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Attentive passengers
by Thomas Edelmann | 9/6/2013
The lighting design in the new Mercedes-Benz S class remains of cars from various hip-hop stars and starlets - or on a spaceship. Photo @ Daimler AG

“Vision fulfilled” is the headline Mercedes-Benz has chosen for its current ads for the latest S class model. Brings something to mind? “Mission accomplished” declared a banner on the bridge of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, when in May 2003 George W. Bush dropped in to talk to the world about completion of the US military operations in Gulf War II. Short, terse technocratic speak. Mission accomplished. Over. Bush rightly was often made to hear how nonsensical the claim had been, as nothing had been accomplished with the end of military operations. So what does Daimler want to tell us if exactly ten years on it deploys its new Mercedes-Benz S class, its top-of-the-range model, under the words “Vision fulfilled”? Is it even possible to fulfill a vision? Or is it not more a matter of approximating them, of doing justice to them? Well, presumably one cannot expect that much differentiation in an ad claim. A former German chancellor once famously derided the whole idea of a vision when accused of not having one. It was Helmut Schmidt and he recommended that if you wanted a vision you should visit a doctor.

The future – now, immediately

Manufacturers and PR experts have long since been on the hunt for a new automobile as the ambassador of a coming epoch. At the trade fairs, show cars announce long before mass production starts what the near and highly-promising future may be. Following the end of the Maybach, at Daimler the Mercedes S class has regained its traditional role as the outstanding limousine destined to set new benchmarks in terms of quality and innovation. As the vehicle for official presentations, the S class of course is subject to changes in social ideals – and feeds back into them. Since Bruno Sacco bid farewell as Head of Design, the S class has boasted a design that hinges on a matter-of-fact overall appearance and yet details that can at times be almost neo-Baroque in their opulence. This is especially clear as regards the front section of the new model. Beneath the huge upright radiator grill you’ll spot the large air ducts, to be found in other recent Merc limos, too – they not least fulfill a design function. Indeed, the front section seems dynamically pointed, not an easy task given the sheer volume of the car. The F.A.Z. praised the “intelligent form given to representation” but emphasized that Mercedes had rejuvenated its design “albeit with the one or other excess.” At least gone are the predecessor’s protruding wheelhouses in favor of a flowing harmonious overall impression. And only a few years ago you might have been forgiven thinking the structured side had been designed in Munich rather than Stuttgart.

Past – a big fish with a long story

The 126 series has to date been the most successful of the S class versions, and was built between 1979 and 1991, selling some 892,000 cars – subsequent models have not attained anything like its popularity. Today, there are simply too many high-end competitors, too many niche models and carbody versions, to emulate the successes of the 1980s with a single model. “Autos Out – Cities Suffocating in Traffic” ran a March 1991 headline in “Spiegel” magazine. The 140 series was trashed for being a “huge baby” – from 1991 to 1998 some 407,000 units rolled off the belts. Its outer dimensions and weight far exceeded what was the customary European norm until then. In Germany, given its weight and comparatively high fuel consumption the 140 series was considered relatively outdated. Mercedes-Benz faced such fierce criticism that the South German carmaking pioneer opted to put the Smart and A class into mass production. “Spiegel” termed this the auto-industry “perestroika”. When in 1998 a more elegant, streamlined, lighter and slightly less guzzling S class (220 series) hit the road, it was no longer the sole official car used by the German Chancellor. Like Gerhard Schröder, his successor Angela Merkel has also insisted on also having a VW Phaeton, an Audi A8 and a BMW 7er in her vehicle pool. Proportional representation among the automobile upper class.

Support ­– driving, braking, maneuvering

“Vision fulfilled” not only alludes to deceptive images or fantasies, but to technical auxiliaries and assistance systems that have been supplemented, perfected and expanded, and this could lead to a new way of using automobiles. The combination of 20 sensory/acoustic systems is largely still merely an assistant. And the Mercedes S class has not moved so far in the direction of autonomous driving as Google, IBM and Continental want to soon launch on the market. The purpose of the exercise if to avoid accidents and enhance driver comfort.

