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German limousine does comfort exceptionally well, but more striking still is how adept it is dynamically

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Welcome, then, to the return of the self-styled ‘best car in the world’, this time for the seventh occasion since 1972, when Mercedes-Benz first used the S-Class name.

Naturally, like every new S-Class, this is the most advanced car Mercedes has made. Or is it? Because for the first time, the top-billing limousine in the line-up at Stuttgart has some internal competition, in the form of the Mercedes-Benz EQS, which aims to do everything the S-Class can do, only against the backdrop of all-electric power. Does this moment represent a changing of the guard? Perhaps, and that’s a matter worthy of its own dedicated story in these pages.

A shorter front overhang and less imposing grille contribute to the car’s pebble-like exterior design, as does the reduction in crease and character lines along the flanks compared with the more distinctive styling of the W222.

In the meantime, the car for which “in investment terms, no other model comes close”, according to head of development Jürgen Weissinger, returns with a new remit. Luxury and isolation still in theory lead the order of priorities, but digitisation and connectivity are if not quite on a par then a very close second.

The new S-Class is the first Mercedes capable of driving fully autonomously and without a driver, even if the capability is limited to closed-circuit environments such as parking garages. The car can now receive over-the-air software updates and, with the right equipment from Mercedes’ chosen suppliers, the MBUX Smart Home function can from within your car monitor and control the temperature, the lighting and even the position of window blinds at home, all through voice control. Useful?

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Possibly not, but it shows that Mercedes is forging new technological paths with the S-Class.

All of which sounds impressive, but it won’t matter a jot if this new S-Class can’t uphold the standards of its forebears in terms of unadulterated sophistication on the move. It needs to have that addictive knack of depositing occupants at their destination in a more rested and revitalised state than when they slid into the car. It needs to reassert its position as the best limousine money can buy short of going to Rolls-Royce, with the benefit of remaining relatively incognito at times when even the most subtly presented Roller would stand out.

With all this in mind, it’s time for the W223-generation S-Class to undergo a full road test, so we might discover whether new heights have been reached, or if standards have slipped.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class line-up at a glance

The W223-generation S-Class comes in an array of forms. There are straight-six petrol and diesel options, and it’s also possible to have the petrol in PHEV guise (like our test car). Long-wheelbase versions are available, too, and that’s before you get to the trims, which range from AMG Line to AMG Line Premium Plus Executive.

Also, while Mercedes-Benz no longer offers a V12 in any model, the wider family gets around this by offering the noblest of engine configurations in the Mercedes-Maybach S680 – all 6.0 litres and 603bhp of it.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Mercedes-Benz S-Class

DESIGN & STYLING

2 Mercedes Benz S Class 2022 road test review cornering rear

Slim headlights and soft curves mean the new Mercedes S-Class cuts a less ostentatious figure than its predecessor but it’s actually a larger car, in short- and long-wheelbase forms. With shorter overhangs, most of both derivatives’ additional length has been added between the axles, and the S-Class is also taller than before. Narrower, too, by 21mm between the outer edges of the wing mirrors, even though track widths are up significantly at both ends.

Our S580e L measures 5320mm nose to tail, putting it roughly on a par with the equivalent BMW and Audi models but some way off the 5546mm of the Rolls-Royce Ghost. The bodyshell now also uses more aluminium than ever, although this plug-in hybrid S-Class, whose 28.6kWh battery provides 62 miles of electric range, still weighs 2385kg.

The lighting has been slimmed down at both ends of the car. The headlights are also particularly clever in their ability to adjust for the topography of the road ahead, assuming you have the navigation active. The car can locate and ‘tag’ pedestrians at night, too.

Powertrains are currently limited to turbocharged straight-six petrol and diesel affairs, but a mild-hybrid 4.0-litre V8 is in the pipeline and you can supplement the six-cylinder petrol with an electric motor for more than 500bhp, as is the case with our S580e L. All cars use Mercedes’ in-house 9G-Tronic torque-converter gearbox, whose ninth ratio is an overdrive that drops engine speed to around 1600rpm on the motorway.

