The interior is an extraordinary achievement, new operating system is seamless, motorway refinement
Exterior design errs on the side of caution, some of the materials are a touch showy
What is it?
It’s impossible not to think of the previous six generations of Mercedes S-Class as you approach this seventh iteration. Think of them and pity such piffling technological world firsts as anti-lock brakes (1978, on the W116) or airbags (1981’s W126). Remember the awe you experienced the first time you saw a car with double-glazed windows (1991’s W140 behemoth)?
It’s tempting to fast-forward four decades and ponder what might lie in store for future masters of the universe, because this all-new S-Class – W223, if you’re so inclined – is arguably the biggest reset since the Sonderklasse first arrived in 1972. It’s a head-spinner, a car that looks further ahead than ever, and takes contemporary obsessions such as connectivity, digitisation, electrification and autonomy and gives them the mother and father of all Mercedes twists. Given that this is the company that has installed a very handsome (if glitchy) user-interface in its entry-level car, expectations are clearly sky-high for the vehicle that sits at the pointy end of the product hierarchy. On the other hand, the path to hi-tech Nirvana is beset on all sides with potential pitfalls, as anyone who’s grappled with the steering wheel touchpads on an E-Class will confirm. Mercedes has at times tested the hypothesis that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Corporate pride should keep the hubris at bay. Where to begin? Perhaps with the new S-Class’s Drive Pilot hard- and software, which has the ability to call on level four autonomy so the car can locate a space and park itself, assuming the garage is networked to cope. Germany is also close to signing off on stretches of autobahn that will allow the S-Class to run its level three autonomous functionality at speeds up to 37mph (conditionally automated, they call it). That means hands-off driving and the freedom to check your emails. Although you could argue that this, the ultimate in chauffeur-driven cars, has been autonomous for years, and any email checking will likely be done by whomever is in the back. (Chinese customers, who accounted for a third of the 500,000 current S-Classes sold, apparently like to drive their own cars at the weekend; soon they’ll be able to sit behind the wheel and not drive).
For all its tech firepower, the new S-Class still relies on internal combustion for its motive power. It’s another of those 21st century German cars whose nomenclature bears no resemblance to what’s under the bonnet. The S500 is a turbocharged 3.0-litre in-line six, making 429bhp and 384 torques, whose efficiency and performance is boosted by a mild hybrid which adds 22bhp and 184 torques. There will also be a 2.9-litre, 282bhp turbodiesel good for 442 torques and wearing a fallacious 350d badge, an S400d 4Matic with 325bhp and 516 torques, while a new mild hybrid 4.0-litre V8 petrol is coming down the pipe, and a 580e plug-in hybrid version that adds a 28kWh battery to deliver a claimed range on electric power of 62 miles is due to arrive later in 2021.
The S-Class hasn’t always demonstrated an ability to ‘read the room’, that double-glazed early Nineties incarnation arriving into a global recession with a bluff charmlessness that its successor swapped for a near-invisibility just as the good times got rolling again. This version underwhelms somewhat in the pictures but has the sort of restrained elegance in the flesh that you know its creators will have pored over forensically. (There’s always the new Maybach for those parts of the world and people impervious to pandemic and economic strife.) In the UK, 80 per cent of S-Classes sold are the long wheelbase version; the new car has grown by 34mm in length to almost 5.3m, and it’s 1.92m wide. The longer wheelbase itself now measures 3216mm. Elbow room for the driver has increased by 38mm, there’s 23mm for rear passengers, who also get 16mm more headroom.
The grille, as usual, has grown, the body-sides and flanks are simpler but still magnificently surfaced, the head- and tail-lights simpler to look at it but now containing the most phenomenally complex illumination technology. Multi-beam LEDs are standard, with Digital Light available as an option; this set-up uses three hugely powerful LEDs whose light is refracted and directed by 1.3m micro mirrors, equivalent to 2.6 million pixels of light overall. And it’s intelligent: if the car detects road works up ahead, it’ll project a road sign onto the road ahead as a driver warning. Or shine a light onto a pedestrian if need be. It’ll be like Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The detail execution on this car is crazy, and even runs to two different types of door-handle. The standard ones are similar to the current and frankly passé set-up. Then there are the flush-fitting handles that detect the key-fob and glide into view to greet you and your hands as you approach. You may think that this is rather a lot of trouble to go to. Until you try them. They’re also a factor in optimising the car’s phenomenal aerodynamics: in its slipperiest guise the S-Class cleaves the air with a drag co-efficient of just 0.22. No stone in the greater Stuttgart area remains unturned.
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What's the verdict?
We said at the beginning that this seventh generation S-Class might represent the biggest leap forward since the model arrived almost 50 years ago. It’s an astoundingly complete vehicle, one that manages to conjure up a truly contemporary vision for automotive luxury without over-dosing on technology. The second-generation Mercedes user interface is as easy to operate as it is beautifully designed and rendered, every detail masterfully managed.
But this is also still a car, and whether you’re behind the wheel or sitting behind the person doing the driving, the experience is deeply satisfying.