By Jonathan Crouch
The Mercedes S-Class is the luxury saloon by which all others are measured. In its sixth generation 'W222'-series guise, this car was designed to be more affordable to run and even cleverer to use, but its real strengths remained in comfort and refinement. Under the bonnet, from launch in 2013, buyers got the widest and most technologically advanced choice of engines in the luxury segment, with three kinds of Hybrid powerplant to complement the usual petrol and diesel options. All-LED lighting technology and a futuristic suspension option completed a ground-breaking package. Here, we're going to look at original pre-facelifed 2013 to 2017-era saloon versions of this MK6 model.
The Mercedes S-Class. It's traditionally been the sensible answer to the question every motoring writer likes to dodge - 'what's the best car in the world?'. Other vehicles can be more opulent, faster or better to drive but over the years, no other model has so consistently delivered such a technologically-advanced blend of automotive virtues.
The S or 'Sonderklasse' has served as the flagship Mercedes saloon for over fifty years in various guises and the 'W222' model we're looking at here was the sixth generation since Mercedes started officially using the S-Class tag back in 1972. This car though, had a tougher brief than any of its predecessors. At its entry point, it needed to satisfy successful mid-level Managers, while at the other end of the line-up, the same car with greater power and opulence had also be good enough to meet the exalted expectations of Rolls Royce and Bentley buyers.
To achieve that, this car needed to be ground-breaking - but then the S-Class always has been. This, after all, was the luxury saloon that in 1978 pioneered anti-lock brakes, in 1981 introduced airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners and traction control and by 1992 was the first car to be built entirely free from harmful CFCs. And we could go on to talk about things like double glazing, Electronic Stability Control and Keyless entry - you get the point. Models like this Mercedes are state-of-the-art test beds for the best that their engineers can produce. Some features will forever be limited to plutocratic purses but many others will eventually filter down into the everyday mainstream.
Which means that perhaps it won't be long before the more affordable vehicles most of us own completely dispense with light bulbs. Or feature anticipatory suspension systems using a camera to detect and respond to irregularities in the road ahead. These features, along with industry-leading hybrid engine technology, were amongst the many things that aimed to set this 'W222'-series S-Class apart from its luxury sector rivals. The original version of this MK6 model sold until the Autumn of 2017, when it was replaced but a substantially updated version of the sixth generation design. Coupe and Cabriolet versions of this S-Class were announced in 2014, but here our focus is on long and short wheelbase versions of the saloon bodystyle.
What You Get
People all around the world can recognise an S-Class right away, its elegant design ever an expression of luxury and the automotive grandeur of its era. With this car, Mercedes has always sought to combine progressive design with the classic elegance that extends all the way back to its roots in the 1930s. It's a heritage more evident than ever in this sixth generation model with its classic architecture and flowing silhouette, a look that may be a touch more discreet than before but is also a little more sophisticated with its long bonnet, flowing, domed roofline and gently slanting rear end.
At the front, the grille is bigger than that of the previous model, the air intakes more prominent, while the styling around the advanced LED headlights and the way that the airflow is managed is just a whole lot more detailed. It's all indicative of the optimally co-ordinated care that's gone into all the things you can't see, like a sleek, wind-cheating and much stiffer bodyshell, half of which is fashioned from lightweight aluminium.
Moving back, you'll appreciate the taller and more dignified glasshouse, emphasising a profile that's a little more saloon and a little less coupe-like because the brand had with this generation design, a separate S-Class Coupe variant. With the long wheelbase bodystyle that most customers choose, you don't get the slightly odd elongated look that characterises lwb versions of this car's competitors. That's because, unlike those rivals, it was originally designed around the longer bodyshape, rather than styled in shorter form, then stretched. The difference shows.
So you're free to simply admire the classic elegance centred in profile around the centre character line - what Mercedes rather awkwardly calls a 'Dropping Line' - that descends discreetly from the front to a rear section where a pronounced shoulder above the back wheel gives the rear end of the car a power-packed look. Talking of wheels, 18-inch rims are standard but to us look rather under-sized for the sheer enormity of this car. We'd want a car whose original owner specified 19-inch alloys instead.
