Once the undisputed king of saloon cars, the S-Class still retains much of its traditional appeal. It’s a supremely luxurious, refined and technology-laden conveyance for affluent and successful individuals, and the latest, seventh-generation car has a bold new face that enhances its opulent style.
Inside, there’s a mind-bending array of tech innovations including augmented reality navigation, 3-D digital displays and face recognition, but we’ve a sense that Merc’s engineers have been lured too far down the digital rabbit hole and core values have suffered.
While back seat passengers will be blissfully oblivious to the flimsy feel of steering wheel controls and other questionable fit and finish choices, their chauffeurs may regret the passing of old certainties.
About the Mercedes S-Class
This is the seventh-generation of the Mercedes S-Class, a flagship saloon model first introduced in 1972 on the coattails of an illustrious lineage of even older Mercedes luxury models dating back to the dawn of motoring.
As such the S-Class has always been the company’s most important brand statement, encapsulating the very best of what its engineers, designers and craftspeople have to offer. It’s an approach summed up in the words of the company’s current motto ‘The Best or Nothing’ which – apart from resonating with Frank Sinatra fans – is an apt description of the qualities the S-Class has brought to the luxury car segment over the years.
But we live in confusing times, and at this moment on the cusp of a wholesale switchover to electric vehicles and digital interfaces, even the S-Class must be wondering about its place in the world. It’s got mild hybrid technology, an impressive array of electronic and infotainment tech, and the usual opulent creature comforts, but it was developed in the shadow of a far more significant internal rival for the top Mercedes crown in the shape of the all-electric EQS.
So perhaps this seventh-generation S-Class is a bit of a stop-gap, and possibly Mercedes may have needed to divert its best resources to the development of an heir to the throne. It’s a theory that might account for some of the criticism we feel able to level in some surprising areas, and which made it easier than Mercedes might have hoped for us to rule the S-Class out as our luxury class pick in the 2021 Auto Express New Car Awards – the term ‘shoe-in’ was invented for previous generations of the flagship Merc.
We’ve only tried the S500 petrol model as yet, which as well as an opulent cabin is lavishly specified with a range of electronic interactive features that most S-Class owners may struggle to find time to get to grips with. It’s powered by a 429bhp 520Nm in-line six-cylinder engine with a 48V integrated starter-generator, with a nine-speed 9G-Tronic auto transmission and 4MATIC four-wheel drive – the first time 4×4 has been available on right-hand drive UK models.
There are two diesel variants available to order, namely the 282bhp S 350 d and the 325bhp S 400 d 4MATIC, which are expected to make up the bulk of UK sales, and all versions get the latest MBUX operating system running on a 12.8-inch OLED central display, plus a 12.3-ich digital driver display. 3D tech with facial recognition is optional, the latter able to suggest and adjust seat and mirror positioning, optimised for the human that’s staring back at it.
There are five main trim levels, with all but the entry-grade named AMG Line something… so you can have an AMG Line, AMG Line Premium, AMG Line Premium Plus, AMG Line Premium Executive and AMG Line Premium Plus Executive. At the top of the range are two Mercedes Maybach derivatives recognisable by special forged wheels and a bespoke grille treatment, plus a truly opulent spec that includes airline-style rear tray tables, TV tuner and massaging rear seats in the most expensive First Class edition.
Standard AMG Line kit includes 19-inch alloys, Nappa leather upholstery, soft-close doors, heated front and rear memory seats, Keyless Go and wireless charging in the front plus a nine-speaker audio system.
Premium gives you bigger 20-inch alloys, panoramic sunroof, 3D display, remote parking and electric memory rear seats for long-wheelbase models. Premium Plus throws in the augmented reality head-up display, digital headlamps, plus massaging front seats and heated armrests, and rides on 21-inch wheels. Executive versions of both the latter include electric rear blinds, rear seat control of front passenger seat adjustment, plus an extra rear footrest and a removable Samsung tablet that pops out of the central armrest.
Priced from around £77,000 the Mercedes S-Class faces a range of premium rivals that include the BMW 7 Series, Audi A8 and Maserati Quattroporte saloons, plus a range of upmarket SUVs such as the Range Rover, Audi Q7, Porsche Cayenne and Volvo XC90. Buyers pushing the boat out as far as the £160k+ Mercedes-Maybach may also consider options such as the Bentley Flying Spur saloon or Bentayga SUV.
From the driving seat the S-Class maintains its traditional ability to offer agility and composed handling that belies its size and two-and-a-bit ton weight. Adaptive air suspension on the S 500 glides over even challenging road surfaces and it’s rare that an imperfection will trouble the occupants beyond endurance.
The big wheels and tyres can thump loudly in the cabin though, and overall we feel this latest S-Class’s ride quality isn’t quite as sublime as the previous version. Models riding on smaller wheels may improve our impressions once we’ve had a chance to sample them, but anyway the odd shiver of a jolt transmitted into the cabin scarcely diminishes the outstanding comfort occupants enjoy.
The inline six-cylinder engine is hushed even under hard acceleration, but what noise you do hear is not particularly stimulating so there’s not much to be gained from driving an S-Class like you stole it. Wait for the AMG variant for that.