Four-wheel drive is also standard across the range except in the case of the entry-level S350d, and four-wheel steering is an option. The forged-aluminium links of the rear suspension have been redeveloped on account of this system, which for the LWB car reduces the turning circle by two metres. At the all-important rear, sub-frame carriers and the elastomer bearings of the struts have also been redeveloped to improve cabin isolation.

Air springs are standard, with the bellows working alongside the adaptive ADS+ dampers to control each corner of the car independently of the others, as necessary. Ride height automatically lowers by 10mm at speed to reduce drag, and does so by a further 7mm in the S-Class’s sportiest driving mode.

Our test car didn’t have Mercedes’ E-Active Body Control, a development of the hydraulically actuated Magic Body Control that was introduced on the old Mercedes S-Class (2014-2020). Using cameras and feedback from the road surface to regulate pitch, lift and roll, it is fitted as standard on the Maybach versions of the car but not offered even as an option on others.

INTERIOR

10 Mercedes Benz S Class 2022 road test review  cabin

Desperate to embrace digitisation but knowing it had to retain a familiar and uncompromisingly opulent lounge-like feel, Mercedes-Benz set itself a stern task when it came to developing the cabin of the S-Class.

It has, in the main, succeeded in blending those elements. The surface design of the dashboard is particularly pleasing, and in general the cabin achieves a greater sense of spaciousness than its predecessor but without sacrificing anything in material richness or feelings of all-encompassing solidity and sanctuary. It surpasses the cold ambience of the Audi A8 on every level, does enough to better the beautifully constructed confines of the BMW 7 Series, and gets the better of the Bentley Flying Spur in terms of visibility and airiness, if not tactility and flair.

Ambient lighting is an integral part of the S-Class experience, and around 250 further LEDs can be integrated into the driving assistance systems.

At night, things arguably only get better, when Mercedes’ ambient lighting programme comes to life. It’s a triumph, being configurable for colour and brightness and transforming the cabin into a luxurious and sophisticated cocoon. Heightening the experience are the seats. The deeply bolstered items in the front strike a rare balance of breadth, support and softness, and are among the best in any class of car.

There are also 10 massage programmes. The rear is no less impressive, particularly in LWB cars, which get electric adjustment for the outer seats. A Chauffeur Pack, fitted here, adds deployable footrests and gives the front passenger seat the ability to slide and fold extra far forward. Electric blinds add a further layer of insulation from outside.

Faultless? Not quite. The near-total migration of switchgear onto the central touchscreen makes it more arduous than necessary to alter the climate control settings. Of the physical controls that exist, some also feel cheap. The wing mirror adjusters are one example, the engine start button another.

The size of the display has also necessitated putting the central vents high on the dashboard, out of easy reach, and the door-mounted electric seat controls aren’t haptically satisfying to touch but strangely stiff and recalcitrant. Small details, admittedly, but ones that take the shine off an otherwise fine and typically lavish effort.

Mercedes-Benz S-Class infotainment and sat-nav

The sloped central touchscreen that forms the nexus of the MBUX infotainment system in the S-Class is neither as offensively large nor as distracting in real life as the early pictures might have led you to believe. It is instead a beautifully crisp, clear display that contains an intuitive array of menus, sits at just the right height and is particularly well suited to integration with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

It’s joined by a 7.0in tablet in the rear armrest, and higher-spec cars get wireless phone charging pads both in the front and back, to go with eight USB-C ports. Of course, physical controls are scarce, including those of the climate control, and in this regard the iDrive set-up in the 7 Series is more intuitive to use on the move.

Elsewhere, the voice recognition is right at the sharp end of what the car industry is currently capable of delivering and the head-up display is able to effectively deliver augmented reality navigation.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

22 Mercedes Benz S Class 2022 road test review engine

As with any luxury limousine, having a surfeit of power and performance is desirable not because you will ever need or want to use it, but because it allows the car to propel itself in truly insouciant fashion during day-to-day driving.

The S580e, with its 503bhp PHEV powertrain, acquits itself well in this respect. Without any launch control function (why would there be?), the car sprinted to 60mph in 5.2sec at Millbrook, but this is by the by. The car’s ability to shoot from 30mph to 70mph in 4.2sec is a more relevant indicator of muscular real-world performance, and the 6.3sec required to cover that increment in fourth gear comfortably beats that which we recorded for the Audi S3 – an immensely swift hot hatch.