The rear screen cuts into the C-pillars and the tail lights are completely encased by the car body. Like the headlamps, these are all-LED affairs, back in 2013 this car being the first in the world to do without a single light bulb inside and out. 35 LEDs light up these tail lamps, 56 of them are used in the headlamps and around 300 are scattered around the cabin. 21st century lighting indeed.
Drop inside and owners of the previous generation version will notice the more spacious feel, with significant amounts of extra head, elbow and shoulder room in a less cluttered cabin that's a long way removed from the button-fest that many Mercedes owners are accustomed to. Smooth curves and horizontal elements give a feeling of width, solidity and elegance without compromising on ergonomics, although we have to wonder whether BMW has better rationalised the mix of buttons and on-screen menus.
Ah yes, the screens. They certainly dominate this cabin, two 12.3-inch high-resolution TFT displays that one more dismissive colleague described as looking like a couple of iPads shunted together. We actually think they look rather sleek, with wondrous graphics that make those on rival infotainment systems look very old-fashioned. The screen directly ahead of the driver performs all the functions you'd expect from a conventional instrument cluster. Most of the other information you'll need is to be found on the centre-dash screen that delivers the bewildering functionality promised by Mercedes' COMAND infotainment system. To be fair, this isn't bad in its user-friendliness but there's a heck of a lot of depth to it that some buyers just won't take the time to learn.
You can't argue with the interior quality. Metallised switch surfaces with pearl-effect paint finishes in three colour shades, ornate speaker grilles, grooved organ-stop controls for the distinctive metal 'eyeball' air vents and superb attention to detail characterise a cabin trimmed in lustrous buttery leather with seats that even feature heated armrests. We're not sure about the two-spoke nappa leather-trimmed steering wheel with its old fashioned Mercedes-Benz badge script, but the analogue dashboard clock is lovely and at night, you'll enjoy ambient lighting with a choice of seven different colour settings.
Rear seat passengers are even better provided for, as is appropriate in a car that many owners will want chauffeur-driven. They've 14mm more knee room and 9mm more shoulder room than they would have had in the old MK5 model and of course, in the kind of long wheelbase guise most models feature, there's plenty of room to stretch out and relax. Many models you'll come across will feature the 'Executive Rear' package that gives you an electrically operated, ventilated seat with powered side and rear window blinds for extra privacy and a backrest adjustable by up to 43.5-degrees. Some cars will also have been specified with the 'Rear Seat Comfort' package that gives you a seat massage function and seatback-mounted entertainment screens. They've to be operated by a fiddly remote control though, which seems rather out of date in these days of touch screen technology.
Perhaps it's because of all this rear seat trickery - no fewer than five rear seat option packages were originally made available to lwb customers - that the kind of folding rear backrest you'd normally get in a luxury saloon to extend the bootspace can't be offered here. So you're reliant on a 510-litre trunk that's a touch bigger than a BMW 7 Series and a touch smaller than an Audi A8 or a Jaguar XJ. It'll be quite big enough to transport the golf clubs and associated paraphernalia that most executives will cart about - and, laudably, isn't compromised in size by the batteries that Hybrid variants must carry about.
What to Look For
As you'd expect, not much goes wrong with an S-Class, though our ownership survey for this 'W222'-series model did unearth an owner who'd had a series of problems, including issues with the COMMAND infotainment system, safety programmes that disconnected suddenly and water leaking into the headlights. Check all these things out on your test drive.
There were various recalls issued on this model through its life. In December 2013, a recall was issued addressing the fact that in rare cases, the connections of the seatbelts to the front seats might not have been installed correctly. In January 2016, a recall was issued based on potential issues with the engine stop/start system, advising owners that incorrect software might have been installed that could cause erratic idling when coming to a half and potentially even an engine shut down. Another recall in January 2015 was based around potential oil leaks.
More issues seem to relate to the Hybrid variants. In November 2015, a recall was issued for S-Class Hybrid vehicles that were manufactured from 1 February 2013 to 24 April 2015. Owners of these were advised that due to incorrect software, the combustion engine might fail to start but that restarting the vehicle by using the key could reset the system. Hybrid owners got another recall in January 2016, when they were told that due to a fault, the transmission might lock up at low speed.
