Does the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class represent a total reset for the luxury limousine? Jon Wall takes a drive to find out.
What’s the best car in the world? The answer to that question is so subjective it’s hardly worth asking, but as pimply, car-obsessed schoolboys in 1950s England we repeated it often, and almost always with the same response: “Rolls-Royce.”
By the mid-1960s, though, I wasn’t so sure. By that time, I’d fallen under the spell of the three-pointed star and though it verged upon heresy to utter such sentiments, inwardly I’d increasingly feel like answering, “Mercedes- Benz.” You see, in 1964 the Stuttgart-based company had revealed the 600, a Rolls-beating luxo-barge that boasted pneumatic self-levelling suspension, was powered by a mammoth 6.3-litre V8 engine and came in a variety of body styles, from a four-door saloon to a totally OTT six- door limousine and even a semi-convertible landaulet, one of which was the regular transport of no lesser eminence than the Pope – and if the 600 could give an old man in robes and a very large hat some cred, then it was a very cool car indeed.
But if the 600 planted the seed of Benz’s pre-eminence in my adolescent brain, it was the introduction of the first S-Class (denoting sonderklasse, or special class) in 1972 that confirmed it – indeed the arrival of each succeeding generation over the ensuing half-century has embedded that notion ever more firmly in my mind. Because the S-Class isn’t so much a luxury automobile (even though that is very much what it is) as a laboratory for advanced automotive technologies – technologies that, once introduced on the big limousine, trickle down to lesser models in the Mercedes range and eventually find their way into the products of other manufacturers too. These have included a raft of safety features that are now regarded as de rigueur, such as airbags, pre-tensioning seatbelts, ABS braking and electronic stability systems; driver aids like active lane-keeping and, more recently, ever-advancing degrees of self-driving autonomy; and innovations in convenience and comfort that include double glazing, self-closing boot lid, advanced climate-control and a fully glass cockpit.
Design-wise, as with most of Mercedes’ conventional saloon cars, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has followed an evolutionary course, so that on the outside each succeeding generation appears little different from the one that came before it; it’s beneath the skin and in the passenger cabin that the advances and differences have always been most evident. Thus, the new seventh iteration, which goes under the factory designation W223 and was revealed late in 2020, is so disarmingly similar to its predecessor that, aside from the front and rear light clusters, the chrome bar running across the tail and the noticeable rake of the C-pillar (and I think but am not entirely sure that the front grille is deeper), I’d still be scratching my head to tell the old and new cars apart unless they were parked right next to each other.
It’s when I swing open the driver’s door of the black S 500 4Matic test car – and the flush-fitting handles that spring out from the body sides at the touch of the remote key are an early clue – that the breath is almost sucked out of me. Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen the inside of an automobile that’s quite as amazing as this.
Swathed in pungent diamond-stitched leather in a rich brown hue, with highly polished anthracite poplar-wood surfaces on dashboard, doors and central console, and an array of dramatically sweeping angles, shapes and surfaces, this is as convincing an interpretation of contemporary luxury as I can imagine. But if that weren’t sufficient, Mercedes has gone totally space-age, equipping the interior with five screens: one vast OLED display that seems poised to take off from the console; the driver’s instrument panel; a small display on the rear central console enabling the plutocrats seated in the back to take control of climate, entertainment and a host of other functions; and two larger screens, one mounted on each of the front seatbacks. Multicoloured mood-lighting bars unite the sides and the front of the cabin, and a circle of light even surrounds each front-door-mounted tweeter of the absurdly powerful – as in 1,750 watts – 31-speaker Burmester sound system, which in “4D” mode not only threatens to burst your eardrums but also, by directing the bass sound up through the seats, re-arrange your intestines (this, I’m advised, is something fervently to be desired).
And if this surfeit of tech seems so fiendishly complicated that it will take several years of trying to get one’s head around it, it turns out to be incredibly easy to learn; even the steering wheel employs small haptic surfaces and there’s voice-recognition too, though the latter seems a step too far for me. And then there’s the truly wonderful seating, which is as comfortable as it looks. The driver’s, which is powered every which way by a battery of electric motors, restrains the torso in direct response to steering-wheel inputs, while the privileged near- side rear passenger not only gets a fully reclining director’s chair with extending footrest but also an extensive choice of Energising Comfort massage programmes, summoned by voice control. The super-soft pillows that adorn each headrest deserve a call-out too.
I won’t recite the entire menu of new technologies that go into this new S 500, simply because it would take up several pages, but the following short selection should give you some idea: rear-axle steering, driving-assistance package, parking package, sun-protection package, MBUX navigation plus, Airmatic, climatised rear seats – the list goes on. And on.
I will, however, try to give you an impression of how this remarkable Mercedes-Benz S-Class drives and rides. Of course, the 500 part of the nomenclature means very little, as the engine lurking beneath the bonnet displaces not 5 litres but 3, and nor is it the expected V8 (which is currently only available on the S 580, which may or may not be available in Asian markets) but a mildly hybridised straight six that produces a shade under 430bhp and 521Nm, with a further on-demand boost to both numbers from the EQ electronics. Those figures translate into a 0-100km/h time of 4.9 seconds (respectable indeed for a 3-litre limousine weighing around 2 tonnes) and the expected governed maximum speed of 250. Power is delivered to the road via Mercedes’ super-smart nine-speed automatic gearbox and the latest version of its 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, with four drive modes, from Eco to a what seems to me to be a wholly unnecessary Sport Plus, in which the engine isn’t at its most silent or discreet and is probably best avoided.
All those driver-assistance and safety systems, meanwhile, ensure you’ll be staying well clear of other traffic – unless, of course, you or they are incredibly stupid(and if the latter’s the case, there are so many airbags stuffed into the S-Class that it’s a wonder there’s room for anything else). But what really impresses is the car’s handling prowess. For such a large machine – it measures almost 5.3 metres from one end to the other and more than 2.1 between the wing mirrors – the S-Class is deeply dynamically impressive and reassuringly predictable, while the rear-wheel steering, which at its most extreme offers a 10-degree angle that can easily be seen in the side mirrors, effectively reduces the wheelbase for a turning circle that must be experienced to be believed and discernibly greater agility at higher speeds. The only problem comes when reversing into a parking space, the turn-in being so unexpectedly sharp.
Ride comfort on the standard air suspension is generally excellent, though the chassis’ composure is occasionally unsettled by the shockingly poor surfaces of my hometown’s roads. Fortunately – and partly thanks to extensive soundproofing in key areas of the body – interior noise and vibration are pretty much notable by their absence.
The choice for almost 50 years of princes, presidents and plutocrats (though not, these days, the Pope, whom I understand prefers the obscurity of a Ford Focus hatchback), the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has consistently set the automotive benchmark, not only for luxury cars but just about everything else on four wheels. Although this new model moves the goalposts in almost every conceivable direction, in some ways nothing has changed, because it’s still in a class of its own. Best car in the world? I know it’s a silly question, but it’s certainly got my vote.
To find out more, visit mercedes-benz.com/th