Size is everything in the S-Class, but it’s also nicely proportioned and looks light on its feet. Picture: SUPPLIED
Size is everything in the S-Class, but it’s also nicely proportioned and looks light on its feet. Picture: SUPPLIED

Mercedes-Benz have been doing S-Classes for a long time now, and they’ve rarely done them poorly, so there’s pressure on the latest S-Class to set new standards of luxury.

The good news is that the new S-Class is the finest luxury car you can buy in this class today, and its drivers will have every right to look at 7-Series and A8 drivers askance.

The W223, as it’s dubbed in-house, is safer than it has ever been, more luxurious, more technologically advanced, more user friendly, more intuitive and faster than it has ever been.

There has been a welcome throwback in the new S-Class’s design to a time when the flagship Mercedes-Benz carried a clean design that didn’t age through its flashy details.

It’s an awfully big car, too, though it hides it well. It’s well beyond the five-metre barrier, at 5,289mm, and it’s out to 1,954mm wide, too. That means it’s 34mm longer, 55mm wider and 12mm higher than the outgoing S-Class.

There will initially be five variants, ranging from the S450 and S500 petrol-powered in-line sixes to three diesels, from the S350 d to the S400 d.

The brilliant V8 S580 and the 100km of EV range from the plug-in hybrid S580e will join them midway through next year.

The luggage area is a practical 550l (30 more than the outgoing car) and the interior is, well, everything Mercedes-Benz can currently manage in luxury and technology. And Mercedes-Benz can currently manage quite a lot, it seems.

We drove four S-Classes, the S450, the S500, the S580 and the plug-in hybrid S580e.

The entry-level car is hugely impressive, the mid-range S500 is stronger and the S580 is simply a divine piece of engineering.

The S-Class doesn’t start life with a plug-in hybrid, but the cars are all still electrified (at least, the petrol-powered cars are).

All three cars run an integrated starter generator (ISG), which uses a 48V electric system to regenerate enough braking energy to help the engines out with 16kW of power and 250kW of torque.

It’s not zero emissions, but it’s not nothing and it allows Benz to use smaller combustion engines than they might have.

First, the S450. It’s a quality machine with more technology than we can possibly hope to cover here.

It’s powered by a 270kW/500Nm version of Benz’s 4.0l, in-line six cylinder engine, which is mated to the ISG at the front and a nine-speed automatic transmission at the back. It’s also the only petrol S-Class available in rear-wheel drive.

It’s quicker than it has any right to be, too, ripping to 100km/h in 5.1 seconds on its way to a limited top speed of 250km/h.

The S500 is more of the same, with exactly the same powertrain, boosted to 320kW and 520Nm, and it slips under the five-second barrier to record 4.9 seconds to 100km/h.

Then there’s the big boy, complete with a 370kW, 700Nm 4.0l V8 sourced from AMG, and mated to a second-generation ISG, worth 15kW and 180Nm.

There are no figures on the S580 yet for either acceleration or consumption.

The gorgeousness of the S580 isn’t power and speed, though it has clearly more than enough of both. It’s so smooth, luxuriant, indulgent and sophisticated that it just feels entirely in keeping with the rest of the S-Class’s engineering.

It’s an engine that begins quietly and stays there. Though the song is a beautiful one when it’s being pushed, it remains a relatively quiet beautiful one, lest it intrude upon the ambience of the cabin.

There are at least 20 new active safety features including rear seats that can be optioned with their own front airbags. Picture: SUPPLIED
There are at least 20 new active safety features including rear seats that can be optioned with their own front airbags. Picture: SUPPLIED

There is never a shimmy or a shudder from it. It’s not just the engine that’s pouring on the honey, but the suspension. The adaptive air suspension system irons out basically every road imperfection up to 60km/h, then does its best to steamroll the rest.

It can lean in to corners like a motorbike, leading to cornering speeds that are downright ludicrous in a car like this, and it is all an incredibly unflustered experience.

Then there’s the rear end, where the new rear-wheel steering option delivers 10° of turn, slashing two metres from the turning circle, but also adding a whole new level of agility and stability on the road.

The rest of the S-Class seems to be an exercise in integrating disparate cutting-edge technologies that could have gone horribly wrong, but didn’t.

There are at least 20 new active safety features. The rear seats can be optioned with their own front airbags. The adaptive suspension raises the body up just before any collision, to take the hit on the strongest part of the chassis. Even the seat bolstering shoves the passengers away from any collision.

It has two front radars with 130° of “vision”, a long-range front radar, a pair of rear radars, a front-facing stereo camera, a 360° camera and 12 ultrasonic sensors.

By late next year there will be optional Level 3 driver assistance, where you just push a button and the car does the rest, but only up to 60km/h (as per an incoming EU rule).

There is even the option of Level 4 in special situations, like suitably updated car parks, where you can just leave the car and walk away while it trots off to find a parking space.

The instrument cluster has been upgraded with the option of three-dimensional displays, and augmented reality has found its way into the head-up display.

This all sounds awfully gimmicky, but it works, and works beautifully. The car is almost stunningly intuitive to use after 10 minutes to familiarise yourself with it.

While all of this just works, the key to the S-Class has always been seamless luxury, and that’s what the new version delivers.

The seats can be optioned up to carry 19 motors each, ranging from longitudinal, height, angle, backrest and head restraint adjustment to seat cushion depth and even (for the front passenger) heel support adjustment.

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