Mercedes-Benz thinks its new S-class should be treated not just with
respect, but with deference. Andrew English tests an imposing box of
"John will pick you up off the Detroit flight in the S-class. You're
lunching with the Guatemalans in Milan and dining with the Americans in
St Moritz. John will drive so you can re-jig the interim financing
forecasts en route..."
Nice and big: the forthcoming S-class is better-looking than the
current model, but very similar to drive
That's the sort of language you expect from Mercedes-Benz S-class
users, though lately their talk has been more of poor quality,
executive sackings and, most recently, rumoured job losses at what was
once described as a Stuttgart bank that also makes cars and trucks.
The S-class is nevertheless inviolate in the minds of its maker. Since
the original launch in 1972, it has been the pinnacle of the
three-pointed star's range. Work began on this new model five years
ago, with early designs and discussions about the technology to be
deployed in what Mercedes likes us to call the best car in the world.
I flew in from Detroit not to meet Guatemalans, but to take the new
S-class on a 250-mile return journey from Milan to St Moritz. Sometimes
I like to imagine I'm an international financier, although most of the
time I prefer to think I've gained the power of flight and am Brad
Pitt, which is much more fun. Financiers don't chase Angelina Jolie
through the clouds, they fly the Atlantic and feel jet-lagged and
grumpy, just like I did.
After a period in the 1990s when the flagship S-class, the W140, looked
like a packing case, the outgoing W220 model (designed by Briton Steve
Mattin) was a great beauty. The new W221 isn't, but then it's no
packing case either.
The bonnet is beaky to pass pedestrian-impact regulations, the
aggressive wheel arches look as though they have been chiselled from a
Mazda RX-8 and the rear roofline is reminiscent of a Rover 75. The
imposing shape grows on you, however, and at least this is one new car
that looks just right in metallic silver.
It was designed by Hans-Dieter Futschik, who had a hand in the previous
model as well. He wasn't at the launch, but the head of passenger-car
strategic project management, Dr Hermann-Joseph Storp, explained the
purpose of S-class styling - something I have long suspected.
"Everyone must know it is an S-class," he said. "Other cars must get
out of the way when they see it coming, it's all about strength and
status." As my friend Lee remarked: "Strange they don't call it the
Inside, the new Merc is a vast improvement in appearance, but a
retrograde step in ease of use. Instead of covering the facia in
buttons, Mercedes has adopted a beautiful, sweeping dashboard, with
tasteful wooden inserts, concealed lighting and a curved switch panel
that looks like a Wurlitzer cinema organ.
On the downside, it has adopted the son of BMW's iDrive, a
push-and-pull rotary control to adjust the fine settings for audio,
navigation, heating and so on. The knurled-aluminium control wheel has
all the quality of an apprentice's first exercise on the lathe and,
while many functions can be reached a damn sight quicker than with the
dreadful iDrive, the Merc system is still fiendishly tricky.
If I started listing the S-class's technical innovations, you would
wave goodbye to the rest of the Motoring section, Weekend, Sport and
most of Gardening as well. Project manager Frank Steinacher is most
proud of the intelligent cruise control that links with the Brake and
Park Assist systems and enables the S-class to slow down on its own to
avoid collisions and to maintain its following distance.
Most car makers are toying with this sort of technology, as well as
lane-guidance systems. Apart from the safety benefits, such programs
also have congestion-reducing potential. One study suggests that just
25 per cent of cars fitted with intelligent speed control could double
traffic flow on busy roads.
Mercedes-Benz has addressed such things with a welcome return to its
traditional technical zeal and engineering overkill. The £1,840
optional Distronic Plus uses long-range radar to keep its distance.
Brake Assist uses a second, short-wave radar to detect impending
impacts, warning the driver and (when encouraged) slamming on the
anchors and preparing for a crash.
The other bit of technology worth a mention is the infra-red,
night-vision system (a £1,330 option), which, like the radar-based
cruise control, required a five-year argument with the EU before
Mercedes was given permission to use the appropriate wavebands.
Unlike the Cadillac night-vision system, this uses a nearer-to-visible
infrared frequency, with IR lamps illuminating the road for 300 yards,
and a camera behind the rear-view mirror displaying the picture on a
screen in the instrument binnacle.
While there are issues about when and how much drivers will be looking
at the display, we tried the system out with yours truly walking in a
dark suit on a dark road and the S-class coming from behind with dipped
headlamps. The screen showed me about 75 yards before I could be seen
with the naked eye.
