2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class First Ride Review: An Early Look
Mercedes-Benz S-Class program director Oliver Thöne swings the steering wheel hard left and then hard right and then left again and laughs as the big sedan jinks and weaves through the parking structure like a Mazda Miata on an autocross course. Riding in the back seat, I’m grinning, too. Not just at the exuberant enthusiasm of the man overseeing the launch of the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but also at how stunningly agile the new rear-wheel steering system makes the new Benz flagship feel.
Audi’s A8 and BMW’s 7 Series would have been left gasping in its wake.
The S-Class has always been a technological spear-carrier for Mercedes-Benz: In 1978, the original W116 series S-Class became the first volume production car available with modern four-wheel anti-lock brakes. More than four decades later, the seventh-generation S-Class maintains the tradition of showcasing new technology that will eventually trickle down to less expensive cars: In addition to the high-angle rear-steer system that gives it such outstanding low speed maneuverability, the 2021 S-Class debuts an augmented reality head-up display and a 3D digital instrument panel.
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The W223 is the first Benz to be built on the MRA2 vehicle architecture, an evolution of the MRA hardware that underpins the current S-, E-, and C-Class families. In S-Class spec, MRA2 comes in standard, long, and extended wheelbases, the latter of which will be exclusive to the next-generation Mercedes-Maybach sedan, itself codenamed Z223. Thöne says a lot of work has been done to package the rear axle lower in the body so the plug-in-hybrid version can carry a 28-kWh battery without impinging on trunk space. Indeed, he says the W223’s trunk is actually slightly larger than that of the current car.
What Engines Does the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Have?
The entry-level S-Class for the U.S. market will be the S500, powered by the 429-hp version of the M256 inline-six with the 21-hp EQ Boost mild-hybrid system; this is already in use in the redesigned E450 sedan and Cabriolet, among others. The volume seller is likely to be the S580, powered by a 496-hp version of the M176 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 (a close cousin of M177 engine used in AMG cars), which has been upgraded to accommodate an EQ Boost mild-hybrid setup with an integrated starter/generator mounted between the engine and the nine-speed automatic transmission. That boost provides up to 20 additional horsepower when needed. Both the S500 and S580 will be available with the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system.
Excluding the still-secret AMG S-Class models, rumored to be badged S63 and S73 and said to be packing around 600 hp and 800 hp, the top regular S-Class in the U.S. will be the S580e, which combines a 362-hp version of the M256 inline six with a 140-hp e-motor to give a total system output of close to 500 hp and the same 516 lb-ft of torque as the V-8-powered S580. With its 28-kWh battery, the S580e should be able to cover up to 60 miles on pure electric power, more than double the range of the 2020 S560e PHEV.
Good news: The 6.0-liter V-12 engine will fit under the hood of the W223. Bad news: It’s being reserved for the top Mercedes-Maybach models. (And, yes, AMG will have its turn with the car, too.)
What New Technology Is on the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class?
A heavily reworked version of the current car’s air suspension is standard. Daimler’s innovative E-Active Body Control setup, which debuted on GLE, will be available as an option. The system uses a combination of air springs and active, electrohydraulic dampers, each of which are fitted with a hydraulic pump able to produce as much as 1,885 psi to force each wheel to move up or down almost instantaneously. The system not only enables it to actively control ride quality and body roll but also, should the car sense an impending side impact, to instantly raise the ride height 3.2 inches so that more of the impact is taken by the side sills, which are stronger than the doors.
The fifth-generation Driver Assistant package has several new features, including sensor mats under the steering wheel’s leather covering that detect whether you have hands on wheel when the S-Class is operating in semi-autonomous mode. The system replaces the old method of sensing torque or resistance applied to the steering wheel rim and reduces false alarms for drivers who have a naturally smooth driving style, says Thöne.
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The aforementioned rear-wheel steering will be standard across the 2021 S-Class range, but two versions will be available, depending on your tire choice. The standard system allows the rear wheels to steer up to 10 degrees in the opposite direction to the fronts at speeds up to 35 mph; if you order wider rear tires, the maximum angle is 4 degrees. As Oliver Thöne’s spirited demonstration run through the parking structure near the Mercedes-Benz Customer Center in Stuttgart revealed, the 10-degree rear-steer system delivers truly astounding maneuverability; at 33.4 feet, a 2021 S-Class thus equipped has a tighter turning circle than the wee A-Class.
The S-Class’s augmented-reality head-up display means you ‘see’ the information projected in front of you as if it’s 30 feet ahead of the car, including the information from the equally augmented navigation system. In current Mercedes vehicles, the navigation overlays directional arrows on a video image on the central screen; now that information is shown against what you’re actually seeing through the windshield. Our experience with the system was limited to a static session behind the wheel—the first media drives of the new S-Class are still a couple of months away—but the clarity and depth of field are spectacular. This system is a game-changer.
