2021 Mercedes S-Class: 2 HUD Sizes, Level 3 Autonomy, 4D Sound, 5 LCDs

The 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan will envelop the driver and passengers in unparalleled layers of comfort, safety, technology, and — this is a German car, after all — performance. Most active and passive safety technology comes standard, which is both good and about what you’d expect when the least expensive S-Class sold in the US starts at $96,000 (estimated).

The S-Class sold fewer than 71,000 units worldwide last year, mostly in China, Germany, and the US. But the midsize E-Class and compact E-Class each sold five times as many units, and much of the S-Class tech trickles down quickly. (Total 2019 Mercedes, Daimler, and Smart sales: 2.4 million.)

The US market gets the long-wheelbase S-Class only, which is 208 inches long. It will feature V6, V8, and plug-in hybrid versions; no diesel or four-cylinder here. Also, there’s no pure-electric S-Class anywhere; that will arrive as a separate Mercedes EQS model. US S-Class delivery is expected in the middle of 2021.

The new S-Class has as many as five flat-panel displays, some OLED, and four ways to access and control the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX): voice, finger/fingerprint, face/gaze, and speech.

The outgoing MBUX interface: dual 12-inch LCDs, HVAC outlets below the center display.

Here’s our take on the S-Class’s striking array of new technology based on early data from Mercedes — in particular, from a background document of 60 pages or 24,000 words:

The driver will see a 12-inch flat panel display with switchable 3D effects, and with no 3D glasses needed. A squarish center stack “media display” sits below the four HVAC outlets. This means it’s easier to touch but will require a bit more downward eye movement for the driver to center on. New display styles evoke the old Spice Girls: Discreet, Sporty, Exclusive, and Classic (no Posh, but that’s a given on this car), plus three modes called Navigation, Assistance, and Service. The center console shows no touchpad or control wheel, marking a point of departure from the iDrive concept BMW has used since 2001. This is daring, because iDrive, widely reviled 20 years ago, now tops many infotainment ratings.

The back seat can have three displays: two on the seatbacks, one in the center armrest.

Rear seat touchscreen display.

Mercedes spiffed up the back seat. In the white-hot China market, it’s where the owner sits. In the US, your kids will have gobs of legroom. Optionally, the rear seats recline and the seats have touchscreens, and there’s an available touchscreen controller in the armrest. The side windows can be shaded. An executive package lets the rear passenger opposite the driver move the front seat all the way forward. All of this is the optional stuff that puts the $96,000 base price far in the rearview mirror. But the average S-Class owner makes on the high side of $300,000 a year.

The “Hey Mercedes” voice recognition capabilities expand, Mercedes says, with cloud processing, more and more natural language queries, some commands (“accept call”) that don’t require the wake word, and control from the rear. The cockpit microphone array senses which speaker, and the ambient lighting, which contains more than 250 concealed LEDs, flashes at the speaker’s location.

The premium Burmeister audio system features 22 speakers, or a dozen shy of some poseur competitors — but hey, there’s quantity and there’s quality. According to Mercedes, it provides 4D audio — huh? If stereo is 2D and shaped multi-channel sound is 3D, the fourth D is a set of in-seat transducers that vibrate with the deepest parts of the music. At-home gamers already have vibrating seats to amplify the effects of their weaponry. Yes, it can be disabled.

In your face (gently): Rear seat occupants can have their own front-impact airbags.

Often it’s the guy in the back seat who has key man insurance, not the chauffeur. To make sure he or she is safe, too, the new S-Class offers airbags in the backs of the front seats to provide additional protection in a forward collision. The Mercedes graphic says they’re “fast and gentle.” That’s in addition to inflatable rear seat belts with mini-airbags that MB already uses and in addition to the side (door) airbags and the side head protection airbag that covers both front and rear windows.

The augmented reality version of the HUD equates to a 77-inch flat-panel monitor. The fishbones, or turning indicators, are overlaid exactly where you’re supposed to turn.

Not every automaker offers a head-up display (HUD). The S-Class will offer good and better HUDs, the latter with augmented reality. Translation: The car tracks where your eyes are. Navigation arrows (the “fishbones” in the image above) are presented so they appear on top of where you’re supposed to make a turn or bear off the highway onto an exit. How dumb can drivers be, you might think. But it’s easy to make a mistake if two exits 49A and 49B are 50 yards apart, if there are two left turns in the space of a very short block, if it’s really dark (less so with MB’s headlamp array), or if the driver is in his 50s or beyond (as is the average S-Class buyer).

