WATCH HILL, Rhode Island — Mercedes-Benz leads with the S-Class. That’s a pattern going back nearly 50 years, but some generations of the S-Class take a bigger step forward than others. The 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, codenamed W223, represents the biggest leap since the W140 model of the early 1990s. Like that car, the latest S-Class pushes the envelope with technology and features — and also in price.
The car’s styling is more evolutionary. The new S-Class is longer by 1.3 inches, wider by 2 inches and rides on a 2-inch longer wheelbase. It’s also fractionally taller than the outgoing model but appears lower. That’s thanks to the single primary bodyside crease that runs in a gentle arc from the top of the “Multibeam LED” headlights, through the doors just below the window line, back to the taillights. The rounded-off bodywork also makes the car appear smaller.
Up front, there is as usual a massive grille, but its impact is dulled due to its rounded corners and because some of what should be intricate metal work is instead black plastic panels with silver lines applied. They shield the various radar sensors that, along with the cameras behind the windshield, enable the advanced assisted-driving functions. Surprisingly perhaps, the three-pointed star hood ornament returns, even as Mercedes has dropped it from its other models, including most recently the E-Class. The profile shows new flush door handles, which pop out as the driver approaches with the key fob. At the rear are new inverted-triangle taillights.
Interior and technology
Mercedes-Benz design chief Gorden Wagener describes this car as “the first digital S-Class,” and a look inside shows why. Central to the interior, literally and figuratively, is a 12.8-inch portrait-oriented OLED touchscreen that flows from the middle of the dash onto the center console. A separate 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster is the second major screen. It’s an impressive presentation even if it stops short of the dash-spanning Hyperscreen seen in the upcoming EQS.
In the Executive Line version of the S-Class, the two-passenger rear compartment equals the front in terms of screen acreage. Dual 11.6-inch displays are mounted to the front seatbacks, and a removable 7-inch tablet sits in the center armrest. Either can access the same functions as the front display, and items such as a navigation destination can be shared from one screen to another.
Both front screens stand proud of their background, establishing a theme that’s followed by the switchgear, which sits in raised black pods. We see it in the ignition pushbutton, the seat controls on the door, and even the power window switches on the armrests.
Ambient lighting is used extensively throughout the cabin — across the upper edge of the dash, around the tweeters at the base of the A-pillars, along the sides of the center console, in several places on the door panels, and on the front seatbacks. The lighting purports to have 60-plus hues, but the various schemes lean heavily on purples, blues, and pinks, imparting a stretch-limo vibe. The lighting is active, glowing red or blue as the climate control is adjusted or, more usefully, pulsing red on one side of the car as part of the blind-spot warning system or glowing yellow to signal a lane-departure warning.
The MBUX operating system, introduced in 2018, is already in version 7, and is more central to the car’s operation than ever. The OLED screen is bright and sharp, and the processor is powerful enough that we experienced no lag whatsoever. And of course, the system can receive over-the-air updates to keep it up to date.
The lower section of the screen is given over to HVAC controls, and the center stack is bereft of physical controls save for a band of haptic buttons at the base of the massive screen. They select the drive mode, activate the parking camera, call up the car settings menu, and adjust audio volume. The latter is done via a touch slider, which is never the preferred solution.
The home screen thankfully now shows eight icons at a time versus previous MBUX versions that show only three. Annoyingly though, hopping from one menu to another (the map to the radio, for instance) still requires a stopover on the home screen. The Home button or the Back button gets you there, and those are found both on the main screen and on the steering wheel. Still, the system would be improved if shortcut buttons to main functions were available at all times instead of only on the home screen.
The touchpad just ahead of the center armrest has been jettisoned now that the main screen is within closer reach, but some will still miss it for swiping and scrolling (it also helped keep smudges off the main screen). One can use the mini-touchpads on the steering wheel spokes, which previously were convex but now are inset and less easy to manipulate; we often got an up or down swipe reaction when attempting a horizontal swipe motion. Finally, gesture controls are currently not part of the program but will arrive with the 2022 model year.
The digital instrument cluster has a variety of designs: the familiar Classic, the white-faced Exclusive (shown above), and the minimalist Understated all feature two gauges. The Sport mode skips gauges altogether, or there’s a full-map mode as well as one that renders the car and surrounding vehicles. As an option, the screen can have a 3D effect — which can be switched on or off — for the gauges and the in-cluster map (but not the main screen map), and the 3D effect is more noticeable in some display designs than others. The head-up display also has its own neat new trick. During navigation guidance, animations of floating directional arrows appear and hover over the view of the street, showing you where to turn.
The S-Class is a car to which you log in. A fingerprint identification touchpoint at the base of the main screen identifies the driver’s saved profile (from up to seven), which contains preferences for the seat, audio system, and ambient lighting, among others. The driver alternately can be identified via facial recognition, or one can enter a PIN. The system extends to rear-seat passengers in cars with rear-seat screens.
The first thing you notice about the seats are the headrest pillows. Previously available for the rear seats, they’re now added on the front seats, and the rear headrests can be heated. Adjusting the seats is done via seat switches that appear conventional. However, each switch is a single solid piece and doesn’t move; instead, it’s touch-sensitive.
The rear seat offers vast legroom, and the standard rear bench is power-adjustable for backrest angle, cushion length, and headrest height. In the two-passenger version, the right rear seat has an extendable leg rest that can be deployed once the front passenger seat is moved forward. Still, one needs to be a short-legged billionaire to take advantage of this mode. Longer-limbed masters of the universe will need to wait for the upcoming Maybach version that has an additional 8 inches of wheelbase. The models with individual rear seats also include new front seatback-mounted airbags for rear-seat passengers.
