By Tony Whitney

Even for those of us who don’t shop for automobiles at the high end of the market, new products in the upscale class are always fascinating because they are often a pointer as to what’s ahead for vehicle buyers with shallower pockets.

2006 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
Click image to enlarge

Many of the safety, performance and convenience features we take for granted on affordable vehicles often started off as expensive options associated with the spec sheets of high-end cars. As a result, features that are either standard or optional on flagship cars are worth checking on – there may come a time when some of them will appear on your new Ford, Honda, Chevrolet or Nissan. A good example here is electronic stability control – a wonderful safety feature that could even save your life if your vehicle threatens to get away from you when the going gets slippery or you take a corner too fast. Stability control systems have appeared on vehicles under $20,000 this year, after once being confined to luxurious Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Cadillac, Jaguar and Audi products.

Mercedes-Benz has just launched its new S-Class sedan – a lavishly-equipped car that’s the latest in a long line of similar products from the folks in Stuttgart. As the very latest model in its class, it certainly boasts a few features that even its opulent rivals can’t match. One significant piece of new technology is the car’s Active Damping System, or ADS. This system uses (as you might guess) electronics to regulate shock absorber characteristics and take road conditions, driving style and vehicle load into account. According to Mercedes-Benz, the system adapts the damping forces for each individual wheel to a given situation in just 50 milliseconds. The result is a smooth and level ride even under poor road conditions taken at fairly high speeds. ADS combines with the car’s air suspension system and the settings can be adjusted by the driver according to whether a “sporty” or “comfortable” ride is desired.

Another innovation is Active Body Control, or ABC, which follows up on an earlier generation system on the previous S-Class. Mercedes says that body movements under hard driving are reduced by 60 per cent compared to the old car – a surprising upgrade, given that there wasn’t much to complain about with the 2005 “S.”

In the engine department, some models of the car use a new 5.5-litre V8 which provides a 26 per cent increase in horsepower yet offers the same fuel consumption level of the earlier model. This is typical of so many automobiles these days in that it offers similar or better levels of fuel economy despite enhanced performance. The fuel consumption levels claimed by Mercedes-Benz for the new car read like those of a mid-sized 6-cylinder model, rather than a large, powerful, V8 powered machine.

2006 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
Click image to enlarge

As might be expected, the new Mercedes has the company’s Brake Assist system, which now moves to another generation. Brake Assist Plus (and similar systems from other automakers) aids the braking process by applying pressure when the computer senses an emergency stop situation. Braking power is applied at a far greater pressure and at a more rapid response speed than any driver could manage. I tried this system under the worst possible conditions in Italy not long ago when an incident on the road ahead called for emergency braking. The car seemed to stop almost instantly, with no drama at all and no hint of skidding or slewing. The biggest worry in cases like this is the capability of the car and driver behind.

Mercedes’ Brake Assist Plus can work in combination with the automaker’s Distronic Plus proximity control system, which operates the brakes if the driver gets too close to a vehicle ahead. This system will brake the car to a standstill if needed and operates at all speeds from zero to 200 km/h.

Although much of the technology associated with the new S-Class will remain confined to the luxury class for some time to come, many elements are already finding a home on far less expensive vehicles. It’s my belief that Brake Assist (or some version of it) will be the next “upscale” technology to filter down to the vehicles that most of us buy. Since that technology is tied in to the anti-lock braking and stability control systems, it’s not too great a step to take.

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