What is it?
Smoothly, quietly and confidently, a silver Mercedes-Benz S-class casually wafts along an autobahn outside Stuttgart.
The S500’s twin-turbocharged 4.7-litre V8 is barely audible as the automatic gearbox picks up seventh gear with a velvety shift, dropping the revs back under 2000rpm for truly tranquil fast-lane progress. Save for some distant tyre rumble and a faint lick of wind across the roof, there is a remarkable calmness at an indicated 100mph. The car gathers miles effortlessly, pampering its occupants with low levels of noise and miraculous ride comfort.
This sixth-generation S-class promises big things. Its predecessor was an enduring favourite, so expectations surrounding Mercedes’ flagship have been mounting ever since it was revealed in May. The advanced four-door is a rolling fortress of technology, all of which aims to place it at the top of the luxury car ranks ahead of the Audi A8, BMW 7-series, Jaguar XJ and Lexus LS.
Mercedes-Benz chairman Dieter Zetsche acknowledges that this S-class has a vastly different mission from the one it replaces. It will be produced in no fewer than six different variants, including initial short and long-wheelbase models, followed by an extra-long-wheelbase model within the next year. This new variant, we’re told, will offer a limousine-like experience to match the Bentley Mulsanne and Rolls-Royce Ghost and is planned to be the basis for a return of the Pullman. There will also be a two-door coupé and a cabriolet.
Mercedes’ efforts at updating the S-class’s appearance have been a success. The exterior styling, with greater sculpture to the body, evolves the appearance without straying too far from the outgoing model. A more prominent grille and larger, more angular headlights provide quite a noble appearance, while a prominent swage line adds greater intrigue to the flanks. There is little change in external dimensions over the old S-class in the long-wheelbase model tested here, the new car being just 21mm longer, 29mm wider and 11mm higher than before.
The S-class’s aerodynamic properties are class-leading. Official figures point to a drag coefficient of just 0.24, with further refinements set to net the S300 BlueTec Hybrid an even more efficient 0.23 thanks to adjustable louvres in the cooling system, extensive underbody panelling and detailed work to the wheel houses.
The S-class’s body has been thoroughly re-engineered and its entire outer skin is now made from aluminium. The internal structure uses aluminium in combination with hot-formed high-strength steel and a number of plastic components but, despite this, the S500 driven here has actually gained 5kg, hitting the scales at a claimed 1940kg. Offsetting the slight increase in weight is a dramatic increase in rigidity, which provides the basis for a reduction in vibration and an even smoother ride.
The engine line-up remains much the same as for the outgoing model. Included from the outset will be a 3.0-litre V6 diesel with 254bhp in the S350 BlueTec and a 2.1-litre, four-cylinder diesel with 204bhp in combination with a 27bhp electric motor for a total output of 228bhp in the S300 BlueTec Hybrid. They’re both exceptionally efficient, with combined cycle figures of 56.5mpg and 64.2mpg respectively. Between them, they’re expected to account for almost 80 per cent of UK volume.
Also planned for the UK is the S400 Hybrid. It uses a carry-over petrol-electric powertrain that consists of a 302bhp, naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V6 and 27bhp electric motor for a combined economy figure of 44.8mpg. Our drive, however, is of the initial range-topping S500, the best-selling S-class model globally and one of the new models set to arrive in the UK this autumn.
It runs a twin-turbocharged V8 that produces 449bhp at 5250rpm, 20bhp more than in the old S500. Torque remains at 516lb ft at 1800rpm, and drive continues to be sent to the rear wheels through Mercedes’ 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox. A four-wheel-drive 4Matic option will be offered in selected markets, but it is not destined for the UK.
The new S-class’s design reflects the influence of a new generation of Mercedes-Benz designers. Inside, there is an elegant simplicity to the dashboard, which neatly wraps around into the doors. Creature comforts include optional heated armrests, a hot-stone massage function for the front seats, an active perfuming system and a brilliantly effective 24-speaker Burmester High End 3D surround sound system.
What is it like?
The S-class delivers greater accommodation and more comfort than ever before. The seats offer liberal cushioning, plenty of support and loads of adjustment. The choice of high-grade materials and the way they have been matched with each other are at the root of the S-class’s appeal and place it firmly in the realm of the Ghost and Bentley Continental Flying Spur for luxury and feelgood factor.
