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Mercedes S-Class wows with 3D cameras and night vision

Image: Mercedes S-Class
The Mercedes S-Class, to be launched in 2014, is packed with blow-your-mind details: LED lights, a perfumer, radar, 3D cameras.The Detroit Bureau via Mercedes

There was a time when luxury cars were defined by their sheer size and mass, their power, performance and, of course, exclusive details like leather seats and wood trim.

Those factors distinguish the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but there’s more to the redefined German flagship that fit the changing nature of the auto industry. From its LED lamps to the 3D cameras, radar and night vision systems that allow the new sedan to virtually drive itself, the new S-Class is a technical tour de force that will likely have competitors racing to catch up.

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The long-awaited remake of the classic full-size luxury sedan was staged at an Airbus factory in Hamburg, Germany – no surprise because parent Mercedes-Benz also holds a stake in the French airline manufacturer. But the venue was clearly chosen to underscore the technical sophistication of the new S-Class.

Mercedes officials noted that it will be the first automobile to dispense with conventional light bulbs, opting instead for more advanced LED technology for everything from the head to taillights, and all those small indicators, reading lamps and mood lights in-between. All told, there are 300 LEDs in the interior alone, 56 in each headlamp and another 25 in each taillight. Oh, and you can choose from seven different colors for the interior lighting, with five dimmer levels and four distinct lighting zones.

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The mammoth, 104-page press release covering all the details of the new car is overwhelming. The section on sensors runs longer than most new car announcements.

There’s the latest version of the Mercedes Distronic technology, using both cameras and radar to monitor the vehicle’s surroundings. It allows the new S-Class to keep pace with traffic, come to a complete stop in a tie-up and then start rolling again. It triggers the brakes if a collision seems likely and even turns on the flashers when one does occur.

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The latest in lane departure warning systems will even take control if a drowsy driver starts to drift into an adjacent lane.

Short of the near desktop-sized displays on the Tesla Model S, the new Mercedes S-Class will feature some of the largest video screens ever stuffed into an instrument panel, two of them 12.3 inches each. The primary, reconfigurable display handles traditional duties, such as speed and engine RPMs, while the right panel oversees Mercedes’ latest infotainment technology.

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As the maker revealed during a session halfway around the world at the annual Google I/O developers’ conference, there will be more apps. Mercedes is even developing a so-called “Heat Map” system to guide a motorist to the center of the urban action by visualizing areas with high concentrations of night clubs, restaurants and shopping centers.

Oh yeah: There will even be an automatic perfume atomizer option lifted from the Maybach brand abandoned last year.

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Among the many firsts Mercedes is claiming for the 2014 S-Class, the big sedan will introduce the Magic Body Control system. Rather than wait until sensors detect a bump or pothole, it will use the stereo camera system to look for uneven pavement and automatically adjust the standard-issue air suspension.

As always, Mercedes plans to offer different versions of the new S-Class, including diesel and gasoline drivetrains and a plug-in hybrid, due out a year after the car’s launch.

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The S550, slated for the U.S. market, could leave potential buyers wondering why they would need anything else. Its twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter V-8 will pump out an impressive 455 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque – more than the direct competitors from BMW, Audi or Lexus – and enough to launch the big Teutonic sedan from 0 to 60 in just 4.8 seconds. That’s nearly a full second faster than the outgoing model.

Mercedes won’t discuss EPA mileage ratings yet but hints that it should do better than the outgoing S-Class. That’s partly because of lightweighting and extensive improvements in aerodynamics – and Mercedes says that wind drag is now a wee bit better than that of a Toyota Prius.

Expect a sizable share of the S600 Pullman model, a stretch version, to be shipped to China, the world’s fastest-growing luxury market, where the wealthy prefer to be chauffeured.

The Pullman model will feature two rear-seat layouts, much like the old Maybach S63, including a Business Jet-style two-passenger configuration that will introduce a new hot-stone-style massage function.

The new model’s looks could generate some controversy, especially the much larger grille and the distinctive LED lamps.

Don’t expect to see final pricing until closer to the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class launch this autumn, but expect about $100,000, a moderate increase over the current $93,000 base.

The Stuttgart-based automaker has found itself slipping in the luxury market in recent years and now lags in an unfamiliar third place behind BMW and Audi. The relatively exclusive nature of the S-Class means it won’t help Mercedes regain the lead – at least not directly – but if the new design and features click, the maker is betting it will also bring in plenty of less affluent buyers for C-, E- and other models that could give the brand a needed boost.

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