For decades, the Mercedes S-Class has maintained its status as the gold-standard in its segment. But, with rising competition from the Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series, can the latest version of Mercedes’ flagship maintain its leadership?
There’s domination, and then there’s absolute, utter domination. When we talk about luxury sedans at the top echelon of the automotive market, there is one nameplate that stands out not just for its success, but for its continued success for decades now. Starting with the Mercedes 220, over six decades ago, the S-Class has virtually steamrolled its competition and continues to do so.
In fact, in 2016 it was, once again, the largest selling product in its category, selling over 300,000 units across the world. So, with the W222 generation of the S-Class being just four years old, what was the reason for Mercedes to enhance on it and launch a new version? Well, for once, there is the seven-odd year-old product life cycle of European cars. But, more importantly, there was the launch of a new BMW 7 Series and a soon-to-be-expected brand-new generation of the Audi A8. So, with the facelifted version of the S-Class, Mercedes has brought into the car a host of new technological features, as well as made improvements to the other qualities of the car.
To start with, design wise, the S-Class gets minor changes that lend a definitely freshened up look to the exterior and interiors of the car. So, you get new bumpers, front and rear, and upgraded lights too. The headlights now feature three streaks of LED daytime running lights, which is Mercedes’ new way of defining their saloons – the E-Class gets two streaks and the C-Class one. On the European-spec cars that we drove, there was also an amazing choice of alloy wheels, with a particular favourite of mine being the old school polished aluminium wheels fitted to the Maybach version. Hopefully, Mercedes India will offer some of these wheels in the Indian market too, instead of the frumpy ones currently offered on the S 350d.
The interiors of the S-Class clearly remain class-leading (and that might only change when the new Audi A8 finally makes its debut), and the fit-and-finish and material quality on the car remains sublime. The two most impressive features of the interiors though are the large central display in front of the driver, which is not only legible, but has fantastic resolution. However, the COMAND multimedia system of Mercedes still remains a tad difficult and fussy to operate compared to BMW’s i-Drive system, at least. But, for me the highlight of the S-Class – despite its vast interior room, legroom included, has to be the seats fitted to the car. Phenomenally comfortable, superbly crafted with top-quality leather and stitching, the seats feel beyond what I could call premium – they feel top-quality luxury, as they should – and more importantly, for road warriors like me, they offer the most phenomenal massage system I’ve yet experienced in a car. Equipped with a variety of massage options – including heated ‘hot stone’ massages courtesy the heated seats and even armrests! – the massage functions of the seats are simply sublime. If you ever get to try an S-Class – and let’s be honest, few of us ever will – do try the variety of massages offered. It'll be an experience to remember.
Coming to the other end of things, there were three versions of the S-Class that we got to experience on our drive. First up, was the wrestler of the lineup, the S 63 4MATIC+, which features AMG’s latest 4-litre bi-turbo V8 engine. The engine in this trim produces 603bhp, and 900Nm of torque, which means, that despite the S-Class’ mass, the car moves and how. Think how going from 0-100 in 3.5 seconds would feel like in a car the size of a small city and you'll get an idea of its abilities. Throttle response, despite the turbos is instant and even more impressive is perhaps the gearbox, which offers fantastically quick gearshifts, both up and down. And equally attractive is the typical AMG exhaust soundtrack that provides enough heavy baritone, accompanied by crackles on up and down shifts to keep most enthusiastic drivers happy. I also particularly loved the steering wheel in the S 63 with its alcantara and aluminium combination, which gives it’s a feeling of sportiness and fine quality and is very satisfying to hold. With the standard all-wheel drive, putting power down in the S 63 was no problem, and the air suspension meant that on uncannily smooth Swiss and German roads that we were driving on, the car felt as comfortable as every other S-Class I’ve ever driven. However, the Indian versions of the S-Class will be rear-wheel drive only.
Next up was the S 560 with its 4-litre turbocharged petrol engine. We’re not sure if this engine will make it to India – Mercedes India is still debating which petrol engines to launch in India – but driving it, it kept the characteristics of a typical large V8 with seamless power delivery from its 463bhp and a muted V8 burble rearing its head when given some stick. However, the engine that we were most interested in driving was the S 400d, which features the same basic engine as the S 350d that will ultimately make it to India and will be biggest seller in our market. Powered by a revised version of the 3-litre turbocharged straight-six engine, the S 400 feels sprightly to drive, and the nine-speed transmission works well with the engine’s torque output. In this tune, the 400d features 335bhp, about an additional 80-or so horsepower over the engine expected to make it to India, and so performance is sprightly, and while the noise levels from the engine seeping into the cabin are slightly higher than the petrol version, the NVH still remains excellent. And so does its ride quality with the standard-fit AIRMATIC suspension and smaller wheels compared to the AMG version. However, we would need to drive the car once in Indian conditions before we can give a final verdict on that. However, to give credit where its due, even the current version of the S-Class rides brilliantly on our roads, and I would be surprised if that changes at all with the new car.
Lastly, there is also a plethora of technology that has been added to the new S-Class, this includes autonomous parking, lane assist, highway driving assistance modes, collision avoidance and many other features. We were taken to an airfield in Germany where the engineers from Mercedes demonstrated – in real time – how well the technology worked and how effective it was. While this was deeply impressive, to be honest none of these features – save for the auto parking – has any relevance for the Indian market. Given the chaos that prevails on our roads, expecting these systems to work reliably in our conditions is wishful thinking. And as an engineer familiar with Indian driving conditions said to me in a discussion, that he would be surprised if the electronics did not have a meltdown when trying to deal with Indian traffic, and I had no other option but to agree with him. Sad as it maybe, it is a stark reality of our driving conditions. However, to give credit where due, the progress and effectiveness of these systems – in the right conditions – is deeply impressive and makes one wonder how driving would be like in the next decade or so.
To sum it up then, the new S-Class takes what was already the product to beat in its segment and betters it significantly. The new technology, the material quality, the fit-and-finish and the luxury experience is deeply impressive and the new design touches refresh the car too. Given all that praise, the challenge now lies for the competitors of the S-Class to raise their game and beat the resident champion at its own game. As for me, if I could ever afford an S-Class, I would probably pick the S 63 AMG for its laughter inducing acceleration and till then keep dreaming about the massage functions of the seats and the bliss they provided me on my drive.