Mercedes S-Class review
The Mercedes S-Class is the ultimate luxury limo and a fantastic showcase for cutting-edge technology
There are fewer relaxing experiences than driving an S-Class - the only thing that can top it is if you're in the back seat, being chauffeured. It was crowned our 2016 Luxury Car of the Year, and vibrations through the pedals and steering wheel are non-existent - even at motorway speeds you won’t hear any wind or tyre roar.
All the engines are fantastic, but it’s amazing that Mercedes can offer a diesel-electric hybrid offering more than 60mpg, and even the standard V6 diesel returns 50mpg. For the ultimate in speed there are high-performance S63 V8 or S65 V12 AMG versions, or if you want an S-Class that emits less CO2 than a Toyota Prius there’s the S500 Plug-in Hybrid.
In short, the Mercedes S-Class has set the standard for luxury and cutting-edge technology for over 40 years - and the latest sixth-generation car is the best yet.
Until the mid-1990s it was famously the case that money was no object when Mercedes engineers developed successive generations of its flagship S-Class saloon.
Even after Daimler and Chrysler amalgamated in the late-1990s and the bean-counters reigned in their ‘over-spending’ engineers, the flagship Mercedes S-Class has remained at the pinnacle of automotive engineering technology. Each new model has introduced ground-breaking systems that have cascaded down into lesser models as they become more affordable.
The tech highlights of this latest model include Magic Body Control that uses cameras to scan the road ahead for undulations and potholes, then adjusts the suspension to suit. There’s also a new high-definition TFT display as part of the instrument cluster, and a highly advanced Driving Assistance package that keeps the car in its lane and in train with the vehicle ahead when in cruise control mode.
While the latest S-Class continues to showcase the brand’s hi-tech developments, sleek new looks means the Mercedes S-Class is more desirable than ever, plus it has benefitted from a completely overhauled cabin design.
Under the bonnet, the S-Class is available with 3-litre V6 diesel power in the S350, or a 5.0-litre V8 petrol engine in the S500.
There's also a trio of greener options, namely the S300 which is a 2.2-litre 4-cylinder diesel hybrid with a small electric motor, the S400 h which is the 3.5-litre petrol-powered hybrid equivalent, and the S500 e which is a 3.0 V6 petrol-powered ‘plug-in’ hybrid.
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The 6.0-litre V12 of the S 600 is also available if you’re feeling particularly plutocratic, while the Mercedes-AMG S63 and S65 models are monstrously powerful 5.5-litre V8 and 6.0-litre V12 machines honed by Merc’s motorsports division.
Trim levels are relatively straightforward, including an SE ‘standard’ spec and a more dynamic-looking AMG Line. There’s an Executive spec package bringing more luxury features for rear passengers, along with a host of additional upgrades and bespoke trim options as befits a flagship Mercedes model.
Even ‘standard’ SE models are pretty lavishly equipped though, with LED headlights, air suspension, sat-nav and full leather upholstery all included. AMG Line cars get more aggressive body kits and larger 19-inch alloy wheels outside, and alloy pedals and AMG logos among the highlights inside.
Engines, performance and drive
Despite its focus on luxury and refinement, the S-Class is still one of the most engaging executive limousines on the market. Standard air suspension gives a wonderfully cushioned ride, while buyers wanting even sharper driving dynamics can opt for the £4,340 Magic Body Control system, which reads the road ahead and adjusts the car's set-up accordingly.
There’s barely any wind or road noise, while the standard air-suspension effortlessly smooths out bumps – although the 19-inch wheels can crash into potholes.
Yet this comfort doesn’t come at the expense of agility. The steering is quick and well weighted, plus there’s lots of grip. Selecting Sport mode stiffens the standard adaptive dampers to reduce body roll.
On the road, the new S-Class doesn’t feel as urgent as the Audi A8, but it still packs plenty of overtaking punch across the spectrum of powertrains. The brakes are strong, too, with a positive and progressive pedal feel.
Charge it up for two hours through a household socket, and driving the S500 Plug-in on electric power is one of the quietest and most refined experiences anywhere. But flex your right foot and the V6 engine wakes up to deliver effortless overtaking power when you need it.
The high-power AMG models give this limo supercar-rivalling performance. They come in long-wheelbase form only, and while they're not the last word in sharp handling, you'll be surprised by how well they corner considering the car's sheer size.
