Professional Driver Features

Inside story: the next-generation Mercedes-Benz S-class

Mercedes is taking no chances. Cameras and mobile phones are checked in at the desk, and we’re ushered into a darkened room, deep within Mercedes’ advanced technical centre near Stuttgart.

I’m here with an elite group of UK journalists to see what’s inside the room - three examples of 2013’s most anticipated car, the next-generation Mercedes-Benz S-class. But there’s a catch – Mercedes wants us to see the car from the inside only. So the three cars are covered with light-absorbing black material, hiding the car’s distinctive lines.

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It’s bigger than the current car, with 12mm more headroom for the driver, as well as 14mm more shoulder room and 10mm more elbow room in the front. In the rear, there’s a 14mm increase in rear knee room and an 11mm improvement in shoulder room. Rear headroom is roughly the same.

Climb inside and it’s easy to understand why Mercedes is so keen to highlight the new S-class’s interior. It’s striking, classy – and different. The first thing you notice is the dashboard, which represents a radical departure that will surely set the tone for car interior design in the future.

The current S-class has a digital panel, but set in a traditional cowl.  On the new car any vestige of an analogue dash has gone. Instead, the driver is faced with what appears to be a metre-long iPad, displaying everything in high resolution. In fact it’s two 12.3in TFT ultra-widescreen monitors side-by-side, brilliantly designed so the whole unit appears to ‘float’ in the dashboard space, an effect enhanced by subtle backlighting.

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The “dashboard” screen contains the two primary dials, with additional information in the space between them. This information includes dynamic graphics of the car, highlighting safety systems such as lane departure warning or simply if a seat belt has not been fastened in the rear. If this information requires more screen space, for example if the infra-red night vision camera is being used, the speedometer and rev counter automatically resize down to make more room.

Meanwhile the central “sat-nav” screen contains all the other information – including entertainment, internet connection, Google Maps-integrated sat-nav and vehicle systems information, controlled by a further enhanced version of the now-familiar COMAND rotary input device mounted on the centre console. This has been improved, with extra buttoms in front of the control wheel and a touch-sensitive keypad under the padded wrist-rest. This is programmable – so for example a favourite phone number or sat-nav destination can be assigned a 0-9 number, giving one-touch access to frequently-accessed information.

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This screen is a twin-view screen, similar to that fitted in the Jaguar XJ, which allows the front seat passenger to view different information to the driver. So the passenger can watch a DVD while the driver follows the sat-nav. The infotainment system is backed by a huge 200 gigabyte hard drive – enough for a substantial music and movie library. 

Meanwhile passengers in the rear can view separate information on the rear headrest-mounted screens. Indeed, four different displays could be viewed – so rear passengers can watch TV or surf the internet while the front seat passenger watches a film. The car is a mobile wifi hotspot, with enough connectivity for every passenger’s phone, tablet and laptop. And a special Mercedes app can be downloaded – Apple only for now, with Android to follow – allowing the car’s infotainment system to be controlled from the passenger’s own device.

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The screen displays may be hi-tech and futuristic, but the rest of the interior is classical ultra-luxury, with high-quality leather finishes, including quilted, perforated leather on the dashboard and super-soft headrest cushions on the seats. The lower half of the dash features a sweep of wood with four chrome air vents and an analogue clock – the only non-digital display in the car. “This is a very consciously classical centrepiece, to contrast with the very modern dashboard,” said Mercedes interior designer Peter Balko.

Rear seat options include a bench seat, or two separate seats with a large central console, featuring airliner-style fold-out lap tables. A third option sees an Executive seat with massage and integrated foot rest, which can recline to 43.5 degrees. This “chauffeur package” is only available for the nearside rear seat. It also allows for 77mm more maximum kneeroom, as the front passenger seat can be moved further forward and folded toward the dashboard.

Front seats are ventilated and have a more advanced massage function, including a “hot stones” effect, where the massage points within the seats are heated. This hot massage function is optional for the rear seats too. The steering wheel and the armrests in the doors can also be electrically warmed.

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The ambient lighting effect extends throughout the car, with lights at floor level and under the door cappings, as well as below the dashboard and in the door handles. The ambient lighting comes in a choice of seven switchable colours – controlled by the command system screen. The colour palette is limited to seven – two reds, blue, pink, purple and two whites. No yellows, greens or “ugly colours” said one engineer.

As well as the look and feel of the materials inside the car, Mercedes has also addressed the smell of the vehicle. A fragrance dispenser is an option – it fits inside the glove box and disperses one of four specially developed Mercedes scents – or “moods”. Other manufacturers have done this before, but Mercedes’ scents are more subtle, and are designed to give the passenger a sense of well-being. They’re not overpowering but are strong enough to overcome the aroma of valeting products.

The fragrance dispenser is part of an Air Balance package, which cleans the air coming in to the cabin by using an ioniser, which kills off bacteria and viruses. The fragrance device is a €350 option, with each fragrance costing €59 for a jar that will last 10,000 miles or so. And if you don’t like any of the Mercedes scents, you can fill an empty jar with any scent you like. So if a regular customer wants the great smell of Brut in the car, you can provide it.

Cabin noise has also been addressed. Without specifying a number, Mercedes claims the cabin will be quieter than the current S-class, largely thanks to several layers of sound-deadening materials applied inside and outside the bodyshell, including advanced textile-based coverings below the bodyshell and reflective coatings below the carpets. In total these add 70kg of weight to the car. Computer simulations were also used to measure the wind noise around the car and redesign the floor pan to minimise the airflow sound.

To fill the silence inside the car, a powerful 24-speaker, 24-channel German Burmester hi-fi system is a top-line option. The woofers are actually integrated into the bodyshell, so parts of the S-class’s structure act as a resonance chamber for the sound system.

What happens next? 

Mercedes wants to give the car a launch away from the motor show circuit, so we’ll finally get to see the undisguised outside of the Mercedes-Benz S-class on May 15, in Hamburg. We’ll get to drive the car in the summer, and it’ll go on sale in the UK toward the end of 2013.

The range is likely to be larger than the present line-up. There will be two wheelbases as at present, and the 3.0-litre diesel will remain the top seller. But hybrids will also feature in the range, as will four-cylinder diesels. There is already an S250 in Europe, and this might come to the UK next year – Mercedes won’t finalise its UK line-up, or its pricing, until closer to the on-sale date.

More likely is a S300 Diesel Hybrid, using the four-cylinder diesel in tandem with an electric motor – essentially a very similar powertrain to that of the new E300 Diesel Hybrid. The S-class has a bigger boner, so more batteries could be concealed in the space, giving greater reserves of electric-only power. 

Also on the cars is a plug-in hybrid, probably with a petrol engine. This will have a battery pack mounted behind the rear seats, though it won’t compromise boot space quite so much as on some existing hybrids that follow this arrangement.

Further down the line, an extra-long wheelbase Pullman version is under development, intended as a replacement for the now-defunct Maybach brand. It’s expected in 2015, along with an S-class coupe and possibly a more sporty, low-roof four-door version – a supersized CLS – as Mercedes promises more niche models in the future.

Mark Bursa

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