A whole host of special options mean you can invest not only in wheels, decorative elements, leathers and woods, in accessory programs like “AMG Linie”, “Exklusiv-Paket” or the customized “design” program, but also in technology, safety and comfort. “Magic Body Control”, for example, analyzes road conditions by stereo-cameras that conduct a road surface scan for you. The data is transmitted to your chassis where individually controlled shock absorbers can really augment comfort at up to 130 km/h. However beneficial the standard and optional assistants may be, Mercedes could certainly come up with better names for them.

Assistance gobbledygook – Pre-Safe-Steer-Distance-Lane-Paring-Assistant

Tap in code “P20” and for just short of EUR 2,700 you can book the “Drive Assistance Plus Pack”. It includes the “Distronic”, a cruise control that regulates your distance to the car in front and has been available in the S class since 1998. From 2005 onwards, the technology matured into radar-supported “Distronic Plus”, now accompanied by a “Steering Assistant” and a “Stop & Go Pilot”, which when you’re driving slowly can keep the car in lane and even steer it. Then there’s the “Pre-Safe” brake with active pedestrian protection, the “Bas Plus” braking assistant with “Crossing Assistant”, the “active Blind Spot Assistant”, and the “active Stay-in-Lane Assistant” and “Presafe Plus”, as part of the “Drive Assistance Plus Pack” which must always be purchased together with the “Parking Pack” including the active parking assistant featuring “Parktronic” and reverse drive camera (about another EUR 1,300). The radar technology is not absolutely perfect, for example if close to military radar installations or radar speed traps. Cars coming your way with active radar sets can also upset the system – as can simple dirt on the sensors. Yet even if impaired, the system alerts you in due time that it is not functioning properly.

The new S class comes with small and large safety and comfort systems on an unprecedented scale. Far outstripping rivals, it offers four networked cameras (optional) that visualize obstacles even below the line of the driver’s window (“360° camera”). The optional “Night Vision Assistant Plus” springs into action the moment it identifies dangers on the road at night. A 31.2-centimeter display shows the driver all the requisite data. An “Attention Assist” takes over the moment the driver’s attention starts to wane. A coffee cup pops up in the display along with the suggestion that you take a break.

Mercedes claims that the new S class is the first automobile without any light bulbs. LEDs illuminate the street, and you can choose from seven colors for the ambient lighting in the interior. An “adaptive full-beam Assistant Plus” enables you to control the LEDs. Full-beam remains activated but the cone of light assiduously avoids dazzling other vehicles.

It remains to be seen what driving under the influence of many invisible helpers will be like. How much enjoyment will there still be behind the wheel? What will need to be learned? What abilities to act decisively will soon get forgotten? Will the assistants be annoying or soon be indispensable in ever denser traffic? If you drive, you can override the systems and how that functions and what it feels like is to date a very personal matter. Should the new S class find enough ready buyers, then some of the assistants may soon be greeting us in other smaller autos. And should we not steer in the other direction, then privacy and independence will soon be a mere fiction in cars.

A new but familiar front end. Photo @ Daimler AG
The matched material and color concept wants to create a "of one piece" interior. Photo @ Daimler AG
No, the enterainment center is not as easy to use as a smartphone. Photo @ Daimler AG
Goodbye fragrant tree: the new S class has an "active scenting" within the "Air Balance" package. Photo @ Daimler AG
The fragrant is staged like a mysterious potion. Photo @ Daimler AG
Handmade for wealthy clients... Photo @ Daimler AG
...and perfectly detailed. Photo © Daimler AG
Driving becomes a wellness program. "The 'Energizing'-massage function after the hot-stone principle is the worlds first." Photo © Daimler AG
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a large, elegant big fish with a long story. Photo © Daimler AG
On the back burn three subtle LED flames. Photo © Daimler AG
“Vision fulfilled”? Photo © Daimler AG