The S-Class is back, giving everyone else a glimpse of the state of the art and the opportunity to play catch up. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class returns, bigger and better than ever before, but in an agreeably discreet guise. Yes, the innovations are there if you look for them, but Mercedes has sensibly angled this car around safety, efficiency and luxury. It's still the one.
So here it is, the best car in the world. That's the tag usually attached to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and each successive model is expected to live up to that rather daunting title. Every time a new S-Class is launched, we expect the opposition to have closed the gap a bit, but every time Mercedes constantly surprises and delights us with the genius of its flagship saloon.
So what's the story this time round? Great ride, slick styling and granite build quality we take for granted, and as each successive generation passes, perhaps we're getting tougher to please. This 'W222' generation S-Class majors on active safety, plus smart hybrid powertrains as well as conventional petrol and diesel options and features some of the most stunning light technology seen to date.
Mercedes was a little late to the hybrid party but it's clear that it's more than making up for lost time with the latest S-Class. As well as a petrol/electric hybrid S400 model, we also get a diesel/electric S300 BlueTEC Hybrid saloon. The S400 features a 306PS 3.5-litre V6 with a 20kW electric motor added to the mix. The S300 runs on a four-cylinder 2.1-litre powerplant good for 204PS with 20kW from the electric motor adding to a combined torque figure of 500Nm at just 1,600rpm.
If hybrid powerplants aren't your thing, try the S350 BlueTEC diesel, a 3.0-litre engine with 258PS that'll get to 60mph in 6.5 seconds. Alternatively, there's the classic S500 badge, this time attached to a car powered by a 4.7-litre V8 packing 455PS. It's devastatingly quick, getting to 60mph in 4.5 seconds. At the top of the range is the 5.5-litre bi-turbo V8 petrol-engined S63 AMG. Plus the petrol V12-engined S600.
The S-Class is the world's first car to be able to detect bumps on the road ahead. If ROAD SURFACE SCAN detects such unevenness by means of the stereo camera, MAGIC BODY CONTROL instantaneously sets up the suspension to deal with the situation. This innovative suspension system is available as an option for the eight-cylinder models. Standard equipment for the S-Class includes the continuously operating Adaptive Damping System ADS PLUS and an enhanced version of the full air suspension system AIRMATIC.
At the top of the range is the 5.5-litre bi-turbo V8 petrol-engined S63 AMG.
Design and Build
The styling of this latest S-Class is probably more evolutionary than any previous all-new model, with the pronounced wheelarch bulges and coupe-like roofline carried over from the previous W221 generation. Look a bit closer, however, and you'll see the additional shape in the flanks courtesy of slashing swage lines. Then there's the more upright front grille and the swept-in tail, much in the style of the CLS four-door coupe.
The lighting system deserves more than a passing mention. More than 100 years after the introduction of electric lighting in motor vehicles, Mercedes-Benz is making a complete switch to LED technology - the new S-Class is the first vehicle in the world whose interior and exterior do without a single light bulb. Out of consideration for any road users behind, the intensity of the brake lights is reduced at night or while waiting at traffic lights - which is no bad thing. Some Mercedes models in the recent past have had antisocially bright tail lights. Almost 500 LEDs illuminate the road, the vehicle, the interior and the boot. Depending on equipment, these include headlamps with up to 56 LEDs, tail lights each with up to 35 LEDs (plus 4 for the rear fog lamp) and no fewer than 300 LEDs in the interior, including the ambient lighting.
Both the standard and long wheelbase models wear their bulk with a light touch, and there's plenty of room inside the beautifully-finished cabin. You can even specify the "First Class Rear" where the front console on the transmission tunnel is visually continued to the rear. It's equipped with innovative thermo-cup holders which use Peltier technology to cool or warm drinks over a longer period of time. Like an aircraft seat, the centre console is available with two tables which can be folded in or out using one hand.
Market and Model
Prices start at around £63,000 for the S350 BlueTEC model, which is only a tad pricier than its predecessor. Before opting for that though, you may also want to consider the S400 petrol/electric Hybrid model which requires at least a £70,000 budget. The more conventional eight cylinder S500 comes only in long wheelbase form and needs around £90,000. You can also talk to your dealer about other variants developed for the range - the S300 diesel/electric version for example. Or if high performance is your thing, the S63 AMG and S500 Plug-In Hybrid variants.
Equipment? It's hard to know where to start. Mercedes has made some big strides in terms of safety equipment which, bundled together, it refers to as Intelligent Drive. Using a stereo camera and multistage radar sensors, the S-Class marshals the adaptive cruise control, lane guidance and Brake Assist System BAS PLUS with Cross-Traffic Assist, which is able to detect crossing traffic and pedestrians, boosting the braking power applied by the driver accordingly. In the back, there are beltbags; inflatable seat-belt straps that are able to reduce the risk of injury to passengers in the rear in a head-on collision by lessening the strain placed on the ribcage. The reclining seat is equipped with a cushion bag under the seat cushion upholstery as standard. When the seat is reclined, it prevents the occupant from sliding beneath the seat belt (so-called submarining) in an accident.
Cost of Ownership
How do you really put a price on owning the best of anything? It's a tough ask. Clearly Mercedes needs to offer the sort of value proposition that stands it favourably against its key rivals, but when it comes to running costs, is this a somewhat moot point? Mercedes thinks not. The excellent efficiency figures point to an almost obsessive quest to reduce consumption and emissions. All of the S-Class body is fabricated from aluminium to cut weight and the chassis is notably stiffer than the previous generation car.
Choose an S350 BlueTEC model - as we suspect most British S-Class customers will - and you'll get 51.3 miles from a gallon of diesel, falling to 50.4 if you go for the heftier long wheelbase version. Emissions are rated at 146 and 148g/km respectively. For the most frugal car in the range, you'll need to place an order for the S300 BlueTEC Hybrid, which manages 61.4mpg and just 120g/km, this from a car that will accelerate to 62mph in 7.6 seconds and nudge 150mph. Incredible.
The Mercedes S-Class is a class act but perhaps we've succumbed a little to novelty fatigue as this car seems to take a more measured approach to throwing world firsts at us. If you look for them, they're still there but this is not a radical reimagining of the S-Class theme, instead representing a deeply considered take on moving Mercedes' flagship saloon forward. Buyers have possibly reached a point where they feel saturated by technology and just want some simpler virtues such as great ride quality, responsive powerplants, discreet styling and comfort without bottomless complexity.
The S-Class aims to deliver exactly this recipe. It's a beautifully measured take and one that marks a subtle change in philosophy. It hasn't stopped striving to be the best. It's just that its maker has realised that in order to retain the crown, discerning customers value a certain ingrained excellence over more than mere bagatelle. After over forty years, Mercedes has realised that it doesn't have to try quite so hard.