It remains tidy during brisk driving, aided by strong grip, excellent traction, pleasing steering response and measured body control, but it’s less sporting than the 7 Series.

The nature of that performance is what really matters, though. Aided by substantial torque from the electric motor, the S580e’s turbo straight six likes to live its life in subdued fashion, and the nine-speed gearbox will covertly shuffle cogs to ensure crankshaft speeds rise above 1600rpm or so only when necessary.

That’s if the engine is even running. Whereas comparable PHEV versions of the Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series merely pay lip service to the idea of all-electric running, the battery pack in the S580e is large enough to yield 62 miles on paper and around 45 miles in the real world. You can either select a dedicated EV mode and use battery power exclusively, or allow the car to juggle ICE and electric power in Hybrid mode, which it does deftly and effectively.

We were surprised at just how little the engine is used beyond instances where reasonably swift acceleration is required, or sustained cruising. The car also makes good use of its regenerative braking function, which is aligned with the navigation data and exterior sensors to adapt to road furniture and other cars up ahead. So slick is the calibration that it doesn’t take long to fully trust in and work with it.

Another area of strength is the calibration of the motor and engine responses. The car accelerates crisply thanks to the electric portion of the driveline and is joined seamlessly with combustion power when necessary. Never is the power delivery lumpy or uncomfortably reactive, and this applies as much to roll-on acceleration as it does to low-speed manoeuvring. Less impressive is the gearbox’s tendency to occasionally hiccup during the multiple downshifts required when coming to a complete stop. For an otherwise seamless – if relatively uncharismatic – affair, these jarring little interjections are unwelcome.

RIDE & HANDLING

25 Mercedes Benz S Class 2022 road test review cornering front

Something so long and heavy has little right to handle as tidily as the S-Class does. In the default Comfort chassis setting, there’s a languid assuredness that makes the car easy to place on the road and roll is meted out relatively freely but always with poise and control. Steering feel is utterly absent but the heavily assisted rack is geared with a pleasing blend of ease and response that often makes the S580e feel a few hundred kilos lighter than it really is.

Knock the car into its more sporting mode (where the steering weights up, the powertrain is kept on the boil and the suspension tightens its grasp on the body) and the S580e will cover ground in truly eye-widening manner, with a degree of class and composure you wouldn’t credit had you not experienced it first-hand. For an elegant PHEV with very few sporting pretensions, the S-Class proves adept at going quickly.

I watched a lengthy video detailing the new S-Class’s ADAS array and there’s no doubt it’s superbly comprehensive, effective and capable of saving lives. However, the car isn’t half paranoid. On several occasions, the emergency braking triggered apropos of nothing significant, which wrecks the relaxing atmosphere

None of which is to say the S-Class handles with the sports saloon credibility of the Bentley Flying Spur and, to a lesser extent, the BMW 7 Series. It plainly doesn’t, rolling and heaving quite generously on more interesting roads and in general lacking the veneer of sharpness that makes some larger limousines genuinely satisfying to drive. The chassis balance is also noticeably more nose heavy than those rivals, which thrust themselves down roads from the hips while the Mercedes slips along with a neutrality that develops into solid understeer once the limits of the tyres are overcome. However, you’re unlikely to get to that point because grip and traction are excellent, even in wet weather.

Overall, the S-Class will happily tolerate the kind of driving asked of wedding chauffeurs running late, but for driver-owners, Bentley or BMW (or, better still, the Alpina Alpina B7) are more polished and enjoyable dynamically.

Comfort and isolation

Just how insulating is this new S-Class? Measured against the very best – the Rolls-Royce Ghost – it does creditably well but is no real threat. The S580e is quieter at idle than the Ghost but 3dBA louder at 30mph and 4dBA louder on the motorway. This means the cabin is an exceptionally placid and calming space but it also shows that when it comes to truly class-leading refinement, the latest S-Class still has some head room yet. As for the nature of the six-cylinder engine itself, that’s more smooth and sonorous than discreet and aristocratic. Again, suitably genteel for this kind of application but not at the apex of old-world sophistication.