The S350 diesel will make up the majority of S-Class sales, and it's our pick of the range, thanks to its super smooth and quiet engine combined with seriously quick in-gear acceleration that proves refinement doesn’t come at the expense of performance.
Despite a hefty 1,975kg weight and the seamless seven-speed automatic box’s lengthy gears, 0-60mph takes just 6.8 seconds for the S350 but it genuinely feels much faster than that.
The other diesel option is the S300 BlueTEC hybrid, which combines a frugal four-cylinder diesel and electric motor to blend the effortless performance limousine buyers expect with supermini running costs.
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The S300 hybrid nudges just over 2,000kg due to the added weight of the battery but performance is still brisk, hitting 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds. While its real-world performance is impressively punchy, the S300’s hybrid system can’t run in electric-only mode for long, and even a small squeeze on the throttle pedal will cause the diesel engine to rumble into life.
If you can stretch to it, the S500 Plug-in is a remarkable machine, letting you travel up to 20 miles on electric power alone before the 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 cuts in. With both power sources working together, performance is almost on a par with the V8-powered S500. The hybrid does 0-62mph in 5.2 seconds, while the V8 powered car knocks it off in 4.8.
If you want a limousine with real supercar credentials, the AMG S63 has a twin-turbo V8 and can manage 0-62mph in 4.4 seconds, while the V12 twin-turbo S65 is a tenth of a second faster.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
With prices starting in excess of £65,000, the S-Class isn’t exactly cheap to buy and if you get a bit friendly with the options list, the price can rise to well over £100,000. However, despite the price tag the S-Class won’t cost you the earth to run.
The S300 BlueTEC Hybrid boasts fuel economy of 61.4mpg and CO2 emissions of 120g/km. However, the frugal diesel hybrid plays second-fiddle to the S500 Plug-in Hybrid, which returns 100.9mpg and 65g/km under the official testing regime.
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Depending on how you use it, of course, those figures could be much higher – or indeed lower. For example if your commute is less than 20 miles and you’ve somewhere to charge the car at either end, you can get to work and back without needing a drop of fuel. Use it for longer journeys though and the economy will plummet, especially if you delve into the available performance.
Offering the best blend of economy, performance and price is the S350 BlueTEC, which feels seriously quick while still emitting just 146g/km. The new S63 AMG is more efficient than ever, but still only manages a meagre 27mpg combined as a consequence of its enormous power and two-tonne bulk, even though it does have a carbonfibre boot liner as a nod to weight-saving.
Insurance for the S-Class range starts at a hefty group 44 for the S300h hybrid, and goes up with your potential to go faster. The S350d is in group 49, and the S600 is in group 50.
All luxury cars have a reputation for losing value on an epic scale. If ever that’s not true in relative percentage terms, then it certainly does in hard cash terms. The basic principle seems to be that the more you spend on your new S-Class, the more you stand to lose when you sell the car on – although it’s possible the performance of hybrid models may be strong enough to buck that trend.
In ‘best-selling’ S350d form though, we think the new S-Class should match the previous model’s 44 per cent residual value after three years.
Interior, design and technology
Externally, the S-Class benefits from imposing styling with neat design details. Yet despite its vast external dimensions, the Mercedes disguises its bulk well thanks to its sweeping roofline and carefully sculpted lines cut into the flanks.
A bold grille, topped by the brand’s trademark three-pointed star, swept-back all-LED headlamps and tastefully applied chrome trim add a dash of glamour, while AMG Line trim brings racy looking 19-inch alloy wheels and a subtle bodykit.
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The Mercedes’ interior is even more impressive as it’s beautifully built, supremely comfortable and plushly appointed. The wide dashboard features a pair of 12.3-inch TFT screens – one for the sat-nav, infotainment and energy use, the other for the speedo, rev counter, trip computer and optional night vision display.
Other highlights include the metal-finish eyeball vents for the air-conditioning, the precise action of the switchgear and the intuitive COMAND rotary controller.
As you’d expect, the fit and finish is flawless, while the materials are all top-notch. Lustrous Black Poplar wood trim covers the dashboard, centre console, door trims and steering wheel, plus there's a £1,740 soft Nappa leather trim option for lower spec cars.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
As you’d expect, quality is the watchword for the S-Class infotainment systems.