Driven briskly though, the S-Class is impressively poised and responsive to steering inputs, making it easy to place the long bonnet in corners and keep progress neat. There’s a small amount of body roll as you’d expect, but even on especially challenging twists and turns at the test track, the big Benz is reassuringly responsive.
Grip is excellent from the standard 4MATIC set-up on the S 500, while four-wheel steering combines with the electronic chassis management systems to help keep cornering lines neat. The same also applies during high-speed lane changes where stability is impressive, and excellent aerodynamics mean there’s little in the way of wind noise to unsettle the ambience either.
Engines, 0-60 acceleration and top speed
There are three engine options initially available in the new S-Class, and the list comprises a pair of diesels and a single petrol engine.
We’ve tested the S500 with its inline six-cylinder engine, and although the capacity is just three litres it makes 429bhp at 6,100rpm – good enough for 0-62mph in 4.9 seconds, and a maximum speed of 155mph. It revs smoothly and delivers power in a linear fashion, but there’s little sense of occasion about the acceleration which happens in a rather matter-of-fact style. Gear changes from the standard 9G-Tronic transmission are all but imperceptible.
The S 350 d also has a three-litre in-line six, but making its 282bhp across a decently wide 3,400-4,600rpm powerband, and with 600Nm of torque it should have plenty of pulling power. That’s reflected in a still relatively rapid 6.4-second 0-62mph time. The S 400d version of the same engine has the wick turned up a little to 325bhp, and 0-62mph comes around in 5.4 seconds.
With very few S-Class sales made to private individuals and most through companies, it’s unlikely anyone is going to stumble into ownership with their eyes anything but wide open. And while a car priced towards the thick end of £100k is never going to be cheap to run, with hefty bills for servicing and maintenance all on the agenda, at least the fuel costs shouldn’t be too outrageous.
In fact, Mercedes claims a best theoretical range of 32.4-34.5mpg for standard-wheelbase S500 models, but the longer version knocks that down to 32mpg or less. The S350 d claims a mixed consumption of 40.4-42.8mpg for the swb, but it drops to a sniff under 40mpg in lwb guise. You can knock another couple of mpg off your range with the S400 d, but a big 76-litre tank means all models have a considerable potential range.
The news isn’t quite so good from a company car tax point of view thanks to CO2 emissions starting at 173g/km for the S350 d, especially if you’re comparing the S-Class with cleaner hybrid or EV options. You’ll be hit with the top rate of 37 per cent for Benefit-in-Kind tax calculations, and of course the S-Class also attracts the luxury vehicle road tax supplement.
The insurance group ratings have been set at 50 for all variants of the S-Class, but many owners will have multiple vehicle or business insurance policies that mean the premiums can be amortised.
Always a sore point for large and luxurious saloon cars, the crashing falls in value for expensive S-Class models at least shouldn’t be any worse than for the obvious rivals. Our data suggests that the S-Class should retain around 45% of its value after a typical three-year/36,000-mile ownership period, but higher mileage cars will obviously suffer more come resale time.
It’s the interior of the new S-Class that’s the real talking point, but the exterior warrants attention too. The lines have evolved gently, but details such as newly sculpted flanks and reshaped lights give the car an elegance that not all S-Class generations have enjoyed.
The new-look front is eye-catching and imposing, and should certainly turn more heads than the outgoing car. Details such as the more expressive grille design, complex projector headlamps and door handles that sink flush into the bodywork add to a welcome sense of expensive exoticism.
First impressions on opening any of the four doors are favourable too, as the trim and upholstery at first glance looks the equal of anything in the class. The diamond-pleated leather of our test car was soft and inviting, and only the agoraphobic could fault the opportunity each one of the seats presents for serious sprawling.
Mercedes is pitching the S-Class hard as a technological marvel, and it certainly seems appropriate to wonder at the extent of the features that have been crammed in. All cars get the latest MBUX operating system that runs on a big central touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard, but Mercedes has opted not to give drivers the option of a mechanical interface for selecting menus. Neither are there any hard controls for climate control which some will find frustrating.
What you do get is a complicated array of touch sensitive buttons on the steering wheel, and a slim strip of touch controls under the central touchscreen. They look flimsy and cheap, offering none of the reassuringly tactile pleasures we’re accustomed to enjoying when aboard one of Mercedes’ finest.
In our clumsy hands the steering wheel controls often needed several swipes to create the desired reaction, and while we’re griping we’ve also got some misgivings about the 3-D driver display and the augmented reality navigation. They both feature graphics that make the tech feel dated instead of cutting edge, and overlaying squadrons of flying blue arrows on an image of the road ahead seems more of a distraction than an improvement on existing functionality.
The criticism doesn’t stop there as even some of the cabin finishes have a less premium feel. Whether it’s cheap-feeling plastics around the seat bases or inside the lidded central console cubby, rough edges on the touchscreen display sides, or a full-width aluminium-look dash moulding strip that might look more at home on an old kitchen cabinet, this S-Class doesn’t quite convey the ‘best or nothing’ feel we’re conditioned to expect.
