I'm late. I'm really late.
What started to be a splendid day quickly deteriorated into a comedic triptych of hapless blunders. Alarm clock? Integrated into the television. Television? Controlled by the remote, not to be found. By the time I woke up, breakfast was over and my American colleagues, the few that remained, had been paired off for the day's driving. I was left alone with the keys to a brand new S-Class 4Matic, cell phone, full tank of gas, route book and a continent of pavement. There are worse ways to spend the day, however, than spending it enjoying Mercedes' new technology to the fullest in playing catch up.
The previous day's activities consisted of picking up the S-Class at Mercedes-Benz's Sindelfingen Customer Center, where each year thousands of fortunate souls pick up their European delivery cars. We then drove two hours to Offenburg Airfield for a look at the technical innovations packed into the new S-Class.
Mercedes-Benz has introduced two key technologies to the S-Class platform--one that appeals to the logical side of the human psyche, and another that appeals to the visceral emotions that make driving performance cars an exhilarating experience.
Heading the bill, and appealing to the emotional side of things, is the new 5.5-liter V12, pumped up by twin exhaust-driven turbochargers. The announcement that Mercedes-Benz would be building its own twin-turbo V12, to be badged as a Mercedes, astounded the press and public alike. Before now, uber-sedan development was left to the guys at AMG and its supercharged V8.
The two engines offered in the new S-Class share identical displacements with those that preceeded them: 5513cc for the V12 and 5439 for the V8. Horsepower for the V12 measures in at an identical 493 bhp (500 DIN). However, the previous V12's single belt-driven supercharger belted out its ponies at a lofty 6100 rpm compared to the new V12's 5000 rpm.
Everyone knows that horsepower is only one side of the performance equation. What really makes forward motion happen is torque. The turbo'd V12 decidedly bests the V8 with its 590 lb-ft of torque from 1800 to 3500 rpm. The V8 delivers only 516 lb-ft from 2750 to 4000 rpm. (It seems absurd to be writing "only" in regard to 516 lb-ft of torque.)
In building the twin-turbo V12, Mercedes-Benz engineers sought to minimize the weight impact of adding the boosted performance by casting some engine cover pieces in magnesium instead of aluminum alloy. This means that even with the added weight of the watercooled turbos, intercoolers, piping and alterator, the weight penalty is mitigated to 65 lb.
On the more practical side of things is Mercedes-Benz's "Pre-Safe" system, which is the world's first production car with a safety system that can detect pre-accident conditions and take appropriate actions. In developing the system over the past six years, Mercedes-Benz engineers looked at how accidents occur, the vehicle's attitude just before and during the accident, and how this window of opportunity can be used to better protect the driver and passengers.
Pre-Safe can be viewed as an extension of Mercedes-Benz's Electronic Stability Program (ESP), which uses ABS wheel sensors to detect and control oversteer (ass out) and understeer (nose plowing). Oversteer is corrected by applying brake pressure to the outside front wheel. Understeer is corrected by applying brake force to the inside rear wheel. This instantaneous correction works on all road surfaces to provide an extra degree of driving safety.
Under Pre-Safe, when ESP is unable to correct on the fly, and the car begins to spin or plow (and also during panic braking), the car does the following:
Front passenger seating position is brought upright and/or forward or backwards to optimize safety; Rear seat cushion angle is changed as needed; The sunroof is closed in the anticipated event of a rollover; Driver and passenger seatbelts are electronically pre-tensioned.
Pre-tensioning the seatbelts provides an extra margin of safety and is reversible. Should the accident not occur as anticipated, the seatbelt tension is released and everyone goes on his or her merry way. If there is an accident, the pyrotechnic one-use seatbelt tensioners are deployed to lash the occupants to the seats.
To test the system, a Mercedes-Benz test driver first did a panic stop in front of a road obstacle, followed by slides on wet skidpads. Due to the dramatic nature of the sliding, the tensioning and seat position change wasn't overly obvious. It wasn't until the driver regained control and the belts were loosened that the deployment of Pre-Safe was perceived. For straightline panic braking, it was more noticeable.
The Road Less Traveled
Armed with this knowledge and these technologies, I set upon the task of getting lost. Baden-Baden isn't the easiest place to navigate, like most cities in Europe, and trying to read a route book and drive at the same time proved to be impossible. When asked if a co-driver could be located, the German press officer scolded me for not having been at breakfast when partners were linked up. Duly chagrined, I began anew to motor along the chosen path.
Many motor journalists (I've probably done this myself) sometimes paint portraits of press test drives where one is catapulting down the autobahn, through the black forest with a Wagner CD blasting through an impeccable sound system. Truth be known, most of my route drives in press cars have consisted of going from one very nice place to another very nice place on roads I would consider provincial. There's nothing worse than being stuck behind a plodding plow-driving farmer when you're in a 500-bhp car and are running over an hour late.
After getting lost trying to read the map book for the upteenth time, and testing the traction limits of the 4Matic and the seatbelt tensioners, I decided to pitch the route book, blow off the first stop and drive on to the next via a seemingly more direct route.
There is an undeniable freedom in being liberated from a schedule, particularly one that requires rally-driver precision, and just following a compass. I figured the worst I could do is end up in a foreign country. I was fairly certain I would not fall off the earth anytime soon.
With this newfound freedom, I was able to better concentrate on the act of driving and was able to better experience the superb performance stuffed under the hood. Freed from holding on to a route book and a seemingly impossible schedule, each corner could be appreciated for what it was, one kink in the road connecting to another straight section followed by another kink.
Agrarians be dammed, and their tractors with them. This was driving at its best, driving one of the best.