The new model is claimed to provide 12mm more headroom, 14mm more shoulder room and 10mm more elbow room than its predecessor up front, while the rear has 14mm of extra space for knees and 9mm more for shoulders. All up, there are five different rear seat configurations, ranging from a fixed bench to a so-called ‘First Class Rear’ set-up with Maybach-like adjustability and fold-out tables.
There are sufficient safety features to fill an encyclopedia, although many – including the new rear belt bag, which incorporates an airbag within the belt strap, plus night vision and radar cruise control with an automatic braking function – are optional. The same goes for the extensive connectivity features, which are based around a WLAN Hot Spot head unit that now forms part of the multimedia system.
Start the S-class with its incongruously old-fashioned black plastic electronic key and the engine catches with a faint hum before you draw the shift lever down a notch and pull away. One of the main assets of the new car is its advanced suspension, and its uncanny ability to absorb bumps while providing a perfectly level ride can be felt well within the very first mile. It is also immediately obvious that noise suppression is exemplary.
The S500 gathers speed with a degree of smoothness that underlines Mercedes’ efforts to make mechanical refinement a top priority. The aim was not merely to match the Audi A8, BMW 7-series and Jaguar XJ for driveline finesse but to attain similarly silken on-throttle qualities to the Silver Spur and Ghost. Less inherent sportiness, more indulging luxury is the clear message here.
There is sufficient power to endow the S500 with solid acceleration, given a determined squeeze of the throttle. A claimed 0-62mph time of 4.8sec makes it 0.2sec quicker than its predecessor, and there’s terrific stability as you approach the limited 155mph top speed. The S-class spears along with a wonderfully nonchalant manner that will make it hard to beat as a trans-continental express.
That said, it feels just at home on a steady cruise at motorway speeds. Long gearing and reasonably strong reserves of torque provide a superbly relaxed yet flexible quality that makes the S-class as impressive from the driver’s seat as it is with your legs stretched out in the back. Backing up the improved response from the engine is enhanced operation of the gearbox, which, with revised electronic mapping, is more impressive than ever.
Yes, the performance and driveline refinement really are masterful. But the S-class’s crowning achievement is the way that it cossets its occupants. At both low speeds around town and higher speeds on the autobahn, it possesses superb primary and secondary ride and unflappable body control. Noise, vibration and harshness levels are also among the lowest I’ve ever come across.
Negatives? The speed-sensitive electro-mechanical steering, while providing a more confidence-inspiring feel with more weighting than the helm of the old S-class, sometimes feels synthetic and lacks conviction off centre. Perhaps it is a drawback of some of the technology that it has been engineered to support, including a highly effective lane-keeping function. It is nothing too off-putting – you can thread the new model along winding country roads with a solid degree of confidence – but in a car that excels in so many other areas, you’re left feeling that the steering could offer more feedback to allow you to better place it in corners.
A high parcel shelf and large rear seat headrests combine with an angled rear screen and more tapered C-pillars to limit rear vision. I get the feeling that the advent of systems such as blind spot control have allowed the designers more freedom at the expense of basics such as uninterrupted visibility. Boot capacity is reduced, too, and in a car of this size it really is an oversight. Beyond that and the somewhat ordinary ignition key, I’d be scratching for excuses. It is hard to see how you could improve it on many levels.
Should I buy one?
The new S-class represents more than a simple progression and is a genuine leap over its predecessor. The main impression after driving it for the first time is its remarkable level of overall excellence. Its achievements far outweigh its limited weaknesses. It has come to be expected that every incarnation of Mercedes’ big luxury saloon will bring advances, and this latest model fails to disappoint.
Technologically, it is clearly a front runner in the luxury car ranks, although you have to be prepared to pay well in excess of its base price to tap into its vast array of features. As with the outgoing model, much of what it has to offer is optional. It is a terrifically soothing car to drive: fast, reasonably frugal, comfortable, quiet, cosseting and with an interior that delights, both in terms of feel and function.
It possesses a distinctive Teutonic sense of purpose, but it is offset by a degree of subtlety that is almost British in feel. It could just be the best Mercedes-Benz ever built.
Price £86,840; 0-60mph 4.8sec; Top speed 155mph (limited); Economy 32.8mpg; Emissions 199g/km; Kerbweight 1940kg; Engine V8, 4663cc, twin-turbo, petrol; Power 449bhp at 5250rpm; Torque 516lb ft at 1800rpm; Gearbox 7-speed automatic