Mercedes-Benz S Class
Refreshed and still the world's best executive express
It has been said sufficiently often for it to have become generally accepted: sharks stopped evolving many millions of years ago. It is suggested that they became such masters of their environment that no further changes were required. None of this is actually true, for while sharks might have developed some resistance to the inexorable forces of evolution, I believe total immunity has yet to be achieved. But the point is real enough: their design is now so perfectly adapted that Mother Nature is struggling to figure out substantial improvements.
I think we're getting there with some cars. You could look at a 10-year-old, fifth-generation Volkswagen Golf and a brand-new car and wonder where the last decade went. Likewise the Porsche 911, which is radically different in engineering terms to a 15-year-old 996 model, but remains conceptually the same. The reason appears simple: these cars have not only risen to the top of their classes but have stayed there so long that to change the formula would seem an act of the purest folly.
The latest example is Mercedes-Benz's new S-class. It is rumoured that nowhere within the organisation are engineers more stressed than those charged with replacing the company flagship. As the Golf defines VW and the 911 is the heart and soul of Porsche, so too does the S-class represent the very essence of Mercedes-Benz. I've been writing about cars for a quarter of a century and if there has been a single test in a car magazine that rated the S-class as anything other than the best car in its category, I have long forgotten reading about it. In every significant region of the world, it is the best-selling luxury car. So no surprise, then, that while the new car breaks much new ground in engineering and technological terms, its positioning remains unchanged, as if the brief handed down to its designers said simply: "The same, but more so." The form remains very similar, but the function has been transformed.
Space precludes me describing any more than a few of the more notable features now available in the S-class, but they provide at least a flavour of its engineering depth. It has cameras not just at the front and rear, but at the side too. So it will brake to stop you hitting the car in front, or to prevent a car at the side T-boning you. And if you're about to get rammed from behind it'll tighten your belt and jam on the brakes to stop you being shunted into the car ahead. And should the worst happen and you're lying motionless in the wreckage, it will ring the emergency services, tell them where you are, unlock the doors, illuminate the interior at night time, turn on the hazard lights, lower the front windows, raise the steering wheel and light up the rear seat buckles. It won't yet perform CPR, but I'd not be surprised to learn Mercedes is working on it.
All that attention lavished on what happens after you crash, and in a car Mercedes says won't drive itself only because legislation doesn't permit it.
In more normal circumstances it's no less impressive and you must first decide where to sit. Were this a Jaguar XJ, you'd definitely want to drive; were it an Audi A8 you'd be just as sure to sit in the back. The S-class strikes the balance between the two well enough for your mood to make the difference. Even with the retained 3-litre diesel engine and seven-speed auto gearbox that'll power more than 90 per cent of S-classes sold in Europe, the car has enough spark and sufficient control on its air-sprung suspension to keep you at least mildly amused on a good road, if not thoroughly entertained.
But so long as you have a driver of impeccable calibre, the rear compartment is hard to pass up. If you spend enough on options you can choose a back seat that marries up to a reclined front passenger seat to create the closest thing to a bed the law allows, while the electronic options placed at your disposal — even on the back seat — mean you have almost all the controls, save those that drive the car.
Yet all this would be nothing if the car beneath all this gadgetry was no longer fit for purpose. Throughout its existence and from generation to generation, the real reason the S-class has met with such success is that it has always — and I mean that without exception — been the quietest and most comfortable mass-produced car in the world. And so it remains. If you want to drive a car with better refinement or superior ride quality, you really do need a Rolls Royce. I'd almost argue that, mechanically at least, it's a little too refined. If you're in heavy traffic you notice all the sounds being made by cars around you, noise that would normally be cloaked by your own car.
It's not much to complain about, really. Even so, I think Mercedes has missed an opportunity with this car. As a working tool, a device for doing a specific job, now as ever the S-class has no equal. Indeed its predecessor still topped the class on its deathbed, and this one puts a river of clear water between itself and the chasing pack.
Viewed more subjectively, however, its position is far less convincing. When Jaguar launched the XJ its cabin wasn't merely comfortable, it was also beautiful. It had a sense of occasion missing from every other car in the segment, including the S-class then and this S-class now. Worse, the new Range Rover has an even more attractive cabin, offering not just a quiet and convenient working area, but a home from home. Instead of tuning out every last sound frequency and honing the ride to be even gentler to the plutocratic backsides that will occupy its sumptuous seats, I'd have preferred Mercedes to spend a little more time making its interior truly special rather than merely highly effective.
None of this is going to affect the S-class's position as the number one luxury car in the world — ultimately it is a four-door saloon that people buy to do a job. While it continues to do that job better than any other, its status is assured. And this is just a start. Now that Mercedes's Maybach adventure has come to an unfortunate end, it is the S-class that must fill the breach. In the next couple of years, expect to see not just shortand long-wheelbase versions, but an ultra-long limousine, a six-door Pullman model, a coupe and, yes, even an S-class convertible. It won't stop until domination has been achieved not just in the mainstream of the class but its every last nook and cranny. And, on the strength of what I've seen so far, you'd be brave to bet it won't.
Engine 3.0-litres, six cylinders
Power 254bhp @3600rpm
Torque 457b ft @1600-2400rpm
Transmission seven-speed auto, rear-wheel drive 0-62MPH 6.8sec
Top Speed 155mph
Economy 51.3mpg CO 146g/km