The S-Class mechanicals are not as radically rethought but do harbor their share of new features. As before, there’s a six-cylinder and a V8 model, the S500 and S580. A nine-speed automatic and all-wheel drive are standard on both. There are then three trim levels: Luxury Line, AMG Line, and the Executive Line, which is exclusive to the S580. Note that the AMG Line is just a trim level; a Mercedes-AMG S-Class with Affalterbach’s mechanical upgrades is still to come. So, too, is a plug-in hybrid with a 28-kilowatt-hour battery that should be good for an electric range of 62 miles.
We drove an S580 AMG Line. Like the S500’s 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six, the S580’s 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 is supplemented by a 48-volt mild-hybrid system. It provides as much as 21 additional horsepower, and also facilitates brake energy recuperation and enables brief moments of engine-off coasting — not that you notice. The auto stop-start system is imperceptible.
The S580’s 496 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque comfortably exceed the base engine’s 429 ponies and 384 lb-ft, providing plenty of muscle to move this big boy. (Mercedes estimates a 0–60 time of 4.4 seconds.) The V8’s engine emits a subtle, muted growl when you cane it, but otherwise is silent and silken in operation. As you’d expect, the car is exceptionally quiet on the highway. We did experience one downshift stumble from the nine-speed autobox when we lifted off and then punched the accelerator, but weren’t able to repeat it. We were surprised, however, at the soft brake pedal, which may be good for achieving the gentlest possible stops but is not so reassuring underfoot in general driving.
Ride, handling and blown tires
Our car was not equipped with the optional E-Active Body Control, a combination air suspension with hydro-pneumatic damping. That system has the ability to raise the car, and can do so if the radar sensors determine that a side-impact crash is imminent. The body is raised by up to 3 inches to lessen the severity of the impact because the crash forces affect the lower part of the body structure, which is inherently stronger.
Typical for Mercedes, one can toggle through the usual Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ modes. Their variations are barely discernible, notable more so in the action of the standard Airmatic air suspension than anything else. Even there, at any given moment it’s hard to guess which mode you’re in. Comfort allows for a bit more of the nodding body motions that have long characterized the S-Class ride and which many returning owners likely expect. The chassis gets more stiff-legged in Sport and Sport+, but doesn’t appreciably diminish the ride quality.
What does diminish the ride, though, are the ultra-short sidewalls on the AMG Line’s optional 21-inch wheels with 255/35 tires at the front and 285/30 tires at the rear. The latter provide so little cushioning that we blew a tire on a pothole. We’d chalk that up to bad luck except that five other S580s on our drive, all with the same wheel-and-tire package, suffered the same fate. Clearly, this tire fitment is not suitable on anything other than glass-smooth pavement and should be avoided. Stick with the 19s or the 20s.
The suspension allows a bit of body roll but not much more, and the creamy steering is pleasantly weighted and direct. What’s new is that rear-wheel steering comes to the S-Class for the first time. Above 37 mph, the rear wheels steer in the same direction as the fronts; below that speed, they turn in the opposite direction. There are two versions of the system, one with 4.5 degrees of rear steering (available on the AMG Line) and one with 10 degrees (available on the Executive Line), the latter reducing the turning radius by up to 7 feet. Why two versions? Because with the ultra-wide tires on the AMG Line there isn’t room inside the wheel wells to have them turn more.
Even the lesser system in the AMG Line car we drove had an obvious effect. Before setting off on our drive from New York to Rhode Island, we made a stop at the local post office, which has a particularly crowded parking lot. Indeed, the big S-Class was notably wieldy, tightly tucking around corners without swinging into the oncoming lane. The standard 360-degree-view camera is also a valuable parking-lot helper.
Driver assistance systems
The new S-Class doesn’t delve into true hands-free driving, a la Cadillac’s Super Cruise or Tesla’s Autopilot with Full Self-Driving — at least not yet. A system called Drive Pilot that promises Level 3 self-driving won’t be offered here until at least some time in 2022, as it awaits further mapping. We also have to wait for Automatic Valet Parking. It’s similar to that offered by Hyundai and BMW in that the driver can stand outside the car and remotely maneuver it into a space, but it additionally can be programmed to remember a set of coordinates (inside your garage, for example), and autonomously maneuver itself to that spot — no remote-controlling required.
For now, the S-Class has self-steering for parking and lane-centering steering assist for the adaptive cruise control. The latter does require a hand on the wheel and proved to be quite smooth maintaining lane position on parkways and Interstates. Although the steering was polished, on thickly traveled I-95 and Connecticut’s busy Merritt Parkway, the adaptive cruise displayed some late braking when traffic suddenly slowed, and yet it was rather lethargic speeding back up when the cars ahead started moving again. In dense, fast-changing traffic conditions, an alert human driver is still better.
The S-Class also pushes ahead with its pricing. Whereas the previous model opened at just over $95,000, it will now take a minimum of $110,850 (including the $1,050 destination charge) to get into a 2021 S-Class. That’s for the S500 Luxury. The S580 AMG Line we drove opens at $117,350, and the top-drawer S580 Executive starts at $132,500.
Two choices that will be disappearing are the coupe and convertible body styles. The existing two-door S-Class models are making a curtain call for 2021 and won’t see a next generation. It appears they will be the last of their type.
With its techy new interfaces and newfound capabilities, the 2021 S-Class strikes us as this model’s biggest generational advance in decades. The W140 S-Class in its day was roundly criticized as too big, too expensive, and too complex. The new S-Class, of course, exceeds it in all those measures. But rather than seeming out of touch, the 2021 S-Class likely has exactly what it needs to keep the brand’s historic flagship on the vanguard — at least until it’s eclipsed by the even more futuristic EQS.