ZURICH, Switzerland; and Germany—Mercedes likes to call the S-Class “the finest car in the world,” and there’s something to be said for that. It’s the flagship model of the premium maker’s line, so it’s important the big sedan include the very latest technology, the most spacious and comfortable interior, and have power and performance to match.
For 2018, the S-Class has improved safety features, some additional conveniences, and engines more powerful and efficient than before.
None of this comes cheap, of course. The most basic S450 starts at $106,400, while the S560 begins at $115,200 and the S63 begins at $163,500.
There are few hints on the outside that the S-Class is the latest generation. The bumpers are redesigned with larger air intakes, and the headlights are now standard with a multibeam all-LED system, but the style and proportions of the car are unchanged. This is not a bad thing—it’s always been an attractive and elegant vehicle.
You won’t notice it, but the front grille now has active flaps that adjust automatically to three different positions, depending on how much cooling air is needed. Most cars with active shutters either have them open (to cool the engine) or closed (to create smoother airflow when the engine doesn’t need cooling), but the S-Class also turns the grille flaps, known as lamellas, to a more efficient angle for better cooling when needed. There’s a lot of little stuff like that on this car.
The front fascia is now dominated by a huge two-screen display, one in the centre dash and the other behind the steering wheel for the gauges, which gives the effect of one big display screen. This is an option in the new E-Class but comes standard in all models of the S-Class.
The display can be customized to pretty much however you like it, and is controlled by either a central controller wheel or by controls on the steering wheel, or by voice commands. The computer can recognize 450 different commands in many languages.
The new display screen means the old split-screen system is gone, where a passenger could watch a distracting movie on the front display but it would be unseen by the driver. This was very clever, but apparently rarely used or called for by owners.
Similarly, complaints from North America have got rid of the separate stalk for cruise control off the steering wheel—drivers didn’t like it. Now, the steering wheel is a three-spoke unit with all the cruise control functions on the left spoke, just like most every other car out there.
The cabin is very comfortable, of course. If you have the long-wheelbase version (an option in the S560 and standard in the S63) and want to pay the extra money, you can have reclining seating in the rear that also pushes forward the front passenger seat to create fully-stretched leg room.
Mercedes is proud of its new optional “Energizing” function, which co-ordinates pretty much everything in the cabin to match your chosen mood. These are 10-minute programs called Freshness, Warmth, Vitality, Joy and Comfort, and they adjust the cabin’s 64 colours of ambient light, the intensity of its fragrance, the warmth or coolness of the leather seats, and the style of music to try to fit the way you’re feeling. For the music, there’s a pre-set selection of (fairly cheesy) tunes, or the computer will search your phone’s music library for selections that have just the right number of beats per minute. Whatever will they think of next?
As if all that ambience wasn’t enough, the new S-Class is even smarter when it comes to its self-driving ability. You still have to hold onto the steering wheel every 30 seconds or so, but the big sedan can steer itself around sharper corners (not much greater than 30 degrees, though) and through a greater range of speed than before. Not enough to completely relax – which is probably just as well – but it’s all a few more steps toward a truly self-driving car.
The S-Class will now also obey speed limits by a combination of GPS location and road sign recognition by the camera, and will stick to those limits with no input from the driver. This was not a popular feature with others in Germany, where traffic was often backed up behind our obedient car, but I’m sure it will gain acceptance in the near future.
Pretty much everything about the S-Class is cutting-edge high-tech, from those all-LED headlights that lose only one lux of power on high-beam at 650 metres distance; to the radar systems and stereo camera that can read traffic at 500 metres in front and 80 metres behind. Even the optional heated windshield is warmed by a totally invisible layer of ultra-thin silver foil embedded in the glass, which carries a 900-watt current.
And then there are the engines: the revised 3.0-litre biturbo V6 in the “entry-level” S450 that now makes 362 hp (up by 33 hp); and the all-new 4.0-litre biturbo V8 in the S560 that makes 463 hp (up 14 hp). Both are now matched to the same nine-speed transmission that just debuted in the new E-Class. If you want even more power, the 4.0-litre V8 is breathed on by AMG to create 603 hp in the S63, which is a 26-hp boost, and a monstrous 664 lbs-ft of torque.
