Mercedes always likes to push the PR boat out furthest when it comes to launching a new S-Class. The last generation got introduced with a three-day extravaganza in Canada which included a visit to a billionaire's country estate to see how the top one percent of the one percent actually live. In the normal course of things this one would doubtless have been equally special.
But then 2020 got in the way and COVID turned everything on its head. The launch was delayed and then, as travel restrictions started to bite again, was turned into a one-day event at Daimler's vast Immendingen proving ground. With the number of journalists restricted this created the odd situation of being heavily outnumbered by minders and the assembled senior engineers, all of who were pretty much scrapping to get a chance to explain their areas of expertise in the minimal gaps between driving different versions of the car.
This S-Class will be reaching the UK by the end of the year, with prices set to kick off at £78,705 for the standard wheelbase S350d and with the SWB S500 4Matic's £89,105 representing a not-outrageous supplement for the increase in both urge and character, with the LWB petrol starting at £97,945.
Not that any new S-Class is merely a car, it's also a tech showcase. Top-end buyers might be showing a marked preference for SUVs, but the Sonderklasse remains Merc's flagship in a way that the GLS just isn't. Meaning that - as with its predecessors - the new S-Class is introducing many features that will soon trickle down to lesser Benzes. Innovations that made their debuts in previous generations include ABS, stability control, radar cruise and all-LED exterior lighting.
Before that, the basics. Diverging tastes and legislative regimes in different parts of the world mean there will be limited overlap between the engines sold in different territories. The UK will get two diesels, both using 2.9-litre straight-six engines in either S350 (286hp) or S450 (330hp) states of tune. We will also get a petrol-fired S500 that uses a 3.0-litre straight six engine with 48 Volt mild hybrid assistance, making 431hp. A downtuned 367hp S450 version of this will be sold in other markets, but not Blighty; and nor will European buyers get the 496hp 4.0-litre V8 S580 version aimed at the U.S. and Middle East. Oh, and a plug-in hybrid version will arrive soon after launch, one which will offer at least 60 miles of electric range.
Not that I was sorry to be assigned an S580 to drive from Stuttgart airport to Immendingen, not least given the prospect of a substantial amount of derestricted Autobahn on route. The combination of a brawny V8 and a horizontally relaxed chassis remains a compelling one, with the new powerplant having a proper amount of iron fist inside a very velvety glove. Acceleration is respectable, but it's the S's high-speed cruising ability that impresses more - and the almost freakishly good sound insulation. At 80mph the loudest thing in the cabin is my tinnitus; more noise was coming from other traffic through the double glazing than the S-Class was making itself. Only above an indicated 140mph did the start of wind whistle from the tops of the front doors disturb the serenity. Even under hard acceleration the V8 barely raises its voice. If an executive jet is a bit too stressful, here is a far calmer alternative.
Switching to country roads gave the S-Class's chassis a chance to demonstrate its total disdain for bumps and imperfections. The test car was fitted with the optional E-Active Body Control system, which adds a road-scanning camera and hydraulic anti-roll to the air springs and adaptive dampers that all versions of the car get. Suspension settings are unsurprisingly comfort orientated regardless of which dynamic mode the car is in. Sport Plus lowers the ride by 18mm and cancels out almost all cornering lean, but the S580 still felt predictably large and heavy when asked to change direction. The steering is accurate but minimal natural feel gets through the assistance, and the 4Matic all-wheel drive system - which will be standard on everything except the S350d - delivered what felt like unbreakable traction on dry tarmac.
Not that exploring the outer limits is ever going to be the point of an S-Class. Gentler progress gave the chance to try and get to grips with the huge amount of standard tech. Much of this is familiar, or at least developed from something that we've already seen, but a fair amount is entirely new. So while lesser Mercs already offer the option of augmented reality navigation, which puts arrows over a video feed when approaching junctions, the S-Class moves that on with a head-up display that is able to project instructions directly into your eyeline. Similarly the Drive Pilot smart cruise control works as before - keeping within a lane and regulating distance - but a switchable digital display for the dashboard now relays what the system's many sensors can actually 'see' - lane markings, cars, lorries and even motorbikes.
