ROAD TEST: Mercedes-Benz S 400 Hybrid
When Mercedes comes out with a new S-Class it’s kind of a big deal.
Bristling with magical gizmotronics and seemingly impossible features, it’s a showoff car not only for the well-heeled owners who drive them, but for Benz itself which uses this flagship model as a showcase for all of its fresh tech.
True, most people will never sit in an S-Class let alone experience its night-vision displays, massaging seats, and a Magic Ride Control system that (in V8 models) uses cameras to scan the road and pre-adjust dampers for dips and bumps before the wheels get to them.
But remember this is a sort of technology launchpad, and much of this stuff will probably trickle down to the more everyday cars most people can afford. Airbags, ABS brakes and stability control started life in luxury cars like the S-Class and it’s hard to find a car today without those items.
For more than 50 years the S-Class has also epitomised big, German luxury and it’s no different today. On test here is a relatively low-spec S400 Hybrid in the shorter of two wheelbase options, and it’s still a hulking piece of kit that wafts like an apparition in a breeze and often requires multiple takes at parking places.
There’s a supreme level of comfort happening here, and besides its hovering Airmatic suspension this car will go out of its way in terms of occupant hospitality.
An air-freshening function that releases atomised breaths of perfume through the vents in not one, but three levels of intensity can be found if you stroll far enough into the labyrinth of settings menus. And it’s not just any fragrance – the optional and replenishable scents were developed by a famous perfumer in Lower Saxony. And what good is perfumed air if it’s not clean in the first place? In this car the air is filtered through charcoal made from coconut shells, and is further “relaxed” by an increased concentration of negatively-charged oxygen ions. True story.
A MASSAGE LIKE NEVER BEFORE?
Massaging seats that heat and cool are nothing new of course, but now Mercedes is taking things further.
The new S-Class also gets heated armrests, and each seat gets 54 separate electric actuators and 14 pneumatic massaging cells that allow you to pinpoint that crick in your back and attack it with Thai-like accuracy.
In total there are 100 electric motors inside the cabin to make things work and move; seven ambient mood light settings; 24 speakers; six radars; 12 ultrasonic sensors; five video cameras; 500 LED lights and zero traditional bulbs. Normal light bulbs are too inefficient, too dim, too unreliable and too common for Mercedes – a perfect example of technology that will inevitably find its way into your less-expensive car one day.
Sounds all very complicated, doesn’t it? Well, it is. A little too complicated at times I found. There are often many ways to get a single, simple job done and I sometimes caught myself paying more attention to my comfort than to the road ahead. There are three different ways to adjust temperature for example, and none of them as easy as it should, or could, be.
Interesting then, that original plans for this car included a self-drive function that was later set aside due to legislative red tape.
In fact Mercedes says this S-Class is equipped with everything necessary to take you from A to B autonomously, but was forced to “switch off” the feature until the powers that be allow it. Seems to me that much of the car’s functionality, even from the driver’s seat, was intended more for passengering than for driving.
Same can be said for the way it drives as well I’m afraid. While the S-Class, regardless of specification, is fantastically comfortable in ride quality, it trips up in other areas. Though weighted nicely and suffering no self-centring issues, the steering can feel wavering and electronic when held dead-ahead.
The brakes also overtly display their fly-by-wire composition and are too grabby at low speeds. I only mention this because other super luxo-saloons are equally good at being driven and being driven in.
I must commend Mercedes on its hybrid efforts though, as relatively speaking this is a pretty good one. Other than a shallower boot due to big battery packs at the back, the S400 hardly gives away its petrol/electric makeup.
Power comes from a 3.5-litre V6 and an electric motor inside the gearbox with combined power of 245kW and 620Nm. The transition between the two is near seamless, and if the three (yes, three) colour graphic flow charts are turned off you’d be hard pressed to know what’s going on underneath.
We returned a decent average consumption of 12.5l/100km – impressive for a car this big and feature-loaded – and recorded a best 0-100km/h sprint of 8.2 seconds. Quite a way off Merc’s claims of 6.3 litres and 6.8 seconds respectively, but we’re reasonably impressed nonetheless.
Believe me, I haven’t even scratched the surface of the new S-Class’ capabilities and features. And if you want a car that’s at the forefront of automotive technology there’s no place else to look but here.
That said it is a tad disappointing as a driver’s car, probably because it’s itching to get the job done itself. At R1 231 100 the S400 is also the second cheapest of 10 models. So yes, it’s expensive too. But you knew that already. -Star Motoring
Mercedes-Benz S 400 Hybrid
Engine: 3.5-litre V6 petrol, electric motor
Gearbox: 7-speed automatic
Power: 245kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 620Nm @ 3500 - 5250rpm
0-100km/h (tested): 8.2 seconds*
Top speed (claimed): 250km/h
Consumption (claimed): 6.3 l/100km
Price: R1 231 100
*Test conducted in Gauteng
Audi A8 3.0T Quattro (213kW/420Nm) - R1 011 000
BMW ActiveHybrid 7 (260kW/500Nm) - R1 107 899
Jaguar XJ 3.0 SC Premium (250kW/450Nm) - R1 163 770