The perceived HUD size is impressive, as Mercedes calculates it: “The aperture angle of the display is 10° horizontal and 5° vertical, and the image appears virtually at a distance of 32 feet. This display area corresponds to a monitor with a 77-inch diagonal.”

Every 2021 S-Class gets an air suspension. With active body control, if a collision is imminent, it rises up 3 inches to better absorb impacts.

The four roundish towers in the photo above comprise the air-controlled suspension system (as opposed to hydraulic shock absorbers and steel springs). The AirMatic suspension is standard, with continuously adjustable damping. Optional is E-Active Body Control, which leans the car into a turn, like an airplane banks. If radar sensors predict a side crash, the body is lifted 3 inches to more of the impact is absorbed by the door sill (the unibody frame).

Mercedes barely mentions it, but the suspension actually regenerates energy with every up and down oscillation. It’s enough to help re-energize the 48-volt battery controlling it. Not enough to make this a perpetual motion machine. Optionally, forward-facing sensors can scan the road ahead, 1,000 times per second, for imperfections and adjust the suspension to deal with potholes and speed bumps. Things like predictive suspension travel are not new to Mercedes or the S-Class. But the sum of all the new and the enhanced features make this a car apart from BMW, Audi, etcetera. Until their next new model or refresh.

The new S-Class has V2I communications via cellular, potentially V2V as well.

Mercedes will enable some shared safety signaling, apparently via cellular rather than separate DSRC radios. In this Mercedes schematic above, a car in an accident can send a warning to the cloud (and also reach out the Mercedes call center), the driver can manually warn other vehicles of an incident via the cloud, and dangers such as glare ice can be autodetected (by wheel slip sensors) and communicated to police or highway maintenance crews. Just like fax machines, one such car has no impact; two is the minimum to do anything, and when you have a million, it becomes really useful. It’s also more useful when cars can signal each other directly, unless there is zero lag going vehicle to infrastructure (the cloud) to vehicle.

The S-Class in Europe will be capable of Level 3 self-driving. Many cars today do Level 2, where the driver has to be — is supposed to be — 100 percent attentive while the car steers, accelerates, and brakes. Here, Mercedes says, L3 represents a freeway “conditionally automated mode [up to 37 mph / 60 kph, allowing for] “secondary activities such as the in-car office.” Or really long texts. The driver would have to be ready to take over with some advance notice; it’s uncertain if that’s three seconds or 60.

With up to 10 degrees of rear-wheel steering, the S-Class can back into tight spaces. The cool tri-star paint job, alas, is only on the prototype car.

The new S-Class is just one inch shorter than the base Ford F-150. So how do you navigate the narrow streets of Europe or the clogged streets of LA? With rear-wheel steering. Here, too, there are two options, and the premium version allows up to 10 degrees (a lot) of steer angle. It cuts six feet off the turning radius, down to about 36 feet, and makes it possible to back into more parking spaces.

Rear-wheel steering opposes the front steering angle at parking lot speeds. On the highway, all four wheels steer in the same direction.

On the highway when making lane changes, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the fronts, and the car crabs sideways. It’s smoother that way. Wheel alignments cost more, but that’s like asking the cost of yacht fuel. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

This is a car worth waiting for. Since there’ll only 10,000-15,000 sold in the US in the first full year, what’s equally important is how it trickles down to more approachable (cheaper) Benzes, starting with the next-gen compact C-Class that follows the S-Class by 6-9 months. Mercedes is said to be aggressively porting key features such as the multimedia system, MBUX, the bigger (but not Lexus-big) front grille, and the augmented-reality displays.

It’s also important with the long term trend of migration to big cities (on hold with coronavirus issues currently), where affluent buyers want all the safety, tech, and luxury features of a full-size car in a midsize or compact that fits more easily into available urban parking spaces. It gives makers of mainstream cars targets to aim at. You can’t cheaply replicate four-wheel steering, but it may make lead to rear airbags, maybe illuminated seat belt buckles, and bigger if not huge center stack displays. The claimed 60-mile range for a plug-in hybrid is also an enviable target.

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