► Major facelift for S-class saloon
► Driven in S500 spec here
► Still the luxury car king?
Luxury saloons may only represent a small portion of the car market but it’s a hugely important part, due to the huge amount of new technology that makes its debut. With a still-impressive BMW 7-series, plus a fresh Audi A8 and Lexus LS.
The Mercedes S-class was facelifted towards the end of 2017 but this is far more than just a facelift, including 1600 new components. It’s the first car to get Mercedes’ new inline-six petrol and diesel engines and revised V8 petrols.
Some of the driver assistance equipment now fitted to the S-class is already on the E-Class, but some is new. In a fast-evolving field, the tech is close to the limit of what is currently permitted by law; it will drive for you in certain circumstances, but you need to stay alert and ready to retake full control at any moment.
What’s in the S-class range?
The UK gets a relatively straightforward range. The entry-level S350d (which we’ve also tested here) is available in both short- and long-wheelbase versions, and the S500 petrol.
If you fancy something hotter, there are AMG S63 and S65 variants at £125,690 and £187,240 respectively.
Everything comes with air suspension. All models get a new grille, new lights, new bumpers, a choice of new wheels and an all-LED interior. Detail changes inside include new smartphone-style swipe controls on the steering wheel for the infotainment and cruise control (and the ditching of Merc's familiar cruise-control stalk).
Talk me through the S500 engine
It’s the most innovative engine in the range, making 429bhp and 384lb ft. It has a 48-volt electrical system supplementing the conventional 12-volt system. Instead of a conventional alternator, it has an integrated starter-generator (designed into the engine from the off, with no drive belt, making it compact).
This performs many functions, including powering an electric booster to give quick bursts of assistance to the engine to overcome any turbo lag. It provides the power for energy-sapping items such as the water pump and air-con compressor, giving consistent air-con performance whether the car is moving or stationary. It regulates the engine idle, allows a more sophisticated start-stop system and it's integral to the braking energy recuperation system
This is a 'systematically electrified' engine – an inelegant phrase employed to avoid any confusion with the impending plug-in hybrid with an electric-only range of up to 30 miles.
Start it up and you’re greeted by hardly any aural or physical intrusion into the cabin; you sort of expect that from a £100k+ luxury car anyway, but the S500 wakes up in an almost eerily silent way.
Give it a bootful and progress is suitably strong but unlike the diesel, this straight-six petrol needs to be revved out to get to the juicy bit of power at the top end. That’s almost an entirely different way of doing things to the low-rev, torque-focused S350d and as much as the S500 has a tuneful growl, the whole point of the S is to waft and surge effortlessly – not resorting to dropping cogs and making the engine scream.
So, this assistance tech… what’ll it do?
Much of it is focused on making your driving experience smoother, simpler and more relaxing. Think of it as being the best cruise control system imaginable.
Your S-class will follow other traffic at a safe distance (the distance itself can be adjusted by the driver), speeding up and slowing down without you touching the pedals. It will slow down for bends; the degree to which it slows is influenced by which of the dynamic modes you’re in. It will also change lane for you; you just indicate at a suitable moment and it will move out, pass and move back in.
All of this depends on various factors, chiefly the type of road. If you’re on a motorway with clear markings easily read by the cameras and radar (backed up by GPS and built-in mapping) then it will usually work, although even then it will demand that you prove that you’re not napping by clutching the steering wheel every few seconds. If you’re on a country road, it’s less likely to function. But the transition between working and not working soon becomes natural, with a system of lights and beeps making it readily obvious who’s driving.
Road Surface Scan is technology that's been fitted since 2013, but a newly upgraded stereo camera now scans more thoroughly, over a longer distance, at higher speeds, in darker conditions, meaning it works more effectively – in conjunction with sat-nav data and built-in mapping – to help the driver. For instance, it can slow down when you're nearing a toll booth or a motorway exit. And, cleverly, if it spots that you're approaching a queue of traffic that has started to move, it will aim to slow down and match the queue's speed rather than come to a halt and then pull away again.
The car’s self-parking ability is hugely impressive too. It will check whether a space is suitably big, and then once you’ve confirmed that you want to park it'll handle everything else for you, whether it’s parallel or perpendicular, forwards or backwards. And then it will get you out again. It goes much, much closer to parked vehicles than you’d dare (and doesn't beep at you, which it would if you were parking manually).
The other group of aids, the stuff designed to avoid (or reduce the impact of) accidents, was vividly demonstrated for us on an airfield. A variety of static and moving dummies, and a moving mock-up car, showed the S-class’s prowess at knowing when to emergency brake for you, when to help you steer around a pedestrian, and when to carry on.
Is the S-class a car for driving or being driven in? Both. All the new S-classes maintain the excellence of previous versions, while benefitting from some very impressive electronic aids and the petrol engine in this S500 is a technological triumph.
In the back, in the long-wheelbase version, it’s roomy, relaxing and has a wealth of climate, massage and infotainment systems for you to play with, while at the front it's superbly comfortable and easy to drive, if (obviously) a bit on the large side.
With the S500 in particular - as much as it’s a clever engine, we do wonder if there’s much point when the ‘entry-level’ S350d suits the laid-back driving style of the S better, and gets slightly better fuel economy to boot but, regardless, the big S is still a wonderful luxury car.