WESTERLY, RI – I think I’m reasonably intelligent but am feeling less so after spending a few days in the fully redesigned seventh-generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan.
Stuttgart’s flagship car – an aspirational vehicle for generations of C-suite executives around the world – is what it’s always been: an engineering marvel intended to demonstrate technologies for the first time, several years before mainstream vehicle owners get a chance to experience them.
With more than 100 computer processors and access to a dizzying array of real-time information and over-the-air updates via the cloud, the ’21 S-Class (internal codename W223) is one of the smartest cars on the road.
It speaks 27 languages, can give 10 different types of massages and has better vision of adjacent lanes than is physically possible for any human, which makes for confident autonomous lane changes.
Not only does it see traffic ahead, but it also is smart enough to route the driver around backups, accidents and even inclement weather. (Granted the Waze app available on any smartphone provides similar intelligence, but the S-Class has the capability embedded.)
When heavy traffic is unavoidable, the S-Class can inch along, stopping, starting and steering while the driver keeps a light finger on the tiller. Still, the car needs to know you’re paying attention and still in control of the car.
And talk about a skilled defensive driver – the S-Class can detect when a side impact is imminent and raise the body up to 3 ins. (7.6 mm) within a few tenths of a second as part of the Pre-Safe technology onboard. Doing so allows more of the impact to be absorbed by the floorpan and lower chassis, minimizing the threat to passengers.
The new S-Class can tell a good joke, too, without botching the punchline.
What impresses me most about this wunderkind is its ability to confidently go about its business without showing off or coming across as a know-it-all.
While some driver-assistance technologies intervene too aggressively with beeps, flashing lights or even yanking the steering wheel if the vehicle strays too close to a lane marker, the ’21 S 580 4Matic we tested is a kind, loving and nurturing parent that gently guides the vehicle where it needs to be, without shaming the driver.
Further reinforcement comes with a red outline superimposed over the lane marker, visible to the driver in the high-definition head-up display. When using navigation, arrows flash in sequence in the HUD, again superimposed directly over the actual road where a turn is coming up. There’s really no excuse for getting lost again.
In general, whether testing driver-assistance or infotainment technologies, the new S-Class responds faster, more accurately and more human-like than any Mercedes-Benz to come before.
Except in one regard: When stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for 25 minutes on the George Washington Bridge crossing into Manhattan, the car is slow to catch up when a vehicle ahead inches forward. That can be infuriating for those impatient New Yorkers stuck behind the S-Class because that glimmer of daylight means other drivers will cut in. The S-Class driver must be ready to nudge the accelerator or risk being honked at, or worse.
There’s one other demerit worth mentioning, albeit purely subjective. The S-Class, with its steel/aluminum body panels, is handsome (pictured below) but is doubtful to win an award for groundbreaking, gotta-have exterior styling. This is a segment that takes few design chances, demonstrated not only by the S-Class but also by its chief rivals in the U.S., the BMW 7-Series, Lexus LS and Audi A8.
What all those brands fail to grasp is that they aren’t competing with each other but instead with the all-electric models now occupying the Upper Luxury car segment as tracked by Wards Intelligence.
For years, the Tesla Model S, with its swoopy, coupe-like roof line, has handily outsold all the established combustion-engine entries, including the S-Class. This year, the Model S has trailed off as Model Y and Model 3 production ramps up in different segments.
So, this year it’s the all-new Porsche Taycan BEV that is dominating the Upper Luxury car segment while the 7-Series, Porsche Panamera and Audi A7 fight it out for a distant second place.
Can an all-new S-Class reverse the tide and outsell the Taycan in regaining the segment lead? Why not?
The Taycan is very well done inside and out, but its sports-car interior lacks the warmth, rich materials, overall comfort and outstanding user experience that make a well-heeled S-Class occupant feel special, even coddled.
Porsche likely spent quite a bit more on the battery-electric powertrain, which may explain why the Taycan interior doesn’t make the same first impression.
Meanwhile, the S-Class interior delivers beautifully cross-stitched seats (pictured above), supple leather (bathed in bright red, if preferred), big pillowy head restraints, pinstriped accents on doors and instrument panel, a breathtaking array of ambient color options and even a perfume spritzer for the cabin. Build quality is impeccable.
And if Tesla fan-boys need evidence that Mercedes-Benz is paying attention, the new central display touchscreen is massive and vertically oriented (like in a Model S), unlike the prior S-Class, which used two horizontal displays edge to edge extending from behind the steering wheel across to the center of the instrument panel.
The new design makes the center touchscreen (pictured below) more accessible and ergonomic, and an entire book can be written about the menus available for customizing the climate control, navigation mapping, drive modes, lighting and infotainment features.
Or, forgo the screen and just ask what you want from the “Hey Mercedes” voice assistant as part of the excellent MBUX user experience system.
The powertrains clearly are the big differentiator separating the Model S from the S-Class, 7-Series and other gasoline-fueled luxo-cruisers. Mercedes has the EQS battery-electric sedan on the way, Audi already has e-tron BEVs available and BMW will launch the i4 sedan before long – all of them intended to capture some of Tesla’s zero-emission mystique.
So enjoy the S-Class (pictured below) while you can, with its supremely smooth and powerful 4.0L bi-turbo gasoline V-8 that pounds out 496 hp and 516 lb.-ft. (700 Nm) of torque, capable of propelling the S 580 4Matic sedan to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 4.4 seconds.
This engine’s been key to Stuttgart’s powertrain portfolio for years, and it would be a shame to see it regulated to the sidelines.
Improving this 4.0L bi-turbo is the standard 48V EQ Boost mild-hybrid system that adds 20 hp and an extra 184 lb.-ft. (250 Nm) of thrust to the S 580’s output, all while saving fuel as the engine cycles on and off at stop lights, barely detected by occupants.
Tie it all together with an intelligent 9-speed automatic transmission, adaptive damping and the E-Active Body Control system that adjusts the suspension 1,000 times per second as it reads the road, and the new S-Class reveals itself as a wonderful daily driver.
Technology like this comes at a price, with the S 580 4Matic carrying an MSRP of $116,300, plus destination charges of $1,050.
Even at this price, it’s hard to believe there could be so many customers in this segment who have given up gasoline for good.