Is The Mercedes-Benz S-Class Sedan Still The Class Leader?

Car Culture / 41 Comments

The competition has never been stronger.

While its roots can be traced back to Karl Benz's first ever internal combustion three-wheeler, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, Mercedes-Benz as an automobile company was officially formed in 1926. It soon made a name for itself building peerless luxury automobiles that were technologically advanced while still offering world-beating performance. The Mercedes-Benz range has grown over the decades to encompass just about every size and shape of passenger vehicle around.


Some additions stretch the boundaries of the brand, such as the awkwardly proportioned CLA Coupe and upcoming X-Class pickup (which is unlikely to make it to the US), but the large luxury sedan is what Mercedes-Benz excels at and the S-Class in particular lies at the heart of its product range. The range-topping Mercedes models were officially named the S-Class in 1965 and each successive generation has been the benchmark in its segment almost without fail. Technologies like ABS, airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners and numerous other passive safety devices all made their debut in an S-Class.

The latest generation has now been on the market since 2014 and it too offered some world-first technologies at its launch. Features such as automated parking, road-scanning air suspension and programmable seat massaging are still impressive 4-years on but are now available in a number of competing products too. The 2018 refresh has attempted to redress this imbalance and according to Mercedes-Benz, 6500 parts have been updated or revised in the process. Is this enough for the S-Class to retain its crown? Time to find out. The current S-Class range starts off with the base V6 S 450 and mid-range V8 S560 models.

The S 450 may be the entry-level model, but at $89,900 it is only a relative term here. Standard features include a new 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 which makes 362-hp and gets this heavy sedan to 60 mph from a standstill in 5.4 seconds. One of the more unusual standard features is Energizing Comfort Control, a system which combines the climate control, fragrance system, seat heating, ventilation and massage features as well as lighting and music to enhance passenger comfort. The dual 12.3-inch digital dashboard displays are the more visible aspects of the advanced technological systems available while a comprehensive list of active and passive safety systems make the S-Class one of the safest vehicles on the road.


The S 560 adds a more powerful 463-hp 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 under the hood and with it a 0.8-second reduction in the 0-60 mph time. Both models can be had in all-wheel drive versions too but what of the groundbreaking technical innovations that defined previous generations? Well, fans of conjuring will be interested in optional equipment such as Magic Body Control which scans the road ahead and adjusts the suspension settings to suit, Magic Sky Control which tints the panoramic sunroof automatically and Magic Vision Control which integrates the windshield washer jets into the wipers to improve visibility.


There are also other available options that do not resort to wizardry but may seem like they do such as the active lane keeping, blind spot and lane change assists. Fully autonomous driving is not on the cards just yet but the current systems are as good as any other system currently on the market. The AMG high performance brand has produced fast Mercedes' for decades but it was only as recently as 2005 when it became fully integrated in to the Mercedes-Benz fold. There are now AMG models for practically every model and the AMG S63 has proven to be a very successful variant.


Starting at $147,500, you would expect a lot of improvements over the nearly $50,000 cheaper S560. And you get it too, the most noticeable difference comes from the AMG-fettled 603-hp 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, combined with all-wheel drive it rockets to 60 mph in 3.4-seconds. You also get a whole lot more standard equipment and AMG-style visual upgrades too. The AMG S65 remains the range-topper thanks to the allure of its 621-hp 6.0-liter V12 powerplant but it only produces slightly more power than the S 63 and as it is only rear-wheel drive. It takes 4.2-seconds to get to 60 mph and makes do with the older 7-speed automatic transmission rather than the newer 9-speed unit that is standard on all other models.

The improvements in luxury and performance levels are hard to justify, especially when taking the $229,500 asking price in context. For those who have everything yet still yearn for more, the Mercedes-Maybach ultra-luxury derivatives turn the opulence dial up to 11. Once a manufacturer of luxury vehicles, Maybach was acquired by Daimler-Benz in the '60s and other than a short stint as a standalone model, it finds new life as the ultra-luxury version of the current S-Class. You have a choice of either the $168,600 463-hp V8 S 560 4Matic or the $198,700 621-hp V12 S 650.


These models focus purely on providing the utmost luxury possible in the segment and have no direct competition from their usual European rivals. The take aim instead at even loftier opposition from the likes of Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Other than coming standard with just about all the items on the Mercedes-Benz menu, there are some Maybach-only features too and the rear seats in particular are designed to offer the highest levels of comfort around. For your extra cash, some of the extra luxuries you get are an extended wheelbase, airbags embedded in the rear seatbelts, leg rests, a 1540-watt 24-speaker Burmester audio system and an interior that is claimed to be the quietest of any car on sale.


Now let's take a look at the competition. The BMW 7 Series has always shadowed the S-Class over the years; up until the introduction of the AMG models it was the default option for those looking for a sportier interpretation on the luxury sedan theme. The very latest generation has raised the technology levels in the segment with features like a self-parking system controlled via the key fob and a carbon-core chassis construction process. The M760i xDrive also pushes the luxury sedan performance bar to new levels and while it does shade the Mercedes in the handling department, its 0-60 mph time of 3.6-seconds still trails the ballistic S63 AMG.


Audi is currently in the process of rolling out a replacement for the current A8, the new model promises a number of significant technological innovations, chief among them level 3 autonomous driving functions. This provides the same autonomous functions as current systems but does not require the driver to keep their hands on the wheel. Until then, the current range is available with a range of engines starting at a 333-hp V6 and ending with a 605-hp V8 in the sporty S8. Build quality is still superb but it does lag behind on the latest infotainment and safety systems so is not quite a match for the S-Class in its current form.


The luxury sedan segment is now more competitive than ever, traditional rivals from BMW and Audi have now been joined by the Jaguar XJR and the sporty and recently revitalized Porsche Panamera. The recent S-Class mid-life refresh has helped this segment-benchmark retain its title for the time being, the bonkers AMG models and ultra-luxurious Maybach variants broaden the S-Class appeal too. But with the new A8 just around the corner, the status quo may be challenged once again.


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