Luckily, there are plenty of technologies aboard the S Class that do. The facial recognition system means the car can automatically adjust settings for whoever gets behind the wheel, while the Digital Light headlamp pack features projector headlights with more than one million pixels per side, and has the capability to project messages such as speed limit info onto the tarmac ahead of you.
A suite of semi-autonomous features includes the DISTRONIC distance assist upgrade that now can prevent collisions at up to 80mph, Traffic Sign Assist that warns of running a red light or stop sign, Lane Keeping Assist and Evasive Steering Assist that can keep you out of the way of cyclists or sudden tailbacks in your lane on the motorway. You can also play with the lighting inside, thanks to the ambient system providing 10 colour schemes with 64 colours, and the car even uses the system to warn you of external hazards.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The MBUX operating system in the S-Class has some significant upgrades, including voice recognition from every seat and a new capability to store profile info in your Mercedes Me cloud account, so you can take your favourite settings with you from car to car.
The touchscreen features haptic feedback and augmented reality, plus a fingerprint scanner, and is straightforward to use with attractive and intuitive menus, including when using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
Unchecked, the impressive head-up display projects so much info it’s like having a party in your windscreen, but you can configure it to a less distracting mode by reducing what’s presented. As mentioned above we’re not big fans of the optional 3D driver display or the augmented navigation at least from a graphical perspective, and both currently seem a little gimmicky.
If you want the removable tablet in the centre armrest at the back, which mirrors some of the main touchscreen functionality but can also be used away from the car, you’ll need to specify the Premium Plus Executive trim line.
The S-Class is luxurious, spacious and extremely comfortable to ride in, there’s no doubt at all about that. While the suspension may not quite match rivals for its ability to soak up imperfections, that’s a relatively marginal criticism when you’re enjoying the embrace of heated and ventilated massage chairs and the calming ambience the cabin provides.
We’d challenge you to find comfier seats than the rears in the S-Class, and features such as the available chauffeur pack allow tired chief execs to fold the passenger seat to make extra legroom. Front seat passengers are similarly well looked-after, with the massaging chairs offering a range of ‘treatments’ that includes a hot stone massage function- sadly we’re unable to compare its effect with the real thing.
The MBUX operating system is intuitive and practical, and once profiles are set up the facial recognition system makes it easier than ever to jump in and go without the need to fiddle around with adjustments or favourite settings. The only flies in the ointment are the steering wheel controls that can be activated too easily by accident, and not easily enough when required, and the lack of traditional heater controls. The big touchscreen puts the vents high on the dashboard too, where they reflect in the windscreen at times and are difficult to reach.
At nearly 5.3m long and just shy of 2m wide, the S-Class is going to take up a fair bit of space on your drive. As usual Mercedes offers a standard length and an extended wheelbase variant, and it’s the latter that’s likely to be far more common on UK roads. The extra metal is all in the rear passenger compartment, and although the difference overall is 5,289mm compared to 5,179mm nose-to-tail, that extra 11cms means the stretched version of the S-Class offers noticeably more cabin space.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
There are acres of space to spread out in the S-Class cabin, and the sense of airiness is even greater if you’ve got a car with the panoramic glass sunroof. As mentioned above rear seat passengers are especially blessed in the longer-wheelbase variant, which also has longer rear doors making getting in and out a little easier too. With options like individually reclining rear seats, airline tables and electric privacy blinds, it’s possible to configure a travel space that’s a world apart from the standard most of us are forced to endure.
A 540-litre boot volume means there’s space in the trunk for plenty of designer luggage on your trans-European jaunts, or for the VIP airport and hotel services that many corporately-owned S-Class models will be used for. It’s about 30-litres bigger than an Audi A8 or 7 Series
As ever, the Mercedes S-Class is loaded with the most advanced safety features, and we’d be amazed if it came out of the Euro NCAP independent crash testing with anything less than excellent scores.
Meanwhile, we have to put our trust in a spec sheet that includes pretty much every safety feature you can think of, as well as a raft of semi-autonomous driver assistance features that have been upgraded for the new-generation car. An example is the DISTRONIC system designed to keep you at a safe distance from the car ahead, which can now avert accidents when you’re travelling at up to 80mph.
Mercedes continues to roll out bigger innovations too, including industry-first rear seat airbags that provide flexible protection for all sizes of occupants from kids in child seats to over-fed corporate magnates.
Good reliability for the mechanical elements of the new S-Class should be assured, but some of the electronic systems are new and untested in the mass market. It’s worth noting also that Mercedes managed to finish only 28th out of 30 brands in our 2020 Driver Power satisfaction survey. Lexus, which makes the rival LS saloon, topped the table again.
All Mercedes-Benz cars come with a standard three-year warranty with unlimited mileage, and a thirty-year warranty against corrosion for anyone intending to keep their new S-Class for a while. Mercedes also provides pan-European breakdown cover for up to 30 years should you request it.
You’ll need a fairly chunky budget to maintain an S-Class in the manner to which it ought to be accustomed, but Mercedes makes it simpler with flexible ServiceCare arrangements that allow you to spread the cost of up to four services into a single package. You can add it to your monthly finance cost or pay the full amount up front.