Benchmark, trend-setting luxury saloon gives you world-class luxury from £3000, but watch for unwanted surprises

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Putting aside anything bearing the Spirit of Ecstasy or similar, is there a luxury saloon more revered than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class?

We think not, particularly in fifth-generation form. Between 2006 and 2013, everyone from celebrities to world leaders got around in them, often sitting behind a chauffeur. These days, it’s an uncommon sight.

After all, the W221-era Mercedes S-Class has long since been succeeded. That’s no bad thing, though. Now they have fully descended into the used market and examples are in reach of anyone with as little as £3000. Fancy a V8 one? There are some listed for less than £10,000.

The extensive engine line-up ranges from the S280’s 3.0-litre V6 to the S65’s 6.0-litre V12, although most buyers opt for the S320 and S350 CDi diesels. They have 232bhp and 268bhp respectively, with the S320 linked to pre-facelift cars (before 2010) and the S350 to those after.

Let’s circle back to that V12, though, because it’s ridiculous – in a good way. With 603bhp and twin turbos at its disposal, this engine pushes the 2.2-tonne S65 from 0-60mph in 4.4sec. Even the lesser S63, with a 6.2-litre or 5.5-litre V8 (depending on, again, which side of the facelift it falls under), puts in a sub-5.0sec effort.

Numbers tell you only so much, of course, so how does the S-Class drive? It deals with bumps like they don’t exist and is about as quiet as a church. The seats are suitably plush, too, with lots of adjustment and, should the original owner have chosen it, a massage function.

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As for handling, this heavy machine is surprisingly competent. It’s no sports car, but there’s a good level of precision, poise and balance. You also get a reasonable degree of feel coming through the steering, even though its weighting is very light.

What isn’t surprising is the impressive level of tech. The S-Class is always the first to get any new systems that Mercedes produces, and this iteration of it is no exception.

To name a few, there’s Active Lane Keeping Assist, Active Blind Spot Assist, Attention Assist and Distronic Plus radar cruise control, all of which were innovative options at the time.

It’s a lot, isn’t it, and we won’t sugar-coat the fact that this isn’t a Ford Fiesta in terms of maintenance. Fancy gadgets and air suspension are far from immune to going awry, not to mention there’s the fuel economy to think about.

Some of the lower-powered diesels can officially average more than 40mpg, sure, but get one of the V8s or V12s and you’ll see much closer to 20mpg. It’s also worth looking into insurance and road tax before you buy to ensure neither comes as an unwanted surprise.

However, the S-Class is a used car bargain to begin with, so we wouldn’t blame you for stomaching these costs and diving in.

Nor would we blame you for hiring someone in a nice suit and tie to drive you around in it. This is a car that’s easy to enjoy whichever seat you’re in.


Gearbox: Make sure the service regime has been followed. This includes changing the oil in the seven-speed automatic gearbox every 40,000 miles. Check that shifts are smooth as well.

Suspension: Pay attention to the suspension on your test drive, because it should keep the car flat when cornering. If not, a new pump could be required.

Interior: The Comand sat-nav system allows you to enter only a four-digit postcode, but Mercedes can upgrade it to seven-digit functionality. If this hasn’t been done, it could be worth asking for the work to be completed before agreeing to buy the car.

Engine: With the diesel engines, listen for excessive rattling at idle. This could indicate a stretched timing chain and, if left unchecked, this can result in a catastrophic engine failure. 

Electrics: Electrical problems are common and repairs can be very expensive. Among the most prevalent issues are failed amplifiers, broken inflating seat bolsters and faulty keyless entry. Use a trickle charger to keep it topped up if you plan to leave the car standing for a long period, as a flat battery can play havoc with electrical systems.

Exterior: Some owners report finding corrosion and blistered paint, so look over the car carefully before buying.


Mercedes-Benz S-Class Bluetec badging

Ironically, when the S-Class was launched, the styling – unusual at the time – was not widely liked by the press.

The exaggerated wheel arches and huge headlamps were a surprise after its rather less imposing predecessor, but see one on the road today and you’ll have to agree that Mercedes got the styling right.

It has a solidity and dignity that is perfectly judged for its role – which is usually being parked in front of the smartest hotels across the world.

The way the shoulders of the doors flow backwards into the rear wing and rear light cluster is especially deft.

The boot effectively ‘sits’ on top of the rear wings, with the edges of the lid forming a distinctly odd contrast with the rear wing, but, somehow, it all works as whole.

The addition of LED ‘Christmas tree’ daylight running lights in the lower front bumper is, perhaps, the least successful part of the exterior of the this generation of S-Class.


Mercedes-Benz S-Class interior

The interior styling carves between being purely sybaritic and giving the driver a sense of being in command. Although it is quite old by automotive industry standards, the cabin of this car has aged gracefully. For the driver, piloting the S-Class is a remarkably refreshing experience.

There are a few quirks: the hood over the display screen is rather heavy-handed and the slim row of centre console switches are a little peculiar.

Indeed, the centre console looks rather bereft, lacking the expected bank of climate controls. But the rotary controller is well placed under the driver’s hand, as are the tiny roller-switches that surround it. Mercedes’ column-mounted gear selector may not be very stylish, but it is highly effective.

For the rear-seat passenger, this generation of S-Class was up there with the best. Mercedes was conscious that most of these cars would be used for transporting VIPs, so the refinement in the rear is excellent and the seats are unashamedly super-plush.

