If you think cars are more loaded for the money than they ever were, you’re pretty spot on. As standards rise and material costs fall, buyers expect more for less and automakers are playing ball. A recent report in The New York Times illustrates that while moderately priced vehicles like the Scion iM come well-equipped in base trim, the upper crust is now feeling the pressure as well, as “rapidly evolving technology is upending the traditional pecking order in the luxury car market.” The piece focuses on Mercedes-Benz, a company that has taken its latest generation of E-Class mid-sized sedan and reportedly upgraded it with “better computer chips, cameras, software, and sensors than those in the larger and more expensive S-Class – the flagship that has for decades showcased the automaker’s latest technology.”
“The speed of innovation is so fast that you have to use every launch of a new model to roll stuff out,” said Mercedes-Benz figurehead Dieter Zetsche at the Detroit Auto Show. Shifts like this highlight the pressure automakers are under in order to not just stay ahead of the competition, but to also impress an increasingly tech-savvy and fickle crowd of younger car buyers.
Tech that needs only be upgraded via software is the way to go these days, and car companies are bustling to make hardware as easily upgradable as possible to cut future development costs and make it easier for customers to keep up with the latest gadgetry. The New York Times says Mercedes has cut the time it takes to produce a prototype down to 10 months from 18 months, thanks in part to the widespread adoption of digital prototypes. The same goes for aerodynamic testing procedures, where most of it is now done with simulation software instead of in a wind tunnel.
So how good is the new E-Class in comparison to its pricier, S-Class cousin? Interior amenities and size constraints aside, the latest E-Class has a fourth-generation driver assistance system on it, and the top-tier S-Class has to make do with third-generation technology. The utilization of the latest sensors and software help the new E-Class detect streets, other vehicles, pedestrians, and road conditions in order to help the sedan adapt almost instantaneously to varying environments. All of these cutting-edge features allow the vehicle to travel further in self-driving mode.
The latest car-to-car communication technology is also an E-Class staple now, as the sedan exchanges information with vehicles ahead of it in order to better avoid accidents, stranded vehicles, and traffic congestion. This is an upgrade over the current S-Class, as it has been on sale since 2013, and will not have this tech until the next refresh comes along.
But with a starting price that hovers around $100,000, the S-Class is steep proposition for the German automaker when compared to the E-Class, which rolls in at half the price. Affordability versus value is still a legitimate concern even for America’s elite, and Mercedes timed the E-Class’s refresh so that it could better take advantage of the latest improvements in technology, along with the regulatory changes that allow semi-autonomous driving possible. This isn’t just some half-cocked plan to wow the world by showing how advanced the E-Class has become, as Mercedes-Benz explains that it plans to introduce its latest advancements on the whatever model is slated for release next, regardless of how pedestrian it may be.
“The best features were always introduced into the highest end vehicles. That is not going to be the best solution for the car industry anymore,” says Thilo Koslowski, vice president of automotive practice at technology market research firm Gartner. “Younger customers want the latest features immediately, and this will force carmakers to change their offerings, and it will change the way they define premium.”
While some potential buyers may migrate toward the less expensive E-Class, the primary objective remains simple: Lure customers away from competitors Audi and BMW. In order to remain relevant while keeping cost down, Mercedes may also opt to update older models like the S-class with this latest tech, a move that may help S-Class buyers. Consumers are primarily driving this change, says Andrew McAfee, a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies how digital technologies are changing business and society.
“A car is the second-biggest investment you will ever make, so you do not want to buy something obsolete,” McAfee added. Mercedes is not the only one skipping place in line; quite a few automakers are moving away from only showcasing the latest technologies on flagship automobiles. Ford has taken its mid-sized sedan, the Fusion, and outfitted it with hands-free automatic parking and lane-keep assistance, a move that would traditionally would have been reserved for a vehicle like the new Lincoln Continental.
All of this means a lot for someone who is in the market for a fresh set of wheels, and doesn’t want or need the top-shelf vehicle on the lot to be satisfied. It’s an exciting time, because perhaps for the first time in automotive history, you actually can get more for less.