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2021 Mercedes-benz S-class First Drive Review: Old-money Weekend, New-tech Sedan
Since its debut in 1954, Mercedes-benz’ S-class sedan has been a pacesetter for luxury and innovation, and a comfy fallback for tycoons, royals, entrepreneurs and shadier international types. The one-upmanship continues with a redesigned 2021 S-class that drives magnificently, even as it dazzles—and occasionally annoys—with a flood of new tech features.
The previous-generation S-class, sold from 2014, is undoubtedly a tough act to follow. This was the S-class that elevated Mercedes interior luxury to breathtaking heights; its sensuous curves and rich finishes were a clear cut above what BMW, Lexus or even Audi could deliver in their own flagship sedans. With renewed confidence, Mercedes successfully revamped interiors throughout its lineup, all influenced by the S-class.
Catering to the Senses
The latest S-class brings that now-familiar opulence, with fat banks of glossy wood, ambient lighting (in 64 selectable colors) fit for a hip Berlin hotel as well as dramatic metal vents and speaker grilles. Throne-like chairs offer myriad adjustments and optional pillowed headrests. Newly robust massage functions bring some of the strongest magic fingers in the industry, now with 10 separate programs. If those vibrations aren’t enough, the optional Burmester 4D audio system ($6,730) brings 30 speakers and 1,750 watts, and subwoofers in each of four seats adjust individually so occupants can feel the music in their bones. The Benz will also waft selectable fragrance through the cabin so all senses are covered.
To that, Mercedes adds an all-out blitz of new tech, including the industry’s first rear-seat airbags—mounted in front-seat backrests— which inflate tubular wings designed to protect anyone from adults to occupants in child seats. Up front, standard Pre-safe Impulse inflates outer bolsters in the front seats to quickly shift passengers toward the vehicle’s center, away from an impacted door and side glass. A carryover feature emits an audio frequency that triggers a physical response in human ears, protecting eardrums from damage during a loud collision. Another optional feature, E-active Body Control, instantly raises the S-class’ ride height by 3.1 inches to better absorb collisions from the side.
Lavish safety aside, Mercedes aims for visual and tactile impact with its latest MBUX (Mercedes Benz User Experience) interface. It joins a 12.3-inch, endlessly configurable driver’s display with a new, Tesla-like, 12.8-inch OLED center display that offers cinematically sharp resolution and haptic feedback. (Buyers who’ve seen the even-more-dramatic “Hyperscreen” on Mercedes’ upcoming EQS electric sedan— picture a very expensive German spacecraft— will have to wait until 2022 to see it on the S-class).
The driver’s display adds a selectable 3D feature that gives new depth to map and other displays, though some say staring at it made them dizzy or car sick. More gee-whiz comes via an Augmented Reality head-up display: set a destination or call up the Distronic cruise control system (with semi-automated steering and lane changes) and the display floats a wealth of visual data in the driver’s field of vision. It also portrays car ahead in animations, lane markers striped in green and glow red if the S-class wanders from its lane. Blue directional arrows also flash to guide upcoming turns. On the center OLED screen, a string of street addresses hover over a real-time camera view on approach to a set destination, especially helpful when travelling to an unfamiliar home, restaurant or business at night. As for MBUX, Mercedes lets multiple users set up personal profiles that store up to 800 parameters and retrieve them with a biometric fingerprint sensor on the dash, or via facial or voice recognition.
Does this all sound a bit much? In some cases, and for some tastes, it is. First, MBUX has a decided learning curve. My own slender fingers got the hang of MBUX, but some drivers with larger hands don’t appreciate the steering wheel’s dainty buttons and sliders that command its functions. (Enhanced voice controls, optionally initiated by saying “Hey, Mercedes,” are another method of inputting commands).
Compared with the previous S-class, Mercedes has also eliminated physical keys for main functions such as radio and navigation. Accessing them requires a quick press of the onscreen Home button. That said, after a few hours behind the wheel, MBUX becomes a surprisingly intuitive interface for drivers and passengers alike. And yes, it all looks (and sounds) gorgeous.
At times, the Benz seems to believe it’s smarter than its driver. A pair of stereo cameras monitors the driver’s head and eyelid positions, both to operate the 3D instrument cluster and to manage the Attention Assist safety system that alerts drivers when they appear drowsy or distracted. Such driver-monitoring cameras are becoming necessary as cars take on more driving tasks, ensuring that drivers keep eyes on the road while the car acts as co-pilot.
But the Mercedes’ camera turned from trusty wingman to annoying dingbat, regularly alerting me to adjust the steering wheel to give it an unimpeded view. I saw that unwanted message at least 25 times over four days and nearly 500 miles with the car—contrary to the coddling spirit of a sedan that rang up $143,240 after options. Yes, a flick of a steering wheel button dismissed the alert, but the driver-monitoring camera defaults to its “On” position every time you start the car. Hey, Mercedes: It’s a bug, not a feature, and demands a better solution.
One final, semi-autonomous gripe: The Mercedes’ dramatic grille, topped with a threepointed star ornament—one of the sedate S-class’ best visual features—is marred by a hunk of clear plastic that protects the driverassistance sensors. It recalls a plexiglass Covid shield that spoils the vibe at a four-star restaurant.
Command of the Road
Unsurprisingly, all that grouchiness melted away when I pointed the S-class from Brooklyn to the Ocean House, a graceful resort hotel in Rhode Island’s old-money Watch Hill neighborhood. (It’s right next door to Taylor Swift’s $11 million waterfront manse). This Mercedes commands the road better than any S-class before it, with power, handling and comfort that recall far-pricier Bentleys, but with superior technology. And that’s even before the arrival of mega-powered AMG S63e and S73e models (arriving in 2022) that will offer roughly 700 to 800 horsepower. Mercedes will also add an S580e plug-in hybrid, which pairs the 3.0-liter inline six with an electric motor for a total output of about 500 horsepower—and the ability to cover up to 60 miles on electricity alone. What’s great is most drivers will be perfectly content with the “base” model: an S500 4Matic with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six. This tremendous new engine from Mercedes supplies an ample 429 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque. That S500 4Matic starts from $110,850. My relaxing Rhode Island weekend unspooled in the S580 4Matic, whose twin-turbo, 4.0-liter V-8 brings a mighty 496 horsepower and 516 poundfeet. Both models get standard 4Matic all-wheel drive, a nine-speed automatic transmission, an Airmatic air suspension and a 48-volt mild hybrid system that smooths start-ups and power delivery. Press a knurled-metal Start button, and the big Benz springs to life nearly as silently as an EV, thanks to that 21-horsepower electric motor that assists the combustion engine.