FRANKFURT – The Mercedes-Benz S-Class once was the undisputed king of Europe's vaunted E-segment luxury-car segment, but the latest version officially unveiled here today faces a far more uncertain future than its predecessors.

Even though the car is significantly redesigned and loaded with sophisticated electronic safety devices such as night vision assist and a radar-assisted advance braking system that warns of an impending crash and even calculates the ideal braking assistance in fractions of a second, CSM Worldwide analyst Michael Robinet says the Mercedes flagship faces a perilous “new world order” in the premium luxury segment that is full of formidable new competitors and intimidating older competitors. (See related story: Mercedes Debuts New S-Class)

And, because Mercedes has dramatically expanded its model portfolio, sales of the big sedan also may be cannibalized by other expensive models in the Mercedes lineup, from the new CLS sedan to the upcoming G-Class SUV and R-Class cross/utility vehicle.

Mercedes S-Class

That leads CSM Worldwide to forecast global sales for the car of 72,828 for 2006-2008, below the model's typical 80,000 annual sales volume.

The new car is “more revolutionary than evolutionary in exterior design,” CSM says.

Nevertheless the car must overcome recent quality issues that have damaged the auto maker's reputation, particularly that of the smaller, less expensive E-Class. (See related story: Mercedes Quality on Road to Recovery)

Despite its controversial styling and i-Drive electronic interface, the BMW 7-Series has made gains in the segment and stands out as a true “driver's car.” The all-aluminum Audi A-8, once an asterisk in the segment, has won respect for its styling and engineering.

And the Jaguar XJ also offers the cache, performance and better fuel economy of all-aluminum construction.

The S-Class also faces relatively new challengers such as the Maserati Quattroporte, VW Phaeton – and in the U.S. – increasingly serious threats from Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus.