The self-proclaimed 'best car in the world' gets a touch more luxury, a heap of new technology and a mild hybrid electrical system, but is it enough to hold off the latest attempts from BMW and Audi?

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When Mercedes-Benz sets out to make a new S-Class, it sets itself a simple if somewhat daunting brief: to make the best car in the world. No half measures. No modest ambitions.

The millions of hours and euros the company spends on research and development are, it’s true, for the good of the range as a whole, but Mercedes’ most advanced technologies receive their debuts here, on what is the flagship of industry flagship models.

The first Mercedes to wear an S-Class badge was the 1972 W116

And if that sounds mean to Rolls-Royce, BMW, Audi, Lexus and Bentley, then so be it; engineers from every car company in the world respect what the S-Class can do.

And in this latest generation, it has been tasked with doing even more, because the S-Class effectively picks up the baton that the now-defunct Maybach sub-brand failed to carry with any great finesse.

That gives the new model a perilously broad brief: at the lower end of the scale, the S-Class will find itself transporting mid-level executives to and from airports, while at its top end, it has to indulge its occupants like no other luxury car in the world. But even that is no longer enough, as the world expects the big saloon from Mercedes to remain at the cutting edge of technological advances, which is under serious threat from the likes of the latest generation BMW 7 Series, Audi A8 and Tesla Model S.

Read on to see whether the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class obliges.

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Mercedes-Benz S-Class rear

In the unlikely event that you weren’t aware of the significance of recently emerged markets, where luxury car buyers tend to be passengers rather than drivers, consider the following: this is the first Mercedes S-Class to have been developed as a long-wheelbase saloon first, with the short-wheelbase variant spawning from it. Usually it’s the other way around.

Doing things this way, Mercedes says, has allowed it to endow the long-wheelbase variant with an unprecedented level of torsional rigidity, namely 40,500Nm/deg (its predecessor’s was 27,500Nm/deg).

The standard intelligent LED headlights are incredible

The body itself is a mixed-metal monocoque with much high-strength steel around the passenger cell, but with such a high aluminium content (more than 50 percent) that Mercedes calls it an aluminium hybrid.

Thus it’s claimed that the body itself hasn’t, despite impressive increases in stiffness and safety for occupants during the past 20 years, increased in weight. The overall weight of the car, though, inevitably has; one we tested weighed 2215kg, spread almost evenly between front and rear axles.

Those axles, incidentally, are the same distance apart as previously. The standard-wheelbase S-Class has a 3035mm wheelbase (and is 5116mm long), but this variant has a 3165mm one and measures 5248mm in length.

What has changed are the front and rear tracks, which are 24 and 31mm wider respectively than on this S-Class’s predecessor. Mercedes claims a modest increase in interior volume as a result of better packaging and body design, but the real tricks inside are about equipment, not space.

The facelift didn't just bring about a host of tweaks and technology upgrades but also a revise engine line-up. As it currently stands the S-Class is available with four engines. The only diesel in the range is a 282bhp 2.9-litre, straight-six, replacing the 252bhp V6 that previous powered the S350d. Powering the S500 L is a petrol version of the six in-line unit good for 429bhp, while the AMG models keep the V-shaped engines for the time being.

The rapid 603bhp S63 gets an all-new 4.0-litre V8 found in the Mercedes-AMG E 63 and AMG GT replacing the outgoing 5.5-litre, while the ballistic 621bhp 6.0-litre V12 S65 remains the same, which out muscles all its closest rivals, including the Jaguar XJR 575Bentley Flying Spur and BMW M760Li coming close, with the latter the closest competition to the sumputous V12 S-Class.

The standard cars use Mercedes' 9G-Tronic Plus nine-speed automatic transmission, with gears being selected via a lever on the steering column. Paddle shifts are also fitted, for manual control when required. AMG models get a sports-tuned version, which quickens the changes and give those models a sportier edge. The S63 uses a nine ratio version of the gearbox, and the S65 retains the seven-speed version fitted from launch.