(approx. based on 2013 E350 CDI model) An oil filter costs around £8 to £9. Brake pads sit in the £25 to £56 bracket for a set. An air filter costs in the £37 to £44 bracket. A fuel filter costs in the £52 to £78 bracket. A water pump is around £77. The tail lamp cluster will cost you around £310 to replace, while a headlight will cost around £102.
On the Road
Of course there's more to the S-Class than mere novelty. The key to this car is a sense of well-being; a reassurance that you're in the most thoroughly-engineered vehicle money can buy. That starts from the moment you ease yourself behind the wheel and take in the quietly classy dashboard, sink into seats that feel as if they've been tailored to fit and start wondering how you're ever going to learn how this massively complex Mercedes works.
To give you an idea of the engineering effort that's gone into this car, consider this. A top-end rival like a Bentley Flying Spur offers you a petrol engine. Go for, say, the kind of more mainstream Jaguar XJ or BMW 7 Series that many potential buyers will be considering and you can choose between petrol and diesel. An Audi A8 from this era will go a step further and offer you a choice between petrol, diesel and hybrid power. Then we come to this car. It obviously offers conventional petrol and diesel choices but that's just the start. From there, you've got a petrol/electric hybrid, a diesel/electric hybrid or you could even get yourself a plug-in hybrid model. Four, six, eight, twelve cylinders - it's entirely up to you.
It's a touch ironic then, that almost all S-Class sales are accounted for by the most straightforward and conventionally-engined variant of the lot, a 3.5-litre 258bhp S350 BlueTEC diesel model that mechanically, is very little different to its fifth generation predecessor. As before, it's a car with massive pulling power thanks to a hefty 619Nm of torque, all arriving low down in the rev range at a mere 1,600rpm. You can just tickle this Mercedes about on the throttle and it feels magnificent, hugely relaxing and rarely prompting you into anything as undignified as the need to rev up towards 3000rpm or exercise a 0-62mph acceleration capability of 6.8s en route to the 155mph restricted maximum that every model in the range must have. At launch, this car got a 7-speed 7G-Tronic Plus automatic, which slurs imperceptibly through the ratios as the world drifts by your double-glazed windows.
If you can afford a not too exorbitant price premium, the other alternative for mainstream Mercedes S-Class buyers is the hybrid option. Let's start with the diesel/electric S300 BlueTEC - the first four cylinder S-Class. That might put you off right up front and, true enough, the 204bhp 2.2-litre unit that's borrowed from smaller E and C-Class models is a touch rougher than the bigger capacity powerplants that better suit this car's station in life. Still, it's usefully boosted by a 27bhp electric motor that cuts in and out to power the car to 62mph in 7.6s and help return a Fiesta-frugal set of running cost figures. Personally though, we'd be more tempted by the other relatively affordable S-Class Hybrid option, the S400 Hybrid model. This is a petrol/electric powerplant (a 306bhp 3.5-litre V6 boosted by the same 27bhp electric motor), so inevitably, its returns aren't as good, but they match those - and the performance - of the conventional diesel and are delivered with more refinement and finesse.
Look beyond the three derivatives we've just mentioned and you'll need a much bigger budget. We'll stay with hybrids a while longer so we can touch on the astonishingly frugal but exorbitantly priced S500 Plug-in Hybrid variant that pairs a 329bhp petrol V6 with an electric motor that's much pokier than that used in the S300 and S400 models, putting out a useful 107bhp and vastly improving running cost returns (94mpg anyone?) while boosting the pathetic electric-only driving range you get in the ordinary Hybrid versions (under a mile) to a much more usable 18 mile total. Not that you'll get close to that if you exercise your right foot and a rapid 5.5s 0-62mph sprint time.
