13 December 2004

Mercedes-Benz will take the luxury car to a new level with the sixth-generation S-class, revealed here ahead of its world debut at September’s Frankfurt Motor Show. Ditching the familiar appearance of today’s six-year-old model, the new S-class, codenamed W221, adopts a leaner, more edgy look. While the shape of the front end is refreshingly sleek, the rear has more than a passing resemblance to the Maybach über-limo.

At the forefront of the S-class’s technological offensive is a series of new safety features that form part of Mercedes’ upgraded Pre-Safe system. They include an early warning set-up that uses an upgraded Distronic cruise control system to identify objects in front of the car. When it detects a car pulling in front suddenly at motorway speeds, it automatically triggers the Pre-Safe system, tightening the seat belts, moving the seats to a pre-determined position and closing the windows. The same process is triggered when the ESP (electronic stability program) determines a total loss of traction for a prolonged period.

The new S-class will also be equipped with a lane-departure system which will monitor road markings and warn about unintended lane changes. Also set for introduction is an optional night vision system, which projects enhanced images of the road ahead onto a dashboard monitor. Merc’s system is based around a newly developed infra-red sensor that is claimed to identify objects quicker and deliver much sharper images than existing thermal systems. Inside, Mercedes plans to improve the S-class’s already impressive safety credentials with a knee airbag, together with improved front, side and curtain ’bags.

The S-class will also get a boost in performance. In come Mercedes’ new four-valve-per-cylinder V6 and V8 engines, replacing the existing three-valve-per-cylinder units. From the outset there will be a 3.5-litre V6 as well as 4.6-litre and 5.5-litre V8s. Later on there are plans to extend the range of engines with a twin-turbocharged version of the new 5.5-litre V8 and, as with today’s model, a similarly configured V12. Topping the line-up will be a tweaked version of today’s 6.5-litre V12 from AMG. It is rumoured to produce up to 630bhp and a massive 810lb ft of torque. Of greater importance to UK buyers will be two new common-rail diesel engines. They include a 3.0-litre V6 in place of today’s 3.2-litre in-line six and a new 4.0-litre V8 that replaces today’s similarly sized engine (which is not available in the UK).

All models will get Mercedes’ 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox, with the lever mounted on the steering column and operated by a new shift-by-wire arrangement. This set-up was first aired on the R-class concept, which uses the space freed up between the driver and front-seat passenger for additional oddment stowage areas. Rear-wheel drive will be supplemented by an optional 4Matic four-wheel-drive system. Problems with the hydraulic-electric SBC braking system (see panel, right) forced Merc to revert to traditional hydraulic stoppers. However, they will be upgraded to include ‘wet braking’ (where the calipers are lightly applied in wet conditions to clear water from the discs) and a development of the traffic-jam friendly ‘stop-and-start’ braking system, used on the E-class.

Also included is a further development of ESP and new-generation anti-lock brakes, the latter reworked so that the pulsating effect felt through the pedal when it kicks in is reduced. More aluminium ensures weight won’t be much up on the 1735kg of today’s entry-level S350 petrol. And, in keeping with tradition, there will be standard and long-wheelbase versions. UK sales begin at the end of 2005.

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