First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

It doesn’t take long to learn that long-haul flights in economy class suck. Even an extended visit to the dentist for root canal treatment is less painful, quicker and has fewer side effects than being cooped up for more than 12 hours in a glorified tin can.

If you’re tall, you have to be a contortionist to achieve any semblance of comfort. And sleep? Forget about that unless you pop a couple of sleeping pills.

However, turn left when you enter the plane and life takes on a whole new meaning.

A private bar, a chef on hand to prepare your meals, a shower at 35000ft – nothing is too much trouble when you travel in the sharp end of the plane.

It’s the domain of a select few whose bank accounts contain more digits than a cellphone number and who appreciate the finer things in life.

Very much like the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which was launched in Zurich, Switzerland, last week.

Part of the brief when designing/assembling the new (there are about 6 500 new components) S-Class was pretty straight forward: ‘‘To build the best car in the world.’’

Whether they have achieved this will be open to debate, but what they have undeniably done is showcase the best of what the Mercedes-Benz brand has to offer — from luxurious comfort to state-of-art technology and top-notch safety features.

Visually the vehicle remains an S-Class, with classic design lines handed down from previous generations still evident.

After all, when a car is voted ‘‘2016 bestselling luxury sedan worldwide”, you are largely going to maintain — but strive to improve on — what is a winning formula. And that is exactly what Mercedes-Benz has done.

Take safety as an example. It’s already recognised as one of the safest vehicles in the market, but now we see the introduction of the next generation of Intelligent Drive, taking the vehicle — and the brand — a step closer to autonomous driving.

Besides Active Lane Change (press the indicator and the sensor system checks whether the adjacent lane is free of any other vehicle and will move you across), Cruise Control with Distronics (keeping your vehicle at a safe distance from those in front by automatically braking and accelerating) and Evasive Steering Assist (supporting the driver in evasive manoeuvres), we now have Active Distance Assist.

Based largely on information fed to the vehicle via an improved onboard camera and radar systems, the car can now look ahead up to 250m while gathering information on road surfaces, approaching curves, intersections and traffic lights.

Evaluating all this information the car then autonomously drives you at a safe speed.

To illustrate this capability, we took a drive along a postcard-perfect road skirting the Swiss-German border.

Initially, putting your safety in the hands of a computer isunnerving.

But as T-junctions are navigated, sweeping curves handled with ease and traffic circles negotiated — all with minimal input from the driver — your confidence in the vehicle definitely increases.

Perhaps the most significant change to the new S-Class lies in the beating heart of any vehicle: under the bonnet.

There are three completely new engines: a six-cylinder petrol engine, a six-cylinder diesel engine and a V8 biturbo petrol engine.

Power output ranges from 250kW found in the S400 d right up to a blistering 463kW and 1000Nm in the top-model S65 AMG.

To illustrate how fuel-saving technology has evolved, consider that the S500 produced in 2005 had a consumption figure of 11.7litres per 100km. Fast-forward to today and the new S500 has a claimed figure of 6.6litres per 100km.

Any vehicle that carries the coveted AMG badge is always in demand, but we managed to grab a S63 and briefly explore its dynamics.

The S63 sees the introduction of a new 4-litre V8 biturbo engine with cylinder deactivation replacing the previous 5.5-litre V8 biturbo.

A smaller engine it might be, but power is up 20kW to 450kW and 0-100km/h is dispatched in 3.5 seconds.

Brash, raw, even intimidating and at times eye-watering — the cacophony of sound and emotion is clearly audible through the hefty-looking tailpipes if afforded the chance to rip through the new nine-speed AMG sports transmission.

Unfortunately, strict enforcement of speed restrictions — apart from on the renowned autobahn — meant the S63 was kept on a pretty short leash. But drop the lead for just a moment and that unique roar — although slightly muffled when cocooned within the luxury of the cabin — is always lurking a short tap away with your right foot.

Not restricted to any particular model, but across the range, the S-Class oozes luxury and is beyond reproach when it comes to materials used and craftsmanship. You expect, and get, the best.

From exclusive nappa leather seats in a choice of rich colours such as nut brown to perforated leather cladding on the dashboard; from every imaginable comfort and safety feature to small touches such as ambient lighting, fragrancing and massage function. Yep, the S-Class ticks all the boxes when it comes to exclusive motoring.

So, did Mercedes-Benz achieve its ambition to ‘‘build the best car in the world” when it comes to the new S-Class?

It is a question that will be argued ad nauseam in various motoring magazine and online forums with probably no clear-cut conclusion.

But what is not up for debate is that Mercedes-Benz has pushed the boundaries in so many fields with this S-Class, and has ultimately produced an extraordinary car. – Bruce Fraser

  • The new S-Class will be launched in South Africa in January. The lineup will include — in long-wheel base versions — the S350d, S400d, S450, S560, S560e, S600, S63 AMG, S65 AMG, Maybach S560 and Maybach S650.