This is enough in the S560 for a claimed time from zero-to-100 km/h of 4.6 seconds, and in the S63 for just 3.5 seconds. For such a large car, that’s very swift indeed.
Driving the S-Class is a strange combination of relaxation and excitement, but fortunately, you can choose which you’re wanting at any given time.
For relaxation, you can set the seat massagers to your preferred program (or they adjust automatically to your mood with the Energizing program) and then just kick back to barely participate in the driving.
The car will watch out for you, monitoring for cross traffic and wayward pedestrians. If anything ventures unexpectedly into your path, don’t worry—the car probably expected it. It will hit the brakes to try to not hit the obstacle, or if you move to swerve around it, it will take over the steering to get you around but then back on track. If it detects that you’ll just miss a car that’s crossing in front of you, it won’t touch the brakes or steer at all, to help you just miss it.
This is all very clever stuff, and proven by a demonstration with dummy cars and pretend pedestrians. Situations I’d never dare to risk on the road, for the catastrophic consequences of being proved wrong, were aced safely time and again by the big sedan’s intelligent drive systems.
And if we had actually crashed and the airbags were deployed, the computer would have sensed this beforehand too; it would emit a high-pitched tone through the speakers to precondition the ears for the noise of the explosion, to avoid the deafening ring of tinnitus.
Alternatively, for excitement, the car will attack mountain curves and Autobahn straights with relish. We wrung both the S560 and the S63 out to their electronically-controlled limits of 250 km/h on open stretches of the autobahn and they both felt as stable and controlled as lesser cars at half the speed.
All S-Classes except for the quarter-million-dollar S65 are sold in Canada with only 4Matic all-wheel-drive systems, but that 6.0-litre V12 S65 is rear-wheel-drive. Its drivetrain and seven-speed transmission is little changed for 2018 and we did not experience it at this event, but without AWD it can be fitted with the technically-marvellous Magic Body Control; this uses cameras and sonar to recognize potential bumps in the road and prepare the suspension to absorb them.
With Magic Body Control also comes Curve control, which lets the car tip itself around corners up to almost three degrees, like a motorcycle. This makes everyone a little more comfortable, apparently. Lesser S-Classes are sold in other parts of the world with RWD but not in Canada, so I didn’t bother checking this out. There was way too much else going on already.
Of course, fuel consumption suffers when you wail it on the Autobahn, but if you slow down and get back into Relaxation mode, the big V8 engines will now deactivate four of their cylinders when they’re not needed. There are no official Canadian fuel consumption figures available yet, but the V6 S560 has a European rating of 11.8 L/100 km in the city, 6.1 on the highway., and 7.8 combined.
How do you put a value on a car like this? The brutal truth is that a high-end sedan like the S-Class loses its value fairly quickly as its technology trickles down into other, less-expensive vehicles. Today’s cutting-edge tech is tomorrow’s standard fare, and taking out a seven-year car loan will probably really hurt in six years.
Mercedes has generally been ahead of the curve with the S-Class, however. It brought out this latest generation in 2013 to the astonishment of the automotive world, and the other German makers were left behind for a year or two. They’ve caught up rapidly now though, and the BMW 7 Series and just-revamped Audi A8 are also exceptional cars with amazing technology. All the premium makes have their feet to the floor in the race to build the world’s finest car.
So if you want the very latest in technology, you have no choice but to pay the six-figure price of admission. Hey—last year’s S-Class couldn’t change lanes automatically with just the flick of an indicator stalk, but this year’s can. How much do you want that?
Mercedes says it wants the new S-Class to not only be the finest car in the world, but also to keep that title throughout its life cycle. It’s one thing to be excellent, says the maker, but it wants to be the benchmark for excellence. And it should be “a small breakaway from the grind between two appointments.”
Whether the new S-Class really is the finest car in the world, or whether it’s about to be eclipsed by the next Audi or BMW, is really just a subjective argument. It’s the very best car that Mercedes-Benz can build today, and that is an exceptional vehicle indeed.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.