The dawn of a new Mercedes S-Class is a special moment in the automotive calendar. Often, it's the point at which science fiction becomes reality, as a raft of future technology is tacked onto the present day, setting the roadmap of things to come for us all. Inevitably, the thinking goes, all this stuff will filter down to all classes of car (everything from safety equipment, like crumple zones and ABS, to soft-close doors and double glazing, were all S-Class firsts). So it's relevant to everyone. Not just those wealthy enough to bag a Sonderklasse, or 'special class', which is where the 'S' in its name is derived.
This time it's different, though. There isn't a huge amount that's groundbreaking about this latest S-Class. Perhaps that's because it's no longer seen internally as the halo Benz, with thelectric cars seen as future flagships. So this is more of a consolidation exercise: perfecting, rather than reinventing the wheel, so to speak. Although there is something nifty in the pipeline. In a huge coup that lands a hefty punch on Tesla's nose, the S-Class and the EQS are the first cars in the world to meet type approval for Level 3 autonomy. Later this year buyers (in Germany at first) will be able to order the new Drive Pilot system, which will chauffeur them robotically at up to 37mph. It means they can legally "take their mind off the traffic and focus on...communicating with colleagues via In-Car Office, surfing the internet or relaxing while watching a film."
The W223 isn't new-new, of course. Our intrepid explorer, Mike Duff, has already driven it. But that was in and around its hometown of Stuttgart and, for logistical reasons, focused mainly on the S580. That's the 496hp 4.0-litre V8 aimed at the U.S. and Middle Eastern markets, and not to be confused with the S580e hybrid that's coming our way. He did have a brief drive of the S500, but now it's available on this side of the channel, with the steering wheel on the right side, we thought it high time we tested its metal in Blighty.
This engine first appeared on the W222, so we know from previous experience it's a cracker. A 435hp 3.0-litre straight-six turbocharged petrol with mild hybrid assistance courtesy of a starter-generator ring located in the bell housing. This 48-volt system adds some torque fill, to smooth out the gearchanges and assist with throttle response, and it also stops the engine at just the right point to make the stop-start system unobtrusive when it fires again. Moreover it runs the engine's ancillaries; there's no drive belt turning the water pump or air-con compressor. Instead, these are energised when required by motors, whether the engine's running or not. It means a quicker warm up and a constant supply of hot or cold cabin air in traffic.
For me, the engine is a huge asset. It's never less than silky, from the moment it fires to when it's racing at peak revs. And in between those phases it's dripping with effortless torque that hurries you along with minimal fuss. And the best way to describe the gear changes from the nine-speed auto is liquid - they drip through like your morning coffee out the percolator. It doesn't just do smooth and effortless, mind. It's darn quick when you need it to be, and emits just enough noise to sound glorious from mid to full chat without being uncouth.
Obviously, the S-Class isn't about handling prowess. Most people of importance will be sat in the back, but it's still to their benefit that whoever is controlling this mighty machine finds the process instinctive. It can only help to make the journey smoother, after all. To that end, the steering is surprisingly sweet and accurate, meaning you can guide the nose into corners with one of the wheel. And, on the off chance that you find yourself in a remake of Ronin, there's a good degree of chassis balance. Combined with the plentiful grip and high levels of 4Matic traction, you can carry impressive cross-country pace in any weather. I'd venture so far as to say it's enjoyable, if only because it feels like it shouldn't be this easy to hustle along over two tonnes of limousine. The excessive lean can be alarming. Then again, this can be dialled out to some extent by the somewhat incongruous inclusion of Sport and Sport+ modes, which firm up the air springs and sharpen the responses on demand.
So, what about ride and refinement? Well, these two crucial elements of the equation aren't perfection personified. The S-Class isn't harsh on any level, but the ride around town, over knife-edged potholes and the like, is lumpier than expected. Is that just the rub of it, bearing in mind the S500's weight and 21-inch wheels shod with low-profile rubber? I don't think that excuse works. After all, the Porsche Taycan proves that weight and slim tyres aren't insurmountable obstacles to achieving a fine ride. The good news is that the high-speed ride is better; at speed it suddenly feels like that bed of air supporting you is doing its job, albeit with a bit of float and sway.
The refinement is also good - but not perfect. It is quiet, but I suspect not quite as serene as an Audi A8 at 70mph. Why? Well, the slight wheel castellation that generates a background resonance from the rear; the occasional twang from the suspension over rough ground; the light flutter of wind noise from the mirrors. In any other car, these wouldn't be noteworthy, but when your name is Sonderklasser, you set yourself up to be judged on a higher level.
Where the W223 is better than its predecessor is interior build quality. The dashboard surfaces feel rock solid and the only part that feels more flexible than it should is the seat-control panel in the doors. But again, that's only an issue because we're being very scrupulous. As for material quality, it's all beautifully appointed. The leather is lovely and the woodwork smart without feeling antiquated. The driving position is also as minutely adjustable as you'd expect it to be, with good clarity to the 12.3-inch digital instrument panel. This can be set up to render in 3D, with the details in the foreground, like speed and warning messages - of which there are too many - and in the background are the secondary details, like trip readings.
Next to that is the 12.8-inch OLED MBUX screen, which follows Tesla's lead by being mounted in portrait. It absorbs nearly all the car's equipment functions - I counted around six buttons under the infotainment panel, plus others for the lights, wipers and windows - and it's very clear and responds quickly. It is a little over complicated, though. I am getting on a bit these days, so my appreciation of this kind of tech tends to focus on what it does to make my life easier, and having to scroll through screens to turn on the massage seats, for example (which are superb) doesn't make my life easier than when there was a simple button to activate it. And yes, if you holla 'Hey Mercedes' he/she/it/they will turn some of the functions on or off if you ask, but it's not an infallible system. Still, Mercedes isn't the only one enthralled by the pursuit of touchscreens, so it would be wrong to say the S-Class is worse than its rivals, perhaps with the exception of the 7 Series that, praise the Lord, sticks with iDrive.
Where none of its rivals can compete is where it counts: rear-seat accommodation. The space in the back of this long-wheelbase model is gigantic, with - if my memory serves me well - more headroom and a nicer seating position than you get in an A8. The large, pillowy electric recliners offer first-class comfort, with actual plush velvety pillows on each headrest and a footrest that slides out from underneath the front passenger seat to top it off. Lower the armrest and there's a removable 7.0-inch tablet to play around with, too. This space becomes a thing of beauty at night, with the art deco style enhanced by the ambient lighting - especially when it's set to a warm, yellowy-orange hue. And finally, the boot is bigger than an A8's or 7 Series' and comes with a ski hatch for slotting long loads through. This may seem like a small point in a car like this, but I disagree - surely a big car needs a big, practical boot?
Is the S-Class perfect? No. The ride and refinement could be better, and I'd be lying if I said that didn't disappoint. These two facets, along with build quality, are areas that a top-flight limo should excel at. Yet are they inferior enough to be deal breakers? No, I don't think so. Especially with that magnificent engine and sumptuous interior sitting in the pros column. The latter makes the S-Class feel so special - more special than the Audi A8 or the 7 Series. That's why it is the Sonderklasse, and for me at least, still has the edge over its peers.
SPECIFICATION | 2022 MERCEDES-BENZ S500 L 4MATIC
Engine: 2,999cc, straight six, turbocharged, mild hybrid petrol
Transmission: 9-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 435@6,100rpm
Torque (lb ft): 384@1,800-5,800rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 2,065kg (running order)
Price: £110,325 (and £110,325 as tested)
(N.B. It's an S350d in the images.)
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