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First drive: Benz bites back with fresh S-Class

S Express: New inline six-cylinder engines and a V8 pinched from AMG are the headline acts for Merc’s uber saloon.

Facelifted Mercedes-Benz S-Class range gets new engines and updated tech for 2017


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25 Jul 2017


THE Mercedes-Benz S-Class limousine line-up will be cut from 12 to nine variants when the freshly facelifted uber-luxury sedan rolls into Australian dealerships at the end of this year.

Benz’s decision to streamline the S-Class line-up means the long-wheelbase version of the S350d, and the short-wheelbase versions of the S500 and 300h hybrid will not be returning in updated guise.

Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific manager of public relations and product communications Jerry Stamoulis said most variants would arrive on local soil as part of the December 2017 launch.

“Everything will be December bar the S500 and the S560e,” he said. “I don't have solid timing on them, but they won’t be too long after that.”

The S560e is the plug-in hybrid variant and it replaces the S500e.

Mr Stamoulis said that diesel variants, as well as the plug-in, performed particularly strongly for S-Class range in Australia.

“To give you a bit of an idea how we see the split, based on what the current car's doing, we see 50 per cent of sales being diesel, and 20 per cent being the 560e.”

Sales of the S-Class have dipped to 80 units to the end of June this year, representing a 47.7 per cent slide over the same period last year.

The drop is likely due to the age of the S-Class compared with some of its competitors, including the newer BMW 7 Series and recently launched Porsche Panamera.

Mr Stamoulis said he was confident that sales will improve when the refreshed version hits showrooms.

“What S-Class normally does, like when this one launched, is peak, then it starts to drop off a little bit, but we’ve been very happy with the current S-Class, and how it’s performed,” he said.

Launched in Australia in 2013, more than 1100 W222-series S-Classes have been sold so far – not bad when the cost of entry is $220,000 and extends to $490,000.

For 2017, Mercedes-Benz has left the exterior and interior largely alone – save for the addition of LED headlights – but has worked over its driveline specs from the ground up.

It has also made improvements to its semi-autonomous driving system – something Audi recently detailed with the reveal of its all-new fourth-generation A8 – and its terrain-predicting suspension system.

On the engine front, Mercedes-Benz has gone back to the future, re-introducing a pair of inline six-cylinder engines for the first time in 15 years.

The 3.0-litre petrol six, in particular, uses – for the first time ever in a road car – a 48-volt DC electrical system to power what essentially amounts to an electric supercharger that adds up to seven PSI of boost to the engine’s turbocharger circuit to all but banish lag.

Not only that, but the generator that makes the 48 volts for the compressor is also used to harvest the kinetic energy produced when the S-Class coasts off-throttle, storing it in a lithium-ion battery to be then fed back in the driveline.

It is good for 320kW and 520Nm, while the energy harvesting system chucks another 14kW and 250Nm back into the mix.

Mercedes’ new 3.0-litre turbo-diesel is almost as clever, producing prodigious torque without using much fuel, while AMG’s 345kW 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 will be used in a mainstream Benz – the S560 (which won’t come to Australia) and S600 Maybach – for the first time.

Its Magic Body Control system – which scans the road for bumps and instructs the suspension to compensate – has also been fine-tuned, as has its ability to drive itself.

Mercedes regards it as now being at the very top end of Level 2 autonomy, with improvements to traffic management (it can hold stationary in traffic on adaptive cruise mode for up to 30 seconds and move away of its own accord, for example), terrain recognition (like bends and no-overtaking areas) and active steering assist.

Given Audi has recently launched its new-gen A8 with Semi-autonomous technologies and BMW’s latest 7 Series has also upped the ante, the pressure is on the S-Class to be a tech leader.

So it’s got the brains. Have the new engines got the brawn?The new inline sixes were born of a desire to streamline the production process (they travel down the same casting lines as the four-cylinder inline engines and even share the same valve seat angles) and also carry with them the ability to meet ever more stringent emissions standards – something the company is all too aware of as it prepares to voluntarily recall three million diesel cars in Europe to amend emission software.

As a nice side benefit, the highly advanced engines just happen to go pretty well, too, as determined by our drive in and around Zurich, Switzerland.

And while we’re not forgetting the fact that Mercedes is also debuting a non-AMG version of its potent 4.0-litre twin turbo V8 petrol motor for the first time, it’s the new sixes we’ve come to try.

Australia’s S-Class mix comprises more than 50 per cent of diesel-powered cars – and new or returning customers are going to be more than happy with the new 3.0-litre six-potter.

Its inline design eliminates much of the inherent vibration that can blight vee-angle oilers, and the sheer volume of technical trickery built into it results in a silken smooth, eerily quiet, awesomely strong engine that makes short work of getting the XL-sized S400d up to speed.

It’s not as forceful as the V8 engine, of course – but it’s not far off. And even though our drive wasn’t long enough to make a meaningful call on fuel economy, a long term dash-indicated figure of 6.2 litres per 100km – versus its 5.5L/100km combined fuel economy claim – goes some way towards showing that you can have your cake and eat it, too.

The magic carpet ride that the S-Class’s air-sprung suspension is famous for persists, too, and the steering feel is surprisingly linear and communicative for what is a huge car.

It’s funny – despite the gigabytes of tech on board, the S-Class can occasionally feel a bit too old-school… but in that same moment, you realise that old school actually wasn’t all that bad.

Then you turn on the Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control, and you realise that the S-Class is as much abut tomorrow as it is yesterday. The massively upgraded autonomous driving system is spookily good over an incredibly wide range of terrain that included multiple road markings, road works, junctions, towns and freeways.

The S-Class would serenely and smoothly guide itself through situations that we never thought possible, controlling its speed by using road signs to increase or decrease its pace, stop behind traffic and resume, change lanes with a simple tap and even park itself via an app.

It’s not infallible, of course, and it’s still not a replacement for a diligent driver – but the S-Class’s place as a harbinger of future tech has been firmly reinstated.

The trickery gets more tricky the further you march up the model (and price) order, but our brief run aboard the S400d leaves us wondering why you’d actually want any more.

There’s a truly ridiculous amount of gadgetry aboard an S-Class – it’s even incorporated a set of ‘wellness’ functions that blow scent, play music and change the colour of the interior LED lights to suit your mood – but there’s a price to pay for it all.

As a long-range tourer with an executive jet-style rear passenger compartment, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class wears its heritage with pride, and it has once again been nominated as the German company’s technological tour de force. Cheap it isn’t, but that’s the price you pay for being first.

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