The interior is an extraordinary achievement, sumptuous rear cabin, all-round refinement, technology integration
Exterior design errs on the side of caution, the cabin design is a touch showy in places, BMW’s new i7 has it beaten for refinement
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.
But by God do things move fast. Even 12 months on from launch its technological twists (such as mood lighting that pulses if you talk to the car) already seem normal. And 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.
Lots of tech then. 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 has now signed off on stretches of autobahn that will allow the S-Class to run its level three autonomous functionality during heavy traffic at speeds up to 37mph (conditionally automated, they call it. Clearly only trusted in jams, we say).
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).
It’s not electric is it?
No, you’re thinking of the EQS. 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’s also a 2.9-litre, 282bhp turbodiesel good for 442 torques and wearing a fallacious 350d badge (airport taxi), an S400d 4Matic with 325bhp and 516 torques, while a new mild hybrid 4.0-litre V8 petrol is coming down the pipe.
The one to have right now though (and probably the pick of the range in perpetuity) is the S580e plug-in hybrid version: that adds a 28.6kWh battery to the 3.0-litre straight six to deliver a claimed range on electric power of 62 miles, a combined economy figure of 403mpg (16g/km of CO2), and all while delivering 517bhp to the tarmac for 0-62mph in 5.2 seconds. Waft-o-matic with proper hybrid chops.
What do you have to pay for this?
Well, £86,260 doesn’t sound too bad does it? Not when that seems to be the entry sticker for most electric SUVs. But you do need to step up £10k if you want a long wheelbase version, while the hybrid – only available in long – starts at £111,905. But considering the tech and engineering that underpins it, it’s good value.
What about rivals?
The role of the luxury saloon has changed. This is not the kind of car you drive yourself any more. If you want luxury it’s OK to be seen driving yourself, buy a Range Rover. This lines up squarely against BMW’s tremendous new 7 Series, most notably the i7.
It’s not the most exciting looking big saloon, is it?
The S-Class hasn’t always demonstrated an ability to ‘read the room’. That double-glazed early Nineties W140 incarnation arrived into a global recession with a bluff charmlessness that its successor (the W220) swapped for 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 economic strife.)
Plenty of room in the back, I suspect?
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 3,216mm. Elbow room for the driver has increased by 38mm, there’s 23mm for rear passengers, who also get 16mm more headroom. The rear cabin in particular manages to be more spacious on the inside than you imagine from outside.
And what about the exterior?
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 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 1.3 million micro mirrors, equivalent to 2.6 million pixels of light overall. And it’s intelligent: if the car detects roadworks 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 can 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 coefficient of just 0.22. No stone in the greater Stuttgart area remains unturned.
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 overdosing on technology. The hybrid version in particular sets new standards for range, tech integration and usability for everyone else to aim for. The second-generation Mercedes user interface is easier to operate as well as being beautifully designed and rendered, with 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.