Mercedes-Benz S: Still special, still at the top of the tree

·5-min read
The S-Class saloon: still sombre and serious, but with a side-order of fun (Justin Leighton)
The S-Class saloon: still sombre and serious, but with a side-order of fun (Justin Leighton)

This is the latest iteration of one of the best cars in the world. You can’t say “the best”, I think, because there’s no car that does everything better than any other, or even that does certain things so much better that they outweigh deficiencies elsewhere. But the Mercedes-Benz S-Class limousine has always been special, and always at or near the top of the tree, for more than half a century.

And it still is. This model isn’t quite all new – much of the structure is carried over from the previous version, launched a few years ago – but it has a fresh look front and rear, with simplified flanks and an entirely new interior – and, most importantly, the latest in automotive technology.

Now, Mercedes are so pleased with their new flagship – let’s call it a round £100,000 to get your paws on one – that they almost spoiled things for me by insisting I enjoy the “chauffeur experience”. The rear of the cabin, after all, is where the owners/users of these vehicles – ambassadors, business leaders, despots – will spend most of their time, and so it seemed a reasonable request. Air suspension, in place of crude metal springs, ensures you waft without ever needing to be reminded of the poor state of Britain’s roads or the viciousness of its speed bumps.

THE SPEC

Mercedes-Benz S 350d

Price: £95,695 (as tested; range starts at £78,705)

Engine capacity: 2.9 litre diesel, inline 6 cyl, 9sp auto

Power output (hp): 286

Top speed (mph): 155

0 to 60 (seconds): 6.4

Fuel economy (mpg): 39.2

CO2 emissions (WLTP, g/km): 190

It was, as you’d imagine, a sumptuous environment, with seats that can recline almost to double-bed status (steady on) and offer you an invigorating or restful massage, with or without extra heating or a waft of cool air around your nethermost extremities. There is no chance of getting a numb bum in this motor, so you can concentrate all the better on the next takeover deal or closure of a troublesome opposition party. Maybe Mercedes-Benz should emulate what the bosses at General Motors once did when their Cadillac line became the wheels of choice for the mafiosi, and order their dealers not to supply the gangsters with their prestige model, for fear of tainting the brand. Do Mercedes-Benz want to be associated with the most evil dictators on earth, supplying them with something that possesses such an enviable reputation for safety and protection from assassination?

Anyway, it certainly suited me to use it to go out for lunch, and it’s as quiet and refined as anything this side of an electric version of the S-Class, which we are promised will come shortly. By the way, for such a hefty design, it still offers surprisingly good fuel consumption. Obviously most of its clientele don’t have to worry about the price of fuel, but some must fret about the environment, and the CO2 emissions and diesel and petrol consumption are impressive – a tribute to the near 150 years the company has spent honing the internal combustion engine. Time to call it a day, though.

‘The nearest thing you’ll find to a spa on four wheels’ (Justin Leighton)
‘The nearest thing you’ll find to a spa on four wheels’ (Justin Leighton)

The S-Class’s dirty secret, though, is that the real fun is to be had in the front. This is where you can either enjoy the ride while the car pretty much drives itself, or take the wheel and hustle its considerable bulk with a grace and athleticism belied by its appearance. The latest “thing” is a seemingly innate sense of knowing when you want to change lanes, and taking the “hassle” out of such a manoeuvre. Aside from that there’s the lovely soft napa leather, the tasteful open-grain wood finishes, and the gigantic Tesla-style central screen. You can also pick from an extraordinary menu of “energising” experiences: a multi-sensory symphony combining the air conditioning, the interior (colour) lighting, massage functions, and mood-enhancing music. It’s the nearest thing you’ll find to a spa on four wheels, and the driver gets by far the most out of it. Even the door handles will pop out to greet you as you approach your chariot (an optional extra first seen, to be fair, on a Range Rover).

The display features are just the kind of thing you never knew you wanted but now you can’t live without (Mercedes-Benz)
The display features are just the kind of thing you never knew you wanted but now you can’t live without (Mercedes-Benz)

Oddly, quite a few of the S-Class’s more advanced features have “trickled up” from its saloon and SUV siblings, and I found the voice-controlled command system even more fun than the sensual treats. Say “Hello Mercedes” and ask it to take you to the beach at Hunstanton and it will; ask it to close the sunroof and it obeys without demur; it will turn the radio up and dial the air con down; and when you say, as my travelling companion did, “Thank you,” it will tell you that “you’re welcome”. It will park itself, and you can use the app to control its functions from your bed. The “heads up” display features animated sat nav instructions, with blue arrows darting around showing you exactly where to go, which is just the kind of thing you never knew you wanted but now you can’t live without. There are plenty of other cars that will do the same these days, for rather less money, but not many that you can control so completely and from such an opulent vantage point. For those who want (I can’t write “need”) more, there’ll be a super luxury Mercedes-Maybach and a super performance Mercedes-AMG along in due course. I’d advise waiting for the all-electric version if you want to drive the future, though.

The S-Class used to be a sombre, serious machine that was all about presence. Hence its popularity with sombre, serious people. It still has that quality, and it remains the default limo of choice, even with the likes of Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Range Rover, BMW, Audi, Porsche – and, yes, Tesla – nibbling away at the market. Now, though, they’ve decided to make the S-Class clever – and, well, amusing – as well as big and bold. It’s a friendlier sort of thing these days, the equivalent of a chief executive doing without a tie, or a prime minister getting all informal and jokey in an interview. Underneath, though, the sense of power and purpose is unaltered. It still means business.

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