The splashy debut of the new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class in an Airbus factory in Hamburg, Germany, last week promises to shake up the global battle among the three German luxury brands for worldwide dominance.
From the choice of seven different interior-light colors to radar and night-vision systems that practically allow the sedan to drive itself, the new S-Class gives Mercedes-Benz reason to believethat it can compete more effectively in the US market and worldwide with arch rivals BMW and Audi.
For its part, Audi is emphasizing more of a shift to high-performance models to help fuel its continued rise in the US market and elsewhere, while BMW is counting on the US debut of three new models this fall to help the brand keep its American premium-luxury crown for the third straight year even though Mercedes-Benz leads the segment in US sales so far this year.
The long-awaited remake of the S-Class—whose current version has a sticker price beginning at about $95,000—is meant to imbue the entire Mercedes-Benz brand with a perception of technological leadership. The large-sedan segment has "shrunk in the last few years and it's never recovered," Michael Slagter, senior vice president of sales for Mercedes-Benz USA, toldAutomotive News, and there is more competition from pricey SUVs.
But if any vehicle can wake up somnolent top-shelf sedan buyers, it may be the new S-Class. It is "a technical tour de force that will likely have competitors racing to catch up," as Paul Eisenstein of the Detroit Bureau wrote.
Among other things, the car will be the first to be devoid of conventional light bulbs, opting instead for more advanced LED technology for everything from head to taillights and all of the interior indicator lights; there are 300 LEDs in the interior alone, Eisenstein reported. Interior lighting can be adjusted at will to one of seven different colors, with five dimmer levels and four distinct lighting zones. Using cameras, radar and sensors, the new S-Class will be able to keep pace with traffic, come to a complete stop in a tie-up and then start rolling again. It triggeres the brakes if a collision seems likely, Eisenstein wrote, and even turns on the flashers if a wreck does occur.
Audi has been countering by torqueing sales of its newest high-performance cars such as the RS5 in the US and other markets, and last week Audi CEO Rupert Stadler promised more of the same.
"We aim to increase sales of high-performance cars by one-third" in 2013, Stadler, chairman of the board of management of Audi AG, said at the annual shareholders meeting in Neckarsulm, Germany. Audi sold about 11,000 of its high-end RS and R8 sports cars last year, including 1,925 in the US market.
Meanwhile, BMW means to hold on to its US sales crown this year in part via the launch of a new 3-Series GT crossover, 4-Series coupe and a redesigned X5 crossover.
"We like to be No. 1," Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America, toldAutomotive News."We are No. 1 in the world [in luxury-brand sales] and intend to be in 2013 again" in the US. "Obviously some competitors are annoyed by the fact that we are No. 1. At least for them, it is meaningful."
And the US, while hugely significant in their competition, isn't the only place the three brands are engaged in a donnybrook among themselves and with other luxury brands. China, of course, has become a crucial arena; it accounted for about half of sales of the current version of the S-Class, and India is becoming increasingly important. Audi just overtook BMW as India's top-selling brand, but if the recent history of this worldwide rivalry is any guide, it may not be the last flip-flop.