The wraps come off the next iteration of Mercedes' popular flagship
22 June 2005

Mercedes’ new flagship makes its public debut at September’s Frankfurt Motor Show and departs radically from the seven year-old model it replaces, with a striking exterior, increased dimensions and more modern interior. Fresh petrol and diesel engines are among a raft of hi-tech chassis, safety and environmental innovations.

Merc officials hint that prices for the new S-class, codenamed W221, will rise by about eight per cent over those of the outgoing model to offset increased levels of standard equipment, suggesting a range from around £57,500 for the base S350 through to more than £100,000 for the S600.

You won’t have to look too hard to recognise the new S-class. With a larger, more upright body, it looks more imposing than its hugely successful predecessor, which has chalked up 485,000 sales since its launch in 1998. The bold new exterior was created under the watch of Mercedes design boss Peter Pfeiffer, and is claimed to set the tone for a range of future models, including the next generation C- and E-class.

The familiar S-class nose and tail have been extensively reworked, but it’s the taut sides that represent the greatest departure from today’s model. Key styling cues include large, angular headlamps wrapping well back into the front flanks, prominent wheelarches reminiscent of those on the Mazda RX-8 and a deep swage line along the sides.

The rear has an altogether different appearance, with a free-standing bootlid similar to that on the larger Maybach. The body is once again made of high-tensile steel and is claimed to be even more rigid than the outgoing S-class. In a bid to keep weight down the bonnet, bootlid, doors and wings are fashioned from aluminium.

The new S-class has grown in every dimension over its hugely successful predecessor. Length is up by 33mm in short-wheelbase guise and 43mm in long-wheelbase guise to 5076mm and 5206mm respectively. Width also increases by 16mm to 1871mm, while height extends by 29mm to 1473mm. The wheelbase increases by 70mm to 3035mm in the short-wheelbase version and by 80mm to 3165mm in the long-wheelbase version. This shortens the overhangs quite appreciably, and allows gains in interior space. The boot increases in capacity by 60 litres to 560 litres.

Inside, Mercedes has followed the lead of BMW’s iDrive with the new Comand controller - a rotary knob located between the front seats controlling the air-con, hi-fi, sat-nav, suspension settings and a range of other functions. It works in combination with a colour monitor, and does away with scores of buttons on the dash. As with the new M- and R-class, the gearlever for the standard seven-speed automatic transmission has also moved to the steering column, freeing more space between the seats.

Through the years the S-class has introduced safety features such as anti-lock brakes and airbags, and the new one is no different. Among its technological arsenal is a series of newly developed preventative safety systems that are design to go to work before an accident has even occurred. Among them is Brake Assist Plus. This registers the distance to cars ahead via radar and warns the driver, first on a display in the instrument binnacle and then via an acoustic alert, if the gap between cars becomes too small or the closing speed is too high. If a rear-end collision threatens, the brake booster is automatically triggered and the ideal braking force is applied.

Also making its debut on the new S-class is a second-generation version of Mercedes’ Pre-Safe system that automatically pre-tensions seatbelts, inflates air cushions in models equipped with optional multi-contour seats and closes the windows when deceleration exceeds a certain level; the idea being to envelop and support occupants. Other highlights include a revised version of Merc’s Distronic radar-controlled cruise control, and View Assist, which uses infra-red light to scan the road in low light conditions at distances up to 150 metres. A camera records images and displays them in real time on a small screen in the main instrument binnacle.

Underpinning the new S-class is a brand-new platform structure coupled to a heavily revised version of the outgoing model’s much-praised suspension. All models receive Airmatic air suspension, offering a range of different damping rates, self-levelling and reduced ride height above 80mph for greater aerodynamic efficiency. An improved version of ABC (active body control) will continued to be offered as an option on all but the S600, on which it is standard.

Despite the big technological push, the new S-class won’t use the E-class’s recall-prone electro-hydraulic Sensotronic brake system. In its place is a revised version of its predecessor’s hydraulic set-up dubbed Adaptive Brake. It incorporates a number of additional functions such as wet braking, where the brakes are lightly applied to clear water from the discs when the windscreen wipers are activated, and a hill-hold function. The parking brake also becomes electronic, spelling an end to the foot-operated brake.

At launch there will be a choice between two petrol engines: a 272bhp 3.5-litre V6 in the S350 and a 388bhp 5.5-litre V8 in the S500. The latter is the first in a series of new four-valve-per-cylinder V8 powerplants. With 82bhp more than the outgoing S500’s 5.0-litre V8, it is claimed to accelerate from rest to 62mph in 5.4sec - 0.9sec quicker than its predecessor. Top speed is electronically limited to 155mph.

Also due for introduction early next year is a revised twin-turbocharged 5.5-litre V12 in the S600. It receives added turbocharger boost pressure for a 17bhp hike in power, taking its reserves up to a generous 517bhp. Of greater sales significance here in the UK, however, is the new S320 CDI model running the excellent new 231bhp 3.0-litre V6 common-rail turbodiesel. Other engines are set to follow, including a 4.6-litre V8 petrol in a new S450 and the recently unveiled 315bhp 4.0-litre in a S420 CDI. Mercedes also harbours long-term plans for a hybrid version of the S-class using either a petrol/electric or diesel/ electric system. ‘We have provided packaging provisions for a hybrid system,’ said S-class project leader, Hans Multhaupt. Although normally rear-wheel drive, as with the old car, Mercedes is planning a four-wheel drive 4Matic model, although it is unclear if this will be offered in the UK.

Our Verdict

Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The Mercedes S-Class is a fine luxury car and a technological masterstroke. It is calm but rewarding

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