November 28, 2021

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The glitzy electric Mercedes EQS could be the most important Mercedes in decades

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Throughout much of that history, Mercedes-Benz has remained a dominant maker of big luxury cars. Over the past few decades, if you wanted a nice, comfortable car for around a hundred thousand inflation-adjusted dollars, your handful of top choices would almost surely have included a Mercedes and maybe a few European competitors and maybe a Lexus.

But Mercedes is facing a worldwide shift towards electric cars that’s bringing entirely new competitors into the market. Not just Tesla, but new startups like Lucid and Faraday Future are bringing, or planning to bring, high-priced electric luxury cars over the next couple of years, and they threaten that formerly small market with new competition.

Mercedes has taken a big step by creating an electric version of its flagship model, the car that defines the brand. This is like Porsche making an electric 911 or Jeep an electric Wrangler. Those things haven’t happened yet but, when they do, it will be critical that those vehicles are done right because the brand image will be riding on them. Mercedes has, with the EQS, brought its brand into the electric era and done it properly. With the hardest job out of the way, Mercedes now has a chance to capture future electric vehicle buyers with upcoming less expensive models. With all the new competition entering the market — startups like Tesla and Lucid and traditional rivals like Audi — Mercedes is starting out from strength.

CNN Business drove the new electric Mercedes around the California’s Central Coast, and judging by the new EQS, the world’s oldest car company still has some deft moves left. This isn’t Mercedes’ first electric vehicle -— there was the rather mundane B-class Electric hatchback, for instance — but it is the most significant. Earlier electric Mercedes cars followed the traditional automaker EV playbook. They were adaptations of existing petroleum-fueled models and did not represent a threat to the primacy of the cars from which they were derived

But the EQS is serious. It occupies a crowning position in the luxury automaker’s line-up as the electric version of Mercedes’ defining model. The EQS is, essentially, an all-electric take on Mercedes’ top-end S-class sedan, traditionally the largest, most opulent and most expensive car in the lineup.

The port in the Mercedes EQS's front fender isn't for charging. (That's in the back.) It's for refilling the windshield washer fluid since the hood doesn't open.

Mercedes did not just put batteries into an S-class, of course. The EQS is an entirely different automobile designed and proportioned as a large fully electric luxury car. In photographs, it can look odd. With no need to hold a big internal combustion engine, the hood is relatively short. To maximize storage space, the EQS is a hatchback with a curving rear end, rather than a separate trunk. (It has no front trunk, and the hood doesn’t open.) Without other cars or people around it to provide a sense of scale, the EQS can look a bit like a Honda Civic, or a Nissan Senta. In the real world, though it has proper luxury car size and stature.

In terms of performance. it more than meets the requirements. The EQS 450+, the less powerful version, has a 329 horsepower electric motor driving the rear wheels. The EQS 580 has two motors, one driving the front wheels, the other the back, providing a combined 516 horsepower. It can go from zero to 60 in just over four seconds.

These figures are impressive for a big car, but might not turn heads in an age when some expensive electric cars can blast from a stop to 60 miles an hour in under three seconds. AMG, Mercedes’ performance division, will have its own 751 horsepower version of the EQS that might do that, but it’s not the main mission for this car. Mercedes knows what a luxury car should do. It is not supposed to crack your ribs and pancake your brain against the back of your skull. It should provide ample power so that it never seems slow and a feeling of competent control.

In that sense, the EQS is masterful. It’s far more enjoyable to drive, feeling far more nimble and better balanced than even the gas-powered S-class. While the S-class can absolutely drive fast the EQS made me actually want to do it. Even the less-powerful EQS 450+ provides the sort of immediate acceleration that causes you to re-think what merging can mean, while the 580 feels genuinely fast.

It is a Mercedes sedan so, set to its “Comfort” mode, the EQS glides over even brutalized pavement absorbing bumps and ripples with its sophisticated suspension better than any Tesla I’ve driven. With their heavy battery packs, electric cars often bounce over big bumps but the EQS maintains even and smooth control that lets you forget it weighs a few hundred pounds more than its gas-powered sibling.

The Mercedes EQS has a rich palette of interior lights.

With four-wheel steering — the back wheels turn slightly as well as the front — and a low center of gravity thanks to battery packs in the floor, the EQS takes corners like a much smaller sports sedan. Nicely balanced, it can be genuinely fun on a curving road in a way few internal combustion cars this size can manage. The emphasis is still on a comfortable ride, but its essential competence has me looking forward to the Mercedes-AMG variant.

Inside, the EQS has what seems like the biggest touchscreen ever but it’s not actually as big as it looks. It’s a big glass panel that stretches the full width of the dashboard. In reality, it’s three separate screens under a big glass cover. There’s a “gauge cluster” screen behind the steering wheel, a center touch screen, like many cars have, and a screen in front of the passenger. The “one big screen” illusion doesn’t survive the car being turned on, though. It’s immediately clear these are three distinct rectangles of usable screen. It looks cool when parked but, if I were buying an EQS, I might choose one without Mercedes’ so-called Hyperscreen option.

The lights and sounds inside are fully customizable. Electric cars don’t generally make much sound at all but the EQS driver can select from a range of engine-ish noises — a rumbling electric whirr, like a robot lion purring — to provide aural feedback for the driving experience. Lines of colored lighting can also be set to provide a warm, relaxing ambiance or something more like a nightclub circa 1977. The lights can also be set to pulse and change color in response to the car’s acceleration and deceleration, which is how I left it, because it is fun.

Ready for the fight

Most of the technology in the EQS is shared with its gasoline-powered counterpart, including an impressive virtual reality head-up display. This projects information into the windshield, like most head-up displays do, but in such a way that things like navigation arrows seem to be floating over the actual roads and intersections they refer to. It’s an impressive technology that’s actually useful.

Then there are, of course, all the fun features such as the ability to combine light effects, sounds, seat massage functions and even smells to create a relaxing or invigorating atmosphere inside the car. Some technological advances, like retracting door handles that are supposed to automatically extend when needed — but often don’t — are less welcome. (That’s another feature, and bug, shared with the S-class as well as the Tesla Model S.)

Prices for the EQS 480+ start at just over $102,000 while the more powerful all-wheel-drive 580 starts at about $119,000. These models are eligible for the $7,500 federal electric vehicle tax credit, not that car shoppers at these price levels probably care all that much.

Like its acceleration times, the EQS’s EPA-estimated driving range of 350 miles is better than many other cars but not world shattering. Luxury cars are about much more than hitting numbers and the EQS shows that Mercedes can manage the transition into a new realm with its hard-won brand image intact.

2021-10-15 10:02:44

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