Class to become the newest member of the yacht club.
There is simply no denying that it stands out with its regal stance without even trying too hard. Its perfect proportions are now sharpened at two ends with a sparkly new headlight cluster that wears the three-eyebrow LED DRLs and multi-beam LED headlights, new bumpers on the front and rear, new wheel design and all new engines under the hood including the in-line six cylinder diesel motor that powers the S350d that I’m driving.
All about the money seat
Like always, it’s the cabin of the S-Class that has kept it ahead of the competition. Its blend of uncompromising comfort and tech wrapped in traditional touches that don’t alienate its mature audience is what makes it so approachable.
Starting with the executive seat in the rear which is the ‘money seat,’ Mercedes has spent a lot of its Euros on making that one seat better than the other three. Not that the other three will leave you sore, but the executive seat can give you a hot stone back massage while your butt is being cooled by ventilated seats. Now that seems special, doesn’t it?
Special is what is stretched all over the cabin. From the huge digital instrument cluster and infotainment display with crisp graphics that mimic an Acer Predator gaming laptop to the open-pore wood-trim that surrounds the cabin, there is no item that feels cheap. Even the plastics that are hard to touch never feel scratchy or inexpensive.
The most prominent new feature in the interior of this S-class is the three-spoke steering wheel that looks sporty and is also user-friendly. Touchpads for your thumbs will now allow you to control the entire COMAND system without ever letting go of the steering wheel. Frankly, this is a much better way than the cumbersome jog dial/writing pad in the center console.The touchscreen isn’t a thing that Mercedes believes in and they have stubbornly kept away from touchscreens even for the rear passengers. The two hi-res screens mounted on the back of the front-seats headrests are within reach for the rear passengers but they will still have to poke and prod remote control buttons to access its myriad functions.
Since the same remote can also control of the main screen upfront along with other passenger screens, we know that they have thought about the rear-seat occupants in more ways than one. Each passenger gets a wireless headset of their own for a more personal viewing or listening experience. They can control all sorts of blinds, sunscreens and the most well-damped cupholders in automotive history, perhaps!
Magic carpet ride
So while you’re exploring all this and the S-class simply wafts at 240kph, what does it feels like sitting in that executive seat? It doesn’t take more than a few seconds to understand why this car is regarded as the ‘best car in the world’. From the way it takes off in a hushed but authoritative manner to the way it disguises crazy triple-digit speeds, the S350d simply engulfs you in a cocoon of comfort.
The goose-feather pillows cradle your head like it were a newborn baby’s nest and the perfectly contoured seats adjust for recline, lumbar, thigh extension and if you wish, the whole show of pushing down the front passenger seat and deploying the footrests for the full first-class treatment. Again, this isn’t the newest party trick but it’s the inherent comfort of the S-class’s ride quality, suppleness of suspension and perfectly judged firmness of seats that makes the back seat experience so memorable.
Even on the cobbled inroads that lead out of the Taj Falaknuma Palace hotel, the S35d simply dismissed the uneven surface as a speck of dust on the road. It remained flat, composed, and I bet if there were a glass of water kept on the dashboard, it wouldn’t spill a drop. All S-Classes get air suspension as a standard, but not the Magic Body Control, but in most cases, you won’t even miss it since this in itself is just as good.
Driving with digital aids
Back in the front, driving this car is just as pleasant an experience. The strong engine is the most powerful diesel that Mercedes have ever made. At 286bhp and 600Nm of torque, it certainly feels adequate. It masks speed so effectively with its combination of quietness, smoothness and comfort that you have to keep reminding yourself to borrow some help from digital nannies just to keep yourself in check. The big ticket features for this new model are the inclusion of radar-based driver assistance systems like Lane Departure Warning, Brake Assist and Steering Assist.
Activated by the two buttons near the headlight controls, these are part of the feature set that put this Merc somewhere between Stage 1 and Stage 2 of autonomous driving standards. Two radar sensors in the front and three at the back, coupled with more than 10 ultrasonic sensors all around the car, work to keep a safe distance from the car in front, align you back into the lane if you keep veering off or brake for you if you’re caught looking out at the latest Calvin Klein billboards.
The Blind Spot Assist is especially useful in conditions where there are always fellow commuters who think your left indicator is broken or jammed and want to slip through. The Park Assist not only helps you park in a tight spot (only 30cm more than car lengths required), but it also gets you out at the touch of a button. This may need you to put more trust than normal in the car's systems, but this time the Germans aren’t fooling around. Hang on...did they ever?
All the tech may sound absurdly complicated but it’s really a single step process in actual use and Mercedes has ensured that the new steering wheel accommodates all the necessary buttons. So all you need to do is activate the cruise control and the rest falls in place. The steering assistance will only work completely on the hands-free mode for 15 seconds and after 30 seconds will start beeping and if that too doesn’t make your hands work, it will register your disinterest in driving as an emergency situation and will brake the car to a halt and auto-dial emergency services. So, don’t use it as a party trick in front of your slow friends.
The advanced Distronic Cruise Control and the Lane Keeping Assist systems are also smart enough to work when there are no clear marking lines on the road, latching on to the car in front (Mercedes calls this Swarm mode) and that car could be up to 250mts away for the S-class to trail it and stay in line. Of course, it’s susceptible to distraction given the many kinds of commuters on the road, humans and otherwise.
But, for the first time, these systems don’t feel like gimmicks since they actually worked on the highways outside Hyderabad and worked pretty well, reducing the need for constant input while covering a distance of 150kms. It may sound redundant, but it makes the already calm experience of driving an S-class, even more relaxed!
If you do wish to switch off all the aids because, you know, you don’t always want the steering to keep buzzing under your palms, the S350d is a mile-munching beast of the most refined kind. Switching from Comfort to Sport mode does drop the suspension by 20mm but out on the highway, there is no denying that this car is made first and foremost for cruising.
The engine packs a punch but the way it is delivered through the smooth 9-speed transmission is effortless and sublime. The diesel motor is probably the most refined we have encountered and it is impossible to tell its nature from inside the cabin and while it’s no sports car, it does make for an entertaining cruiser as long as you don’t let your hair down around the bends.
Connectivity and entertainment are aplenty. There’s NFC, Bluetooth and USB to connect your smartphones in any fashion you prefer, along with support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. In fact, it comes with some new app support for CarPlay as well, including Amazon Prime Music and WhatsApp, both of which we haven’t encountered on other versions of CarPlay till date.
There’s a Qi-charging pad for the rear passengers in the armrest too so they can wirelessly charge their iPhone X (or something similar) while you watch your own Blu-ray in the available drive on the 10.2in HD screens. With the magical ride quality that S-Class offers, it’s easy to make use of all the available gadgetry since you won’t be bounced around at the back like other lesser imitations.
The 13-speaker, 590W Burmester audio system makes an appearance and those midrange speaker grilles still mesmerise like always but the sonic impact isn’t the same as the 3D surround version of the same system. It’s certainly well balanced with an emphasis on clarity but soundstaging isn’t special and S should also stand for special.
After just a few minutes of experiencing the executive seat of the new S-class, you begin to understand the inherent strength of this car. It carries on its broad shoulders over a 100 years of Mercedes pride and engineering excellence and it distills down to this one seat. In some ways it’s tangible, in some ways, it’s not.
The comfort, technology, safety aids and the refinement are easy to touch or feel. But that feeling of being on a pillowy cloud while being whisked away from the world outside is more of a subliminal sensation that has to be experienced. Along with its super high-tech safety aids, gorgeous display screens, future emission-compliant engine and an asking price not much higher than the outgoing car, it makes it good value for money, believe it or not!