The most obvious new feature is the vast 12.8-inch OLED touchscreen that dominates the centre of the dashboard and occupies the space that the previous generation S-Class filled with a quartet of air vents and a smart-looking mechanical clock. This has also replaced conventional climate controls, which are now permanently rendered at the bottom of the display, and is running an updated version of Merc's MBUX infotainment system; everything is beautifully rendered, but moving between functions can still be a bit laborious. An updated voice assistant - summoned by saying "Hey Mercedes" - delivers something close to the experience of Siri or Alexa, able to answer questions as well as control vehicle functions; so saying "I'm stressed" will get it to offer a variety of massage functions.
Even snazzier is the 3D dashboard, the 12.3-inch screen behind the steering wheel getting the pioneering option of a display that can create a sense of depth by showing different images to each eye (and reading the driver's head position with two cameras.) It's a bit like one of those Magic Eye tricks, and although the effect is striking - especially when the display is turned to navigation and you look at what seems to be a relief map - it doesn't actually add anything to the driving experience. Mercedes admits it may also make some drivers feel queasy. The effect can be switched off and, after not very long, I did.
Having been denied a fair amount of real estate by the Tesla-sized OLED screen, Merc's interior designers have tried even harder in the space they've got left. There's wall-to-wall leather and the option of some very nice wooden trim, seats are superbly comfortable and even in the standard wheelbase car that I drove there is plenty of space for hard-working executives to relax in the back. On first impressions the S-Class is right up with both the Rolls-Royce Ghost and Bentley Flying Spur on specialness, and makes both the Audi A8 and BMW 7-Series seem dull and sterile.
Another cool feature is one that is going to be denied to us: the option of an actively steered rear axle that can move the back wheels by up to 10-degrees, more than twice what most systems can manage. This only works at low speeds and creates a slightly odd sensation, the rear axle can be felt moving slightly outwards as the front wheels move in. But the increase in maneuverability is impressive and lets the S-Class be hustled through gaps and obstacles like a much smaller car. Mercedes says it cuts the turning circle for the regular wheelbase 4Matic car to just 10.7 metres - less than an A-Class. Sadly there are no plans to offer it in the UK.
After several hours of technical deep diving at Immendingen, and the completely underwhelming opportunity to experience the forthcoming limited-to-40mph "hands-off" Level 3 autonomy from the passenger seat, there's just the small matter of experiencing a powerplant that will actually be offered in the UK. The good news is that I've been assigned an S500 for my run back to Stuttgart Airport. The bad news is a scheduling SNAFU means I've only got two hours until my plane home is scheduled to leave, and the flughafen is 130km away.
Fortunately the combination of the S500 and a quietish A82 Autobahn is a happy one. It's a shame the UK won't be getting the V8 - although a forthcoming AMG version is likely to bring a punchier version of the 580's motor - but the smaller engine doesn't loses little in terms of either pace of experience. The immediacy of the electrical boost - adding up to 22hp and 184lb/ft - eliminates any sensation of lag and hesitation, and at higher revs the straight-six creates a rasp that is at least as pleasant to listen to as the V8's subdued roar. It's plenty quick, too - only above 120mph does it start to feel subjectively slower than the S580, and at the far end of a long straight I confirm the presence of the same 155mph limiter. It must be quick enough: I made my flight with time for an overprice sandwich before departure.
SPECIFICATION | Mercedes S500
Engine: 2999cc straight-six, turbocharged, 48V hybrid assistance
Transmission: nine-speed auto, rear wheel drive
Power (hp): 431hp @ 5500 rpm (+21hp electric)
Torque (lb ft): 383 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm (+184lb-ft electric)
0-62mph: 4.9 second
Top speed: 155mph (electronically limited)
1 / 14