However, there’s an argument that rear legroom is not quite as lavish as it should be on a car of this type, though the long wheelbase version got another 150mm between the wheels, which removes any doubts about rear passenger comfort. Again, the boot, at 560 litres, is hardly small but it could be bigger and a slightly more accommodating shape.


3.0-litre V6 Mercedes-Benz S-Class diesel engine

After the S-Class had been on sale in the UK for six years, Mercedes offered an impressively wide range of engines.

The V6 petrol engine is good for 302bhp and can take this big car from 0-62mph in just 6.9secs. The addition of Mercedes’ BlueEfficiency technology, meant it promised an official combined fuel economy figure of 37.2mpg, impressive for its day.

The S 500 has a 4.6-litre V8 and 429bhp and still offered 30mpg, but the S600 and the two AMG models are exceptionally rapid.

However, it's the S 350 CDI, which at the time was the UK’s most popular S-Class model, scooping up more than 80 percent of sales. 

Changes to the previous-generation 3.0-litre common-rail diesel engine included improved injection efficiency, added turbocharger boost pressure and reduced compression ratio – boosting power by 22bhp at 254bhp. Torque rose by 59lb ft to 457lb ft, developed at 1600rpm, as before.

The upshot is added off-the-line performance, even more impressive mid-range shove, relaxed cruising attributes and a level of mechanical refinement that encroaches on that of then petrol S-Class models.

Mercedes also fitted its latest urea injection system. Concentrated within the catalytic converter, it turns up to 80 percent of nitrogen oxides expelled by the engine into harmless nitrogen and water. A 25.7-litre tank for the urea solution is mounted in the spare wheel well and needs re-filling every 15,500 miles.

With the help of the seven-speed automatic gearbox and stop-start, the S350 Bluetec should achieve a combined 41.5mpg and a CO2 rating of 177g/km.

Some drivers might have regretted that the 2011 four-cylinder diesel S-Class was never offered in the UK. The 2.1-litre diesel engine managed 201bhp and a sturdy 368lb ft of torque; it gave away 53bhp and 89lb ft to the 3.0-litre V6 diesel-powered S 350 CDI.

The relatively small engine does a commendable job of hauling the S 250 CDI’s considerable 1895kg. Theoretically it’s capable of travelling up to 900 miles between refills on its 83-litre tank. When we tested it on the autobahn, it managed a remarkable 55mpg over 200 miles, proving that it can live up to its maker’s claim.


Mercedes-Benz S-Class cornering

There may have been nothing radical in the architecture of the S 350 CDI’s four-link front and multi-link rear suspension with its adaptive air springs, but once out of town it still raises the ride quality standard to incredible levels.

In certain conditions, the equivalent Jaguar XJ or Lexus LS might have matched it, but across all surfaces and through all loads from driver only to fully laden, there are few other luxury cars that approach the Mercedes’s blend of steely body control and almost endlessly compliant bump absorption.

Early models could drop a wheel into a medium-sized pothole and the driver would both hear and feel a rather unluxurious thunk, a contrast to the near-uniform brilliance of the ride the rest of the time. Bigger, 18-inch, wheels didn’t help, but later models saw this quirk massaged away. 

This is no sports car, but it can still be hustled down a road with indecent haste. It’s all there: precision, poise, balance and even reasonable feel through the slightly too-light steering. It won’t have you setting the alarm for 5 o’clock on a Sunday morning, but nor will you greet each country lane with resignation. You’ll actually relish the prospect, and that's all you can expect. 

For the all-important rear passengers, tyre roar is well suppressed and the ride nicely rounded off. All of which coudl not be said of many of the car’s luxury segment rivals at the time.


Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Running a Mercedes S-Class is not for the financially faint-hearted. Even the best-selling S 350 diesel – which has an entry-level price of £62,280 – only retained 43 percent of its list price after three years. Insurance will also be quite high, since this car was in group 48 when it launched and has remained there ever since.

In terms of day-to-day running costs, the 350 CDI is capable of returning 40mpg – and occasionally more – even when pushed along on busy UK motorways.

None of the other S-Class models available at the time in the UK got that, and it is an advantage that gets clearer when you mix in driving in congested urban situations.


4 star Mercedes-Benz S-Class

There’s one thing that is overwhelmingly odd about assessing this car: it is really designed to transport rear-seat passengers in comfort, rather than provide pleasure for the driver.

However, it is a very fine long-distance car for both its driver and passengers. You sit high and comfortably, unlike the sports-coupé driving position that marks the Jaguar XJ.

The steering may be a little distant, but the seamless shove of the engines and the car’s mix of effortlessness and unstoppability is quite addictive.

The S-Class has aged exceptionally well and a mark of its abilities is the fact that it does not feel past its sell-by date.

Oliver Young

Title: Used Car Reporter

Oliver Young began writing for Autocar in 2021, producing content for print and online as used cars reporter. He’s written Cult Hero, Nearly New Buying Guide and Clash of the Classifieds articles, the latter in conjunction with used cars editor Mark Pearson.  

He took his first step into automotive journalism in 2018. As an editorial apprentice with agency Blackball Media, he gained experience working on multiple brands – Car Dealer Magazine and PA Media to name two. He performed a variety of tasks, from digging through the treasure trove that is Ford UK’s Heritage Collection to interviewing Jeremy Clarkson. 

During this time, he studied at Highbury College and, after two years, he finished his NCTJ Level 3 Diploma in Journalism with a distinction grade. 

Mercedes-Benz S-Class 2006-2013 First drives