Hardware includes standard air suspension with adaptive dampers, although the really clever Magic Body Control (MBC) system is reserved for eight-cylinder models. MBC uses a pair of cameras atop the windscreen to read the road up to 15m ahead and pick out undulations.

The suspension then adjusts accordingly at each corner. It’s an extension of Merc’s Active Body Control, which compensates for pitch and roll by adjusting the air springs, but MBC does so in an anticipatory rather than reactionary way.

The 2017 facelift saw more than some light touch tweaking, with Mercedes-Benz going deep into its box of tricks to keep the S-Class ahead of its competition. Chief among which is the inclusion of a 48V electrical system, turning the S-Class into a mild hybrid, and giving it future autonomous capability. With the use of navigation data and radar systems the S-Class will be available to drive itself and even adjust its speed for corners, junctions, roundabouts and tolls based on that data.


Mercedes-Benz S-Class dashboard

The Mercedes S-Class’s interior is everything you expect it to be and more. On space, it offers more than a metre of maximum second-row legroom and 920mm of headroom. Spookily, both figures match what you’ll find in a long-wheelbase Jaguar XJ almost to the millimetre.

The seats are supremely comfortable, the switchgear is solid and metallic, and the leather on the armrests, fascia, steering wheel, doors and seats is meticulously well presented. This is Mercedes sticking it to Audi, Jaguar, Bentley and just about everyone else on material quality, and with glittering success.

The stereo’s loudspeaker grilles look like they were designed on a Spirograph

But it's the technology that's hidden just out of sight, behind that pudgy layer of cosseting luxury, that's even more impressive.

There are no light bulbs in here, for example, or anywhere else on the car. The cabin has some 300 LEDs in it, the cleverest of which run around the fascia’s primary features as strips of coloured ambient light. They glow in a choice of six colours and make the car even more special to drive at night than it is during the day.

Not only are the seats heated but also the armrests on either side of each occupant. Options include massagers for all four outer seats, as well as pillows for all four headrests, plus an extendable footrest for the nearside rear chair and cooled compartments in both rows.

You can also specify rear-seat entertainment that includes web browsers navigable via a handheld remote, but they would have been much more usable with a touchscreen interface.

A hard drive-based system comes with the standard Comand Online set-up. It has 3D mapping and optional live traffic information, and cleverly blends Google Maps satellite imagery with normal mapping. It can be programmed via ‘Linguatronic’ voice control much more reliably and simply than some systems and is very clear, thanks to the 12.3in screen.

On the standard equipment front, there is only one trim to choose from - AMG Line, which equips the S-Class with 19in alloy wheels, a sporty looking bodykit, LED headlights, adaptive windscreen wiper system, parking sensors, a reversing camera and keyless entry and ignition as standard on the exterior. Inside, there is electrically adjustable front seats, interior LED ambient lighting, wireless phone charging box, and Mercedes' COMAND infotainment system complete with two 12.3in screens, DAB radio, sat nav and smartphone integration.

Those pining for the AMG models, will find dedicated trims for the Mercedes-AMG S 63 and S65. The Mercedes-AMG S 63 gets 20in alloys, AMG-tuned gearbox, a beefy bodykit, Nappa leather upholstery and a Burmester audio system, while the S65 gets a head-up display, a 3D Burmester surround sound system, a Nappa leather headlining and the Executive equipment line pack, which includes backrest adjustable and ventilated rear seats, dual-zone rear climate control and a sunblinds for the rear passengers.

The S600 Maybach, which uses the same engine as the S65, comes with its own equipment list. On the outside there is an adaptive LED headlight system, laminated glass, sliding panoramic sunroof, with automatic tinting, active park assist, parking sensors and 360-degree camera, run-flat tyres, washer jets built into the wipers and adaptive body control system fitted as standard. While inside, all manners of luxury unfurls itself, with climatised front and rear seats, electrically adjustable seating, quad-zone climate control, heated arm rests, Nappa leather upholstery and a wealth of infotainment. This includes Mercedes' Comand system, rear telephone, rear TV screens, TV tuner, and a Burmester surround sound system.