All models come with the 12.3-inch high definition screen, sat-nav, digital radio and single CD/DVD drive as part of the COMAND Online system.
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You also get Bluetooth and a WLAN hotspot facility, but if you want to use Facebook and various on-board apps via the Connect Me package you’ll need to tick an option box. Other options include a rear seat entertainment system with a pair of 10-inch screens, and of course a TV tuner.
If you really want to push the boat out on the audio front, try the Burmester high-end 3D Surround Sound System which has 24 speakers, a 24 channel amplifier and a total output of 1,540 watts.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
But for comfort the big Merc is near peerless, with superlative on-road refinement, a silken ride quality, a living-room-sized cabin with superlative seats that will even massage you if required, plus fabulous entertainment systems and internet connectivity so driver and passengers want for nothing.
If you have to drive it yourself, then an array of sensors and cameras take care of close quarter manoeuvres in town, while out on the road you can let the clever cruise control and other aids share the load.
The S-Class in standard length is 5,116mm long, but there’s a long-wheelbase version with a 13cms extension in the rear passenger compartment. That said, unless you’re after the best-selling S350d you can’t pick and choose, so which body you get depends on the model. Apart from the S350d, only the AMG S63 and S65 come with the shorter body, so all the other versions come in the L guise.
In case you are compelled to have the biggest car in the car park, it’s worth noting that the S-Class in standard length is 15cms shorter than an Audi A8, and 28cms shorter than a Rolls-Royce Ghost. It beats the BMW 7-Series by 4cms though.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
Given the S-Class’s luxury car status, it’s no surprise to find most of the space in the cabin is reserved for rear seat passengers. There’s a trio of three-point belts for the rear bench, but most buyers will treat this car as a four-seater, and Mercedes offers an optional two-seater rear seating set-up for even more luxury.
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Rear head and legroom is generous, while the £4,335 Executive Rear Package adds a reclining function, powered blinds for the side and rear windows and ventilation for the seats. There’s also plenty of storage space, including the fold-down rear armrest that includes a pair of cup-holders and neat lidded cubby, while fold-out tables make the car the perfect office space.
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The Mercedes features a useful 510-litre boot – although the optional £1,130 fridge compartment reduces capacity by 40 litres. Without it, the Merc’s luggage space is a little bigger than the Rolls’ and BMW’s, and matches the Audi’s exactly.
Reliability and Safety
Mercedes has forged a strong reputation for building durable cars, and this is backed by an impressive 11th place in our Driver Power 2015 satisfaction survey, although the brand has dropped a place since 2014.
More worryingly perhaps, at least as part of a bigger picture, is the manufacturer’s score for reliability alone, which is rumbling along at 26th out of 30-odd contenders.
For build quality, the Mercedes brand is rated 10th. Not bad, but worth noting Lexus, Jaguar, Porsche, Audi, BMW and Volvo are all luxury or premium brands that do better. Skoda, Honda and Subaru are not luxury brands, and they score better too.
It’s the lesser Mercs that seem to be letting the side down though, so we’d be amazed to hear of anyone picking fault with the build quality of an S-Class.
The latest S-Class hasn’t been tested by EuroNCAP, but the last one scored a maximum five stars and we’d be amazed if Merc’s technology flagship failed to do the business this time around.
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As you’d expect, there's plenty of standard safety kit, including eight airbags, a traffic sign recognition camera, a driver drowsiness monitor and a stability control system which incorporates Curve Dynamic Assist and Crosswind Assist.
The S-Class can also be fitted with the £2,300 Driving Assistance Package, which adds blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control, plus a £2,250 night-vision camera and novel £1,230 rear seatbelts that feature integrated airbags. If you want unbeatable safety – and can afford to pick up the bill – then the big Merc has it covered.
The standard Mercedes warranty applies to the S-Class, which means three years cover and no mileage cap.
Mercedes’ Service Care pack guarantees the cost of routine maintenance for up to four services. The plan is flexible depending on mileage, but if you drive between 15,000 and 30,000 miles a year Mercedes will cover you for £55 a month – including 4 services over three years.
If you simply want an annual service once a year for two, three or four years, there’s another monthly plan that costs £41. Either way, it’s not a bad deal considering the price of the car, especially when you consider a three-year deal for the smallest Mercedes A-Class is £32 per month.