by Gabe Beita Kiser
It’s ironic that Steve Jobs used to buy a Mercedes SL every six months to take advantage of California's loophole that allows new cars to be driven without license plates. Not because he disliked having a license plate, it’s just like him to hate anything that ruins good design, but because a Mercedes was his car of choice in the first place. Those who can read the soul of a car will know that Apple’s products, a manifestation of Jobs’ obsession with a smooth and tightly controlled user experience, best align themselves with ethos of an Audi. Audis are polite and buttoned-down, comfortable being seen in public with a turtleneck on. Mercedes, on the other hand, are for people who advertise their gluttony, who have a drink too many and entertain illicit thoughts. They're for the imperfect who demand perfection. That character is something you can sniff out in a Mercedes, but nowhere is it more present than in the S-Class.
We had a chance to flirt with one, a coupe no less, for a week where it was driven up and down Northern California’s costal roads and toured San Francisco where Haight Street hippies turned their noses up at our vehicular interpretation of "The Man."
One thing we quickly learned is that there isn’t any one part of the coupe that makes it ostentatious, it’s the whole package that does the trick. Crafted by designers to give the 99% feelings of inadequacy, the S-Class Coupe’s exterior bears the unmistakable face of a Mercedes and the body of a high-class speedboat. A long hood advertises its power but also helps focus attention on the front seat occupants by placing them in the middle of the vehicle and framing them with chrome-lined side windows.
Beneath that are two character lines on the side body panels that would intersect at the rear wheels if they stretched that far back, while the rounded rear end accumulates visual mass to give the S-Class Coupe a classic power stance. Filling out the details are Swarovski crystals in the headlights and updates from the S-Class’ 2018 refresh, including OLED taillights and a new front and rear bumper.
In shades less neutral than our tester's Magnetite Black paint job, the S-Class Coupe announces its presence almost as loudly as a Bentley.
But even an exterior as eye-catching as the S-Class Coupe’s doesn’t prepare for the beauty that lies inside. Slide into the cabin and a shade of soft Bengal Red leather bathes the eyes with warmth and slows the pulse each time skin makes contact with hide. Gentle brushes with the Designo interior, which includes black poplar wood and sleek slabs of aluminum muted just enough to avoid assaulting the eyes, lift any anxieties tucked away and enables the mind to slip into a state of wakeful rest.
This is a controlled environment, even the smells and levels of noise intrusion have been tuned to reinforce the suspicion you're in an eerily quiet dream, but it’s not anonymous and antiseptic like the cabin of an Audi. Instead, the S-Class is a celebration of design. It’s not built with a desire to make an impression based on shock value.
Like a Michelangelo masterpiece, it’s penned by an artist who is allowed to express their joy at life through the medium they know best: designing elegant spaces that impact the emotions of occupants using compelling shapes, striking lines, and an intent focus on detail. The technology is integrated well, too. Mercedes’ Command infotainment interface is easy to use (though Audi’s MMI is easier), especially with the column-mounted shifter making room for it on the center console.
Rather than send the interior too far into the future, the conjoined 12.3-inch widescreen displays digitize the gauge cluster and infotainment display while upholding the S-Class’ standard of classical beauty. Even smaller touches, like a metal arm that extends to "hand” occupants their seatbelt or the electrically toggled tint on the glass roof, contribute to the impression that the S-Class has an answer to every discomfort life can throw your way.
If one of those discomforts is an itch for speed and a need to scratch it, you’ll be happy to know the S-Class Coupe can hustle its gaudy frame around bends or fly down the passing lane even if it’s too heavy to do so happily. While the S560 Mercedes let us borrow is no AMG, it comes loaded with a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 like most AMGs (replacing the pre-facelift 4.7-liter V8), with its turbo nestled between the cylinder banks to cut down on lag.
Output comes out to 463 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque, which is piped to all four wheels by the 4MATIC all-wheel drive system after the 9-speed automatic gearbox has done its job manipulating the torque. Given how the S-Class hides the abrasiveness of high-G maneuvers within its luxurious matrix, you’ll never realize that mashing the throttle at standstill sends you to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds until you glance down at the speedometer.
By that point, the tachometer is flinging itself back and forth, dispensing gear after gear and sending the Merc towards its 131 mph top speed. Having the ability to post numbers that high despite a 4,784-pound curb weight means the S-Class has to do its best to play friendly with the environment. It makes an attempt at that by relying on a quick-acting stop/start system and a coasting function that puts the transmission in neutral when the Benz can roll under its own momentum. Throughout a few hours in California’s stop-and-go traffic and a couple hundred miles of highway driving, we averaged 23.2 mpg during our week with the S-Class Coupe, not far from its EPA advertised combined, city, and highway mileage of 20/17/26 mpg.
Despite being a grand touring continent-crosser, the S-Class Coupe isn't particularly spacious. That's likely because Mercedes assumed owners would never stray far from a luxury hotel. It only gave the Coupe a 10.4 cubic-foot trunk and a cozy interior despite the 198.1-inch long and 83-inch wide footprint (with mirrors extended). It isn’t overly tall either, with the top of the roof standing only 55.6-inches above the ground, but the Coupe's 115.9-inch wheelbase certainly looks like it could swallow a larger interior.
