It used to be that, when seeking insight into the ‘cutting edge’ of motoring technologies, people would unanimously point their fingers at the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. But the advent of electrification has muddied the waters somewhat. Embattled they may be, these days the punter on the street will tell you Tesla is the cutting edge, and Mercedes-Benz is just another one of those late-to-the-party legacy brands.
The S-Class has not changed, though, in the fact that it continues to change comprehensively with every new iteration. The new S-Class comes with more bells, more whistles, and … uhh … more elaborate interior lighting than ever before.
Four different models of S-Class are currently bound for New Zealand, not including the probably inevitable AMG edition or the separate electric EQS. The range kicks off with the $215,000 450 4Matic. This is one of two models that’s already landed here; the other being the $235,900 450 L 4Matic — the long-wheelbase limo version of the 450 grade.
The other two models that are Kiwi-bound are the V8-propelled S 580 L and the flagship-of-a-flagship 680 Maybach, each setting their lucky owners back $291,700 and an eye-watering $492,800, respectively. All barring the ‘base’ 450 comes with that long-wheelbase version of the new MRA2 architecture — almost all of that extra 110mm (290mm in the case of the Maybach) going into giving rear passengers more room to swing their legs or deploy the fully reclinable seats.
We were handed the chunky, cold metal to the new 450 L yesterday (pictured in black, SWB pictured in silver) for a brief drive loop from Newmarket to Te Arai near Mangawhai as part of the model’s national launch. Just two variants are currently available, the short and long 450, with the other two joining the line-up later in the year.
It’s hard to know exactly where to begin with something like the S-Class. The feature list is so ludicrously long that it’s actually somewhat intimidating. It’s also the problem with getting just the one mere day to play around in one in that you don’t have much time to get to feel out all the individual toys.
Looks seem a sensible enough place to begin. The new S follows the same design ethos as most of the brand’s other recently-updated passenger cars. Harsh, brash lines in the bodywork are no more; replaced with an almost streamliner look.
Side-on, the cab sits well off the front axle, allowing for familiar proportions and emphasising that power is (primarily, at least) sent to the rear wheels. It’s hard to tell which model, LWB or SWB, has the better proportions. The roofline falls away, still giving the big ‘Benz a three-box sedan silhouette. The tail lights merge flush with the boot-lid, rear bumper, and rear quarters. ‘Less inherently muscular but more sophisticated’ is probably what some might call it.
Peel away the skin and you find the S-Class’ secret weapon. Despite it growing in every dimension versus its predecessor, it’s actually 60kg lighter than the last model even with 51mm of added length (71mm for the LWB), 22mm of added width, and 20L more space in the 550L boot. More than 50 per cent of the new S is aluminium. This ranges from the use of aluminium for the bonnet, rear quarters, and a large amount of its rear structure, to the use of aluminium diecast for most of its front end.
Under the bonnet of the 450 a 3.0-litre inline six can be found, specifically, it’s the M356 sixer, paired to the brand’s 48V mild-hybrid system and a nine-speed torque-converted auto. As with other hybrids, this one comes with EQ Boost functionality, enabling drivers to summon an extra 16kW/250Nm on request, for brief scoots in passing lanes or for when the paparazzi are pressed up against the rear windows, presumably.
Our model didn’t come with either of Merc’s optional rear-wheel steering systems. The more extreme (and arguably more useful) system makes tight turn-arounds a breeze by applying up to 10 degrees of opposing steering angle to the rear wheels. There’s also a ‘lighter’ optional rear-steer set-up that enables the S to add up to 4.5 degrees of rear lock in the same direction as the front end is steering for added stability during high-speed driving.
In practice, it all comes together nicely as you’d expect. The six-pack makes the model feel more vast and commanding from the driver’s seat than the turbofours we’ve sampled in other recent Mercs. Performance? It’s fine, perhaps a little pedestrian with sudden flat-foot commands despite the nine-speed’s willingness to drop through the cogs.
In our brief spin it’s much more convincing when considered for its intended purpose of being a smooth, silky operator. The ride control and lack of noise are exemplary, as you’d expect. The big S wafts along a bumpy, mixed-pavement Kiwi state highway like few others can. We’re excited to see how this MRA platform blossoms as Mercedes starts to throw more power at it.
Really though, all of this is just tinsel for the S-Class’ main event. The model that’s always been known to be a tech powerhouse hasn’t held back for 2021, introducing all sorts of innovations. These include the optional rear airbag in the LWB (with a tubular structure that can occupy the 70-litre space in front of the rear passenger), lidar-based level three autonomy, retractable door handles, and the five-screens in our LWB.
Some features are of the life-changing variety, while others are deeply rooted towards the ‘comfort’ end of the spectrum. The latter includes the eye-tracking system that follows where a driver’s looking to pre-empt what features they’re thinking of adjusting. Want to adjust the passenger-side wing mirror? Simply look at it while playing with the directional pad and it will shift. Map lights and privacy screens can be activated and deactivated in this manner, too. There’s also the 3D-effect digital cluster, which uses eye tracking to map out three-dimensional read-outs to the driver; making it the holographic Pokemon card of clusters.
Maybe it’s the grumpy cynic within me, but it was the more practical tech changes that impressed me more. The updated series two MBUX voice system was a clear step up, interpreting more challenging requests with greater ability, with less need for occupants to deploy stunted, shout-every-word English to get it to work. Certain things, like answering a phone call, don’t even require a ‘Hey Mercedes’ call-out. It recognises all the occupants’ voices, too, allowing each to interact with it separately.
A brief play around with the updated MBUX touchscreen interface (first via the 12.8-inch screen in the front, then via an 11.6-inch screen in the back) found it to be a decent refinement of the last system. But, as with almost all of the toys crammed into the S-Class, there isn’t nearly enough time in a day to explore each feature on the endless list. Just know that we’re impressed. The status quo remains; music is still better on vinyl, dogs are still better than cats, and every inch of the S is cutting edge.