We can't leave the technical stuff without mentioning the Harman Kardon
stereo system (£985), which is mind-blowingly good. The seats are
great, too. They pulsate, pummel, cool and vibrate the driver and
(optionally) passengers. Having said that, their instructions ("Firm,
Slow and Gentle, Slow and Vigorous, Fast and Gentle, or Fast and
Vigorous") seem to belong in a different class of establishment
Which leaves me hardly any room to describe what the new S-class is
like to drive. Perhaps just as well, because it's very similar to its
predecessor: big, heavy and indecently wieldy. The big, twin-turbo V12
is much more of a hot rod than the old six-litre, naturally aspirated
V12 ever was, but with 517bhp it's much, much faster.
The engine moans and growls from under the bonnet in a way the old one
never would. The V12 is only available with the long wheelbase and it
has a five-speed transmission, although there's so much torque that it
scarcely needs so many gears.
The 272bhp 3.5-litre V6 is perhaps not the car you'd choose to tackle
an Alpine pass in, but it's fast enough to get the chairman to the
City. We will soon get a three-litre V6 turbodiesel, which will be
cheaper to run, and an AMG performance version, which won't.
The seven-speed automatic is smooth, positive and seldom dithers. The
brakes are massively powerful and on the whole the handling is neutral,
but push too hard into a tight corner and the S-class drives straight
on through anything - the S600 weighs 2.2 tonnes.
The air suspension has most of the answers when it comes to keeping
passengers asleep in the back, but it is still troubled by some
mid-corner bumps, which cause the front wheels to flap about
Speaking as one who did grab 40 winks, I should say that the long
wheelbase is the only version to have. The short models might handle a
bit better, but the rear passenger space is only just generous enough
to unfurl a copy of The Daily Telegraph and keep your knees out of the
That's honestly all you really need to know about this car. You could
summarise the new Mercedes-Benz S-class just as Peter Dron did when the
W140 model was introduced at Turin Airport in 1991. In response to
Jeremy Clarkson's inquiry, he said: "It's big and nice, or if you want
to put it another way, Jeremy, it's nice and big."
Price/availability: from £54,975 for the standard wheelbase S320
turbodiesel, which will occupy some 66 per cent of UK sales, to
£98,000 for the long-wheelbase-only S600. On sale in March 2006 with
AMG models arriving in the summer.
Engines/transmissions: V12 5,514cc, twin-turbocharged petrol, SOHC with
three valves per cylinder; 510bhp at 5,000rpm, 612lb ft of torque at
1,900rpm. V8: 5,461cc, petrol, DOHC with four valves per cylinder,
383bhp at 6,500rpm, 391lb ft at 2,800rpm. V6: 3,498cc, petrol, DOHC
with four valves per cylinder, 268bhp at 6,000rpm, 258lb ft at
2,400rpm. V6 turbodiesel: 2,987cc turbodiesel, DOHC with four valves
per cylinder, 232bhp at 3,800rpm, 398lb ft at 1,600rpm. Seven-speed
automatic transmission (five-speed on S600 models) with steering-wheel
gear hold-down buttons. Rear-wheel drive.
Performance: V12 top speed limited to 155mph, 0-62mph 4.6sec, EU Urban
fuel consumption N/A (Combined, 19.8mpg), CO2 emissions N/A. V8:
155mph, 5.4sec, EU Urban fuel consumption 16.2mpg (Combined, 23.7mpg),
203g/km. N/A. V6: 155mph, 7.3sec, EU Urban fuel consumption 19.5mpg
(Combined, 27.9mpg), 242g/km. V6 turbodiesel: 155mph, 7.5sec, EU Urban
fuel consumption N/A (Combined 34.4mpg), CO2 N/A.
We like: If this isn't the most refined, best-handling limousine in the
world, we'd like to know what is - stop whimpering at the back, Audi
and BMW. The ride is sublime, the interior gorgeous, you can sleep in
it and if you are having popularity problems, those nice people at
Mercedes-Benz will make you a bulletproof one.
We don't like: It's a big, heavy car and doesn't like being hustled
down tight roads, the air suspension still worries over mid-corner
bumps and the S-class still has associations with fat plutocrats and
Alternatives: Audi A8 6.0 quattro £73,580. Bentley Flying Spur
£115,000. BMW 760i £80,800. Lexus LS £57,175. Volkswagen Phaeton 6.0