All of this is accompanied by ornate speaker grilles, grooved organ-stop air vent controls, traditional perforated and patterned hides and a two-spoke steering wheel designed to reference big Benzes of the 1950s and 1960s.

It’s a meeting of classic – even retro – design and avante-garde technology worthy of an HG Wells novel. Assuming it’s to your taste, it all seems very rare and special indeed.


Mercedes-Benz S-Class side profile

Rolling comfort and mechanical refinement are qualities that seem to be designed out of the new car market by the year, sacrificed for added safety, performance and dynamism.

The Mercedes S-Class waves the flag for those former qualities with spectacular fervour, however – just as it should in a segment where choosing to drive the car in question is an optional activity.

Diesel versions are badged 'Bluetec' instead of 'CDI', so most won't recognise a diesel S 350 from the outside

Everything this car does, from control input to resulting response, is engineered to happen quietly and with the minimum of intrusiveness to the company director reposing in the back seat.

Which is why the fact that what's likely to be the most popular model, the diesel S 350d, needs fully a second longer than an equivalent Jaguar XJ to hit 60mph matters not a jot. It trades outright pace for the ability to move away from a standstill with beautiful smoothness and to change gears imperceptibly even at wide throttle openings.

Convention says this should be the noisy diesel of the range, but the isolation of the car’s 282bhp 3.0-litre straight-six is absolutely staggering. With the doors thunked tight shut, the engine’s idle is just about audible from inside the cabin, but on the move – when operating at cruising revs – it really isn’t.

There is some road noise, and some more noticeable wind noise, but even so, we recorded 57dB of cabin noise at 50mph. That’s 4dB less than in a Bentley Flying Spur and 3dB less than in a Range Rover TDV8. That’s an advantage anyone would appreciate over already very refined cars.

Perhaps the S-Class deserves better than Mercedes’ current six-pot turbodiesel, which is underpowered compared with some in the class. Smothered by the car’s 2.2-tonne weight, the six-cylinder offers little in the way of urgency.

But whether you’re driving or in the back, chances are you won’t care – as long as it continues to operate so damned discreetly.

The more powerful 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 S560 produces 462bhp and 516lb ft. It gathers speed in a smooth and refined fashion, but is capable of dispatching the 0-62mph sprint in just 4.6sec. This S-Class spears along with a wonderfully nonchalant manner that will make it hard to beat as a trans-continental express.

That said, it feels just at home on a steady cruise at motorway speeds. Long gearing and reasonably strong reserves of torque provide a superbly relaxed yet flexible quality that makes the S-Class as impressive from the driver’s seat as it is with your legs stretched out in the back.

Starting the AMG derivatives is the S63. Its twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 generates an almighty 603bhp and 663lb ft, allowing for 0-62mph in just 4.3sec. It's devastatingly rapid and, despite what you might expect, claimed to be capable of averaging 30mpg. With only the colossal 6.0-litre V12 S65 managing to overhaul the S63 to 62mph by 0.1sec while chugging petrol at a rate of 23mpg.


Mercedes-Benz S-Class cornering

We were very much hoping to give you chapter and verse here on Mercedes' headline technological breakthrough on the new S-Class: active Magic Body Control suspension. It’s a disappointment to report, then, that the camera-based system will only be offered on eight-cylinder petrol models, when the majority of S-Classes sold here will be diesels.

But that’s a disappointment that must be balanced against one key truth: that, even on its standard air springs and adaptive dampers, the S-Class could hardly ride better.

It's a shame that the active suspension system isn't more widely available

The car’s suspension has Comfort and Sport modes, but even in the latter, the handling never really approaches athleticism. At all times the S-Class feels like it’s distancing you from the road surface rather than inviting you to engage with it.