The jury’s out on the 3D gauge cluster until we actually drive the 2021 S-Class, however. Activated via a button in the top left-hand corner of the new, portrait-oriented infotainment screen angling up from the center console, the system uses two cameras located at the top edge of the instrument panel screen to track the movement of the driver’s eyes. The system then creates two slightly different images on the high-definition display that are then combined to create a 3D image.
It’s slightly disconcerting at first; if you move your eyes around too much, the system doesn’t always seem to resolve the dash display to three dimensions. And unless you have the configurable dash set to the bird’s-eye navigation view, it’s hard to see what—other than some driveway theater to impress your buddies at the country club, the value is—But Thöne insists it’s not a gimmick: “With the nav in bird’s-eye view, it gives a more natural view of where you need to go.”
The 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Interior—Screens Rule
Although the exterior design of the new S-Class is best described as evolutionary rather than revolutionary, the interior is pretty much all new. Daimler is not releasing full details yet, but that large central screen means the center-tunnel rotary controller and touchpad of the previous generation car are gone. The screen is designed to be easily accessed while resting an arm on the central armrest. There is still touchpad-like functionality, but now you write directly on the screen itself.
Gone, too, are the collection of buttons and switches on the center console. Almost everything is controlled by the touchscreen or via the sophisticated voice-command system embedded in the latest generation MBUX interface. A small capacitive-touch bar immediately below the screen allows you to select a drive mode without diving into the appropriate menu, as well as adjust the audio system’s volume.
The upgraded MBUX system delivers a high degree of personalization. The 2021 S-Class can recognize who’s behind the wheel in three different ways: via facial recognition using the same eye-tracking cameras that create the 3D display on the dash; by fingerprint recognition using a small touchpad in the frame at the base of the central screen; or via voice recognition. The car will then adjust everything to the driver’s stored settings. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will be offered as standard, but Germany’s tough GDPR regulations mean some advanced MBUX functionality will not be available while they’re active, as Daimler won’t share that data with the respective tech giants.
Even what seems familiar inside the 2021 S-Class is new. For example, the semiotic seat controls on the doors look like those we’ve seen in Benzes for years now, but the individual elements are touch-sensitive capacitor switches and no longer move. They feel odd at first—you’re expecting movement—but once you’re used to just touching rather than pushing or pulling, you won’t want to go back to the old system, as you can make much finer adjustments to the seat than before.
The color-changeable ambient lighting that effectively encircles the cabin is now used in a number of interactive ways. When speaking to the car, the section immediately above the central screen glows brighter. The lighting in the front doors glows brighter when the car senses traffic in your blind spot while changing lanes and pulses if the car senses you’re leaving the lane while lane keep assist is engaged.
2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class on the Road
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I can’t tell you what the 2021 S-class is like to drive, but I can tell you this: It’s noticeably quieter to ride in than the current S. “We have put significant effort into reducing noise levels inside the car,” Thöne acknowledges. The focus has been on quelling low-frequency noise because Daimler’s research has shown it to interfere with natural speech frequencies, forcing occupants to raise their voices. There is sound-absorbing foam in all major body cavities, and acoustic glass is standard. Thöne says the car’s drag coefficient is a low 0.22, reducing wind noise. Although every manufacturer measures drag differently, it was indeed easy to have a natural conversation, even cruising at 90 mph.
Our test car was a trial-production S500 riding on optional 19-inch wheels (18s are standard and 20s are also available as an option) fitted with 255/45 Hankook tires. The 429-hp M256 six-cylinder engine is noticeably smooth, virtually silent at low speeds, and makes little more than a distant hum at full throttle acceleration to 110 mph. As you’d expect, the primary ride is very good, though some impact from the tires was noticeable through the rear-seat cushions on poorer roads.
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The S-Class remains a hugely important car for Daimler, and not just because it remains the flagship of the Mercedes-Benz brand. Its market performance has been less affected by the rush to SUVs than the E-Class and C-Class sedans, and though sales aren’t growing, they’re not going down. Worldwide, Mercedes still sells more S-Classes than the Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series combined, though ominously the redesigned 7 Series, with its massive chrome grille, has been making inroads on the current S-class in China. That’s ominous because one in every three S-Classes is now sold in China, and so are 70 percent of Maybachs. The S-Class has long been the gold standard in the segment, and Thöne is acutely aware of the penalty of leadership: “That’s what’s been keeping me up day and night.”
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