► Merc's new S-Class limo driven
► First drive is of straight-six S500
► Still the world's best luxury car?
We said we liked the looks of the all-new S-Class: inoffensive, purposeful, cautiously contemporary. The more you see the seventh-generation S-class on the road, however, the more you wonder whether the appealing design is sufficiently different to sustain the seven-year lifecycle. But never mind the wrapper - what makes the big difference here is the totally fresh interior. Fresh as in digital, multi-functional, interactive, mixing artificial intelligence with virtual reality.
That’s a lot of buzzwords…
It is, but there’s plenty of tech behind them. The MBUX-based Interior Assistant identifies the user via PIN, fingerprint, face or voice recognition, it takes gesture control and eye-tracking to the next level, and its voice-activated ‘beyond displays’ communication is Alexa sophisticated. The design is daring in places and at any rate distinctly different, invigoratingly contemporary and beautifully executed.
And of course the S-class still cossets. In its most elaborate form, the driver’s seat entertains 19 different motors to power ten different massage programmes, adjust and ventilate the chair, operate the pneumatic lumbar support and move the monitor on the back side of the head restraint into position. Surface heating can be extended from the seat to the centre armrest, door panel, steering wheel and slumber pillow.
Five of the six initially available S-class versions are powered by six-cylinder petrol and diesels, at first without a PHEV. We drove the cream-of-the-crop S500 4Matic, good for 429bhp and 384lb ft, plus an extra on-demand 22bhp and 184lb ft from the EQ mild-hybrid system. The standard- and long-wheelbase models sprint from 0-62mph in an identical 4.9sec, and average 31.7-34.9mpg.
Impressive numbers, but even though the 3.0-litre six is willing to rev while extending peak torque from 1800 to 5500rpm, it fails to impress in the NVH department when pushed. How come? Because the drivetrain is geared for low-rev efficiency, early upshifts, laissez-faire coasting and predictive action backed up by its digitally controlled second self. Sport Plus in particular is at odds with the car’s character and disturbs the flow.
You don’t drive an S-Class hard…
Well, at the other end of the spectrum, Comfort pampers and relaxes, in an orbit out of reach for the A8, 7-series, Quattroporte, Panamera and, yes, Flying Spur. Even without the e-ABC (e-Active Body Control) suspension which comes on stream next June, the S-class chassis excels with a rare blend of composure, compliance and cosseting comfort. The ride is cushy without indulging in excessive amplitudes on undulated terrain, the chassis soaks up transverse irritations like a huge pillow, Airmatic neutralizes low-speed obstacles in magic carpet fashion, and the suspension performs without inducing undue floating and rolling motions. Add to this the well suppressed wind- and road noise, the quiet drivetrain at low- to medium revs as well as the world-class seats, and it’s clear why W223 is the new synonym for the ultimate splendid isolation on wheels.
Although the most powerful diesel produces 325bhp and 516lb ft, the difference in consumption over the petrol is no longer as striking as it was a few years ago, the lack of social acceptance has tarnished resale values, and the oil burner cannot be had with such mod cons as a 48-volt system or PHEV module. So why not indulge the sole surviving V8 this side of the future S63e 4Matic? Featuring AWD as standard, the base S580 is powered by a 4.0-litre twin-turbo engine with an opulent 518bhp including the EQ Boost bonus (21bhp/184lb ft).
No doubt about it, this is the real McCoy, the definitive big daddy edition that clears the fast lane by its sheer presence, the future darling of those who crave status but reject ostentatious bling. The eight is not only more potent than the six, it’s also quieter, more refined, torquier and thus more desirable overall.
Unless of course you can wait another year for the most advanced plug-in hybrid on the market. The S580e connects the 353bhp/369lb ft six to a 148bhp/325lb ft e-motor fed by a 28.6kWh battery. The main attractions are combined torque of 553lb ft and an unrivalled zero-emissions range of over 60miles. Unlike previous efforts, the latest PHEV can be locked in e-mode to 88mph, automatically switches power sources when entering a restricted metro area, and is compatible with all AC and DC chargers from 11 to 60kW. Boosting charge from empty to full takes only 30 minutes. On the debit side, the energy pack reduces boot volume by roughly 30 litres, adds approximately 250kg to the already substantial kerbweight, and will be pricier than the S580.
Dynamically, the PHEV has only one systemic flaw: under braking, it prioritizes recuperation over deceleration. Thankfully this is not a safety concern because the phenomenon disappears at a certain pedal pressure but the brief initial delay is nonetheless irritating. The combined WLTP fuel consumption is an intriguing 223.2mpg – unlikely, yes, but keep the batteries topped, do shorter trips and you’ll rarely need fuel.
How about all of that new handling tech?
On the road, there’s no telling that the latest S-class can be had with extreme rear-wheel steering to facilitate manoeuvring, and to consolidate directional stability at speed. The latest trick is the crabbing function which steers the car’s rear with amazing precision around obstacles and facilitates parking by synchronizing the turning angles of both systems.
Due to legislative issues, Level 3 highly automated driving won’t be street-legal for at least nine more months, but Drive Pilot can take over on certain sections of autobahn in dense traffic at up to 38mph.
Anticipation, adaptation and assistance are three key interactive strengths of the new S-class. That’s anticipation as in automatically lowering the rear sunshade as soon as the driver turns round, the transmission already in reverse. Anticipation as in augmented reality, which paves the route with moving arrows, virtual road markings and short video close-ups, all projected in 3D via the multi-tasking head-up display, in conjunction with relevant warning symbols. Finally assistance as in Digital Light which employs 2.6 million adaptive pixels to focus on cyclists and pedestrians, define the flight path through critical sections and keep the illumination level in all conditions.
Predictably there comes a point when the S-class is too clever for its own good. Take the available four-spoke steering-wheel covered in black-on-black touchsliders and capacitive buttons, or the shallow, hard to reach touch bar that runs along the bottom of the main monitor. Superseding 27 switches plus the Comand controller, the digital smartphone technology may be faster and more versatile than those knobs and thumbwheels, but hitting the touchzone of choice and getting the adjustment right is a new haptic challenge.
Mercedes S-Class: verdict
There’s no question that the S-class once again sets the benchmark in the luxury segment, with technology, comfort, driving ability and efficiency all posting sizeable gains over its excellent predecessor.
Big spenders must look long and hard for a more comfortable, clever and competent luxury saloon which begs to be driven - or be driven in.
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