You can blame the long hood for cutting down on space, but like a pair of high heels, Mercedes sacrificed pain for beauty. At least rear-seat passengers can sit up straight since there's only 0.3-inches less headroom in the back than the front seat's 40-inch allowance. The difference in legroom is much larger, with the front holding onto 41.7-inches and the rear getting 33.4-inches of leftover leg space.
One thing that precedes the S-Class’ presence is its reputation for defining what it is to be a luxury car. It’s earned this clout by catering to passengers in the back seat, but coupes are vehicles that inherently accommodate the driver. So what changes when focus shifts to the front? Well, not much. The Coupe still drives like an S-Class, it’s smooth, quiet, and comfortable to the point that it removes one from the outside world, but it never comes across as a natural driver’s car. Steering is direct and light but doesn’t draw a driver into a close relationship with the road. The air suspension follows suite, riding soft without being vague and using algorithms to make changes in G-force imperceptible within the cabin. This car is an insulator, like an S-Class should be, making the outside world seem like a distant dream and the interior a fantasy that has become reality.
Paradoxically, a driver also has lots of control over the show. Try to change directions or speed too quickly and the chassis complies with zero fuss, sorting through difficult scenarios without letting the occupants know about challenges its electronics had to overcome. The cherry on top is the way the chassis hunkers down at the conclusion of hard braking or brisk acceleration to spread out G-force and maintain the magic carpet ride. Within the luxurious sensory deprivation tank, there’s hardly a hint that driving is taking place because a bevy of tech (like a night vision camera with no real discernible purpose) and top-class luxury features keep passengers in a state of spa-like relaxation.
Activating an Energizing Comfort program cues the massaging front seats, ambient interior lighting, crystal clear Burmester 3D sound system, and fragrance diffusers to wake, relax, energize, or steady occupants by showering their senses in different sounds, smells, sights, and sensations.
When they're not busy massaging bottoms, the front seats can also hold torsos straight in the corners by pushing the bolster into a passenger’s side and keeping them from sliding around. That helps when you shift out of the default Comfort mode and into Sport or Sport Plus, which stiffen suspension and steering and also sharpen the powertrain and throttle maps to put the Merc in maximum attack mode. It’s in the heat of pushing the S-Class through corners that one learns there's no reward in doing so. Not that the car complains about abuse, it just isn’t any fun at the limit.
The best course of action, especially on a long lonely road, is to keep the Coupe in Comfort or Eco mode and use the suite of driver aids to let the car drive itself. It’s a huge bonus on Highway 1, where the views are almost as gorgeous and distracting as the S-Class Coupe’s interior.
Using the active steering assist and automatic cruise control on California's most famous highway taught us about the S-Class Coupe’s flaws, the first being that the semi-autonomous functions aren’t as good as systems from some of the competition. The Active Steering Assist seems to need more driver intervention than the industry's best systems and the automatic cruise control has the annoying habit of slowing down before corners so much that impatient California tailgaters will honk, but at least the latter feature can be turned off. Trying to turn that off while driving is what uncovered our second complaint: the steering wheel-mounted touch controls that allow the driver to use the infotainment screen with both hands on the wheel. The buttons aren't as precise as they could be, and that makes it easy to get distracted trying to highlight the right selection.
In all fairness these would be non-issues in most other vehicles, but given that the S-Class has been the industry's technological benchmark for decades, it gets an added layer of scrutiny.
The real bad news is what you probably knew all along, that most people can’t afford the S-Class in the first place. A base S 560 Coupe starts at $126,945 including destination, but our tester had a few options that pushed its MSRP up by the price of an entire Ford Focus ST, to $154,195 including destination. Paving the road to $154k is that gorgeous Designo interior package for $3,250, the Burmester sound system that costs $6,400 (but it sounds so good we think it’s worth it if you have the cash), the AMG Sport Package that outfits the S-Class with new wheels and body modifications for $5,900, a well-stocked suite of driver aids for $2,250, the $1,990 Warmth and Comfort package that heats the steering wheel, center console and door armrests, and all four seats, a night vision camera for $2,260, another $2,700 for the Premium Package with massage seats and surround-view parking cameras, and $1,750 for the Swarovski crystal headlights.
In 2014 it came as no surprise when Mercedes decided to revive the two-door S-Class. German automakers were in the middle of a push to expand their lineups and leave no niche unexplored, and there was money to be made selling a two-door luxury car to buyers who wanted a high-class grand tourer without the attention that an Aston Martin or a Bentley draw. But to fight in this arena, Mercedes had to bring a lot more than just good engineering to the table. It had to instill this car with a soul. Even if it comes off as nameless as an elegant black tuxedo to onlookers, the S-Class Coupe's cherry red interior and its habit of blinding inhabitants with the thoroughness of its opulence proves that the spirit of Mercedes is alive and well here.
The quality of its materials, the unapologetic sense of hedonism in its gothic interior design, all point to a machine that's still intended for those who live their lives chasing pleasure and cashing checks. Just make sure those checks are big enough if you need to be behind the wheel.