It steers directly and precisely enough and maintains good body control considering the cosseting dynamic compromise that Mercedes has struck here. But the car is one-dimensional to drive compared with a Jaguar XJ.

Something the size and weight of an S-Class could quickly become a big problem if it doesn’t handle predictably. And while this car has a plethora of active safety systems, the car’s fundamental manners are sound and consistent both up to and beyond the limit of grip.

Firstly, Mercedes has fitted an ESP that prevents the driver from biting off more than they can chew. The electronics are more subtle than we’re used to from Mercedes, however, and manage to look after you without making you feel disenfranchised.

Turn the ESP off and, as you accelerate, there’s quite a lot of roll-related understeer through any given bend, but better cornering balance and not a little limit controllability come next, after which the ESP switches back on automatically.

Contrary to expectations, there’s a smattering of fun to be enjoyed by those who’d drive their S-Class like a hooligan. Frankly, it’s a smattering more than they’ve any right to enjoy.

There can be no denying how consummately this S-Class plays the role of the traditional grand town car, though. That air suspension glides over surface undulations, allowing some vertical movement, but only enough to create the illusion that the body hasn’t actually moved at all.

The smaller and sharper the bump, the less perfect the suspension’s answer for it becomes. But nothing ever crashes through to burst the bubble of calm inside the cabin. The distinction to be made here is between bumps you’re distantly aware of and those you never even knew about.

If there are more comfortable cars to ride in than this, it must only be in certain circumstances. The other big German saloons don’t come close – although they are closer than a Jaguar XJ. A Range Rover, meanwhile, has a more mobile primary ride, making occupants much more aware of changes of direction.

A Bentley Flying Spur is no competition, and even the likes of a Rolls-Royce Phantom or Rolls-Royce Ghost, or a Bentley Mulsanne, have a fight on their hands.


Mercedes-Benz S-Class

It’s possible to spec a Mercedes S-Class with an inordinate number of options, but the entry price for a modestly equipped car is palatable.

Our residual value provider suggests that the S-Class, especially initially, will retain its value better than the equivalent BMW 7 Series.

The build quality is remarkable so, in the long term, problems should be few. Do ensure you maintain a warranty though.

That’s still not as strong as a Range Rover, but that’s to be expected in this market. Fuel consumption is respectable for a 5.25m-long, 2.2-tonne luxury saloon with this level of performance.

Our tests are tough and most drivers will better the 34.2mpg average we recorded. Our touring route, on which we recorded a figure of 44.4mpg, is more representative of the kind of use an S-Class is likely to receive.

There is a long list of things that add a lot of money to an S-Class, and they won’t all help residual values. Go for the noticeable options such as nappa leather and stereo and seat upgrades.

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5 star Mercedes-Benz S-Class

After a week and many hundreds of miles of testing, we aired the only serious criticisms we could level at the new Mercedes S-Class and realised all of them had everything to do with our own preferences in big saloons and little to do with performance or fitness for purpose.

This grandest of Benzes may not seduce its driver like a Jaguar XJ – our incumbent luxury saloon champ – but that is not what it is for.

State of the art in every way. Suave, rich, relaxing and supremely fit for purpose.

Whether or not you’re ever personally likely to give up the driver’s seat, you can’t deny that this car does what it’s supposed to do superbly. It is functionally exceptional, and that’s the irreducible definition of a five-star car in our book.

And like so many of its predecessors, the S-Class is not only a luxury saloon but also a pioneer, bringing ground-breaking technology to the fore, but the emergence of the new Audi A8 and the announcement of its autonomous technology being readied sooner than Mercedes planned to launch its own could throw a spanner in the works.

But for the time being, the mantra remains, where the Mercedes-Benz S-Class leads, the rest of the car-making world follows. And on this evidence, it will continue to do so for some time.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Mercedes-Benz S-Class 2014-2020 First drives