Of course, if that kind of performance is all that matters to you, then nothing but the large capacity turbocharged conventional petrol models will do. For some buyers, the definitive S-Class wears an S500 badge and for MK6 model S-Class customers, the '500' was powered by a 4.7-litre twin-turbo V8 good for 455bhp and 62mph in just 4.8s. That made it fast enough for some original buyers to wonder whether it really was worth paying 30% more to go half a second faster in the 585bhp V8 S63 AMG model, which trims the sprint time to 4.4s. Or could you really justify paying vastly more for the V12 630bhp S63 AMG? It might offer a ridiculous 1,000Nm of torque, but it still only trims that sprint figure only marginally to 4.3s. Captains of industry won't care of course and they're the people being targeted by the other turbo V12 variant, the 530bhp S600, which wafts you to sixty two in 4.6s and, like its AMG stablemates, would probably crest 200mph with the top end speed limiter removed.
To be honest, we can't make too much of a case for any European buyer considering any of the conventional V8 or V12 petrol-engined variants but at the launch of this generation model, the one thing that might have tempted us towards them as a potential buyer was what Mercedes is calling 'Magic Body Control'. This was by far the cleverest gadget original buyers could can get with this car and at this MK6 model's initial introduction, these top petrol versions were the only ones to get it. It uses a 6D stereo camera to read the road 15 metres ahead for bumps. When a ripple of more than 3mm in the road is detected, the car calculates how long it'll take to get to it and then the active suspension is able to make the damping harsher or softer within fractions of a second in advance for each separate wheel. Turn the system off and drive over a speed hump or a pot hole and you'll feel the jolt. Turn it back on and do the same thing and you won't. The technology's that good - or at least it is in daylight hours with good visibility.
Don't be too disappointed if you have to settle for an S-Class without the 'Magic' technology. After all, the standard air-suspended set-up with its 'Sport' and 'Comfort' Airmatic modes is still vastly impressive in its ability to shelter you from the pock-marked mediocrity of our roads, with undulations and tarmac tears passing beneath you with hardly a murmur. This MK6 model can even be reasonably rewarding to drive when the going gets twisty thanks to superb body control from a stiffer chassis, the creation of which has been aided by the way this generation version has been developed as a long wheelbase saloon first, with the short wheelbase variant spawning from it. Normally, it's the other way around. This approach has given the car around 50% greater torsional rigidity.
Which is something you feel when pressing on through the bends, along with the more accurate (though still rather light) 'Direct' variable ratio speed-sensitive steering. Plus the engineers have added ADS Plus adaptive damping and a Torque Vectoring Brake system that brakes the appropriate inner rear wheel during cornering to help the car turn in with more conviction. At the end of the day though, there's only so much that can be done with 2.2 tonnes of automotive real estate. Better to settle back and watch the world go by in sumptuous silence. Even the least sophisticated S350 BlueTEC diesel model generates just 57dB of cabin noise at 50mph, 4dB less than the Bentley Flying Spur and 3dB less than a Range Rover TDV8.
The depth of design also engenders wonderful peace of mind too. Take the way that this car will be so hard to shift off its course on a blowy day thanks to the crosswind stabilisation function included in the stability system. If you're hit by a gust on one corner of the car, this loads up the springs on the other to counter-steer into the wind. Further day-to-day cleverness is evidenced by washer jets integrated into the wiper blades for more effective cleaning. Plus Intelligent LED lights that adjust to the road you're on and dip themselves at night. Even the brake lights are reduced in intensity after dark or if you're stationary in traffic as a courtesy to drivers following. Just another example of Mercedes thinking long and hard about making this car better than the rest.
This S-Class spearheads technological development, not only for Mercedes-Benz but for the automotive industry as a whole - and has done for decades. It's that important and is why this is - and will continue to be - the world's best selling luxury car.
In sixth generation form, it remained a step ahead of its luxury segment rivals, as it had to be in order to be able to compete with everything from an Audi A8 to a Bentley Continental costing three times as much. No other rival has as difficult or as wide-ranging a brief - but then no other car brings this one's timeless clarity and effortless superiority to such an advanced and wide-ranging portfolio of talents. It can power to supercar speeds in AMG guise, deliver nearly 100mpg in Plug-in Hybrid form and can be specified to eerily steer, power and brake itself at a cruise in whatever form you decide upon. Magic Body Control can even make bumps and potholes disappear, transforming the roadway into a magic carpet.
No other used full-sized luxury saloon model you could choose can do all of this, which is why this S-Class will remain a benchmark from its era. The best car in the world? You'll feel like it is if you buy one.