You could say something similar about the manner in which the S580e rides. As you’d expect, the long-wave gait that the air springs and endless wheelbase give the car is superbly fluid, but intrusions from patchy road surfaces are more discernible than they should be. When the previous-generation S-Class arrived, its slipper-like ride quality was something you’d genuinely marvel at, and the new car just feels a little underwhelming in this respect. Nevertheless, it does enough to get the better of the 7 Series in terms of outright rolling refinement and is a whole cut above the Audi A8. The introduction of E-Active Body Control to the range may elevate it further still, but in the meantime, avoiding the optional 21in wheels (our car wore 20in) is recommended.

Material comfort is arguably the car’s strongest suit. Asked whether we’d prefer the deep, bucket-esque berths of the Mercedes or the grander but also more austere chairs in the Ghost for an all-day journey, we’d take the Mercedes’ every time. There’s also a degree of comfort to be taken from the S-Class’s relatively incognito form, the familiarity of its driving controls, and fine visibility all round. Certainly, to drive, the stretch-limousine experience doesn’t come much easier than this.

Assisted driving notes

Drive Pilot is Mercedes’ latest, vaunted assisted driving suite but it wasn’t fitted to our car. The system works at up to 40mph and in theory allows the driver to almost entirely relinquish control in line with SAE level-three stipulations (that is, the driver is notified only when the system’s ‘functional limits’ are reached). It’s designed to work on motorways in heavier traffic, and with the car kept in one lane.

With Intelligent Park Pilot, the S-Class can even reach SAE level-four capability and locate a reserved parking space autonomously, although it’s difficult to say how practical this would be in the real world, given its specific and rather limiting operating requirements.

In the UK, the S-Class comes as standard with the Driving Assistance Package, which features the gamut of intelligent cruise control, traffic sign recognition and evasive emergency steering and braking.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Mercedes Benz S Class 2022 road test review tracking front

There are several reasons to buy the S580e over its non-hybrid S-Class brethren, as well as over rivals. For company car drivers, it’s the only model in the line-up whose BIK rate isn’t the maximum 37%. In fact, it’s far lower, at just 8%.

Additionally, the PHEV S-Class has the kind of electric range that can really make a difference. A day’s chauffeuring around London could realistically be done on the 45 miles or so of real-world range the car’s sizeable battery pack provides, and besides the benefits to fuel consumption, the S580e cuts an extra-refined figure when its powertrain is operating in silence.

Extra-long S580e should hold its value better than close rivals, though an updated 7 Series arrives imminently

Neither the PHEV version of the Audi A8 nor the BMW 7 Series (admittedly, soon to be updated) comes close to matching the electric range of the Mercedes, although the new Range Rover P440e should be comparable and, while more expensive in terms of list price, is forecast to hold its value far better than any of the limousine competition. With an equally lavish interior, the big Brit is probably the closest rival the S-Class currently has, in all its various forms.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Mercedes-Benz S-Class

VERDICT

27 Mercedes Benz S Class 2022 road test review static

If Mercedes’ aim was to embrace digitisation and propel the S-Class into a new era, it can regard the W223 as a success.

The cabin feels reassuringly traditional yet avant-garde, and the scope of the vast displays manages to avoid the jarring omnipresence seen with other manufacturers’ cars. Ambient lighting and connectivity are very well executed, and beneath it all, barring one or two ergonomic shortfalls, resides one of the most materially comfortable and cosseting places to sit while the miles ease by, for driver and passenger. In an age of ever more ludicrously grandiose grilles, the S-Class’s relatively subtle exterior design should also stand it in good stead in Europe.

The main question is whether to LWB or not, because doing so opens up the option of having the PHEV powertrain and also the higher-level equipment packages. Equally, an entry-level SWB on 19in wheels could be a lovely car day to day.

However, fundamentally, it feels as though progress has stalled somewhat. The plug-in hybrid powertrain of our S580e sets new class standards for efficiency and versatility, but cabin isolation and ride quality seem no better than before. Where an S-Class used to challenge Rolls-Royce in terms of road manners, the British marque is now a clear step ahead, and the upcoming BMW 7 Series update should give cause for concern in Stuttgart.

The new S-Class is a fantastically opulent way to travel, but no longer is it breathtakingly so.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Mercedes-Benz S-Class First drives