At this point in the evolution of the car, it’s fair to ask whether one can actually be perfect. While there are many that are far from it — including, you might be surprised to hear, Rolls-Royce and Bentley, both of which are pure excess, and thus disqualified — there are many that would seem to be pretty damn close. They ride brilliantly, handle competently in even the diciest situations, and are packed with electronic gewgaws that all behave so seamlessly for so many years that it’s increasingly hard to wonder what they could possibly do better.
When you get into one of the standard-bearers of automotive awesomeness, namely the flagships from Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Lexus, the question of whether any of these cars are somehow actually unimpeachable — subjective traits such as aesthetics aside — immediately springs to mind. “Wow,” you think while bombing down the Autobahn at 145 mph, as I did recently in the AMG variant of the gigantic new Mercedes S-Class sedan. “This is just…great.”
Perfect or not, Mercedes is to be commended for the newly updated S-Class. The car, which uses its great mass to generate a feeling of luxury that smaller and lighter cars, even in Merc’s own lineup, just can’t match, has always had a sublimely effortless way about it, wafting you down the road as though you were hovering a foot above the pavement rather than bumping and grinding your way across it. This despite its bulk and weight, and usually thanks to a big V8 or V12 under the hood. But the 2018 update coalesces so much technology into the driving experience, from so many different angles, that the overall impact often seems downright magical. Whereas most luxury flagships have one or two marquee tricks up their sleeves — BMW’s key fob, for instance, which lets you park and unpark your car from tight spaces while standing outside it, or Audi’s splashy driver interface — the Merc packages up a bounty of innovations, both new and enhanced, visible and not, that make the S-Class the kind of technological cocoon that no other car can truly match.
While technically this version is just an update, it’s a doozy. The car has been infused with all the cool new stuff that’s been rolled out in lesser Mercs over the last few years and has folded in some newness of its own. Not surprisingly, the chassis and exterior are largely the same, with a few tweaks, such as a new radiator grille with three sets of chrome louvers and headlights that can peer nearly half a mile into the night. There are new splashes of chrome from front to back.
Inside, though, the highlights multiply. There are dual 12.3-inch high-res displays that blend together to form an expansive cockpit, touch-sensitive buttons on the new steering wheel and something called the Energizing Comfort Control. This combines seat massaging, automated fragrances, dynamic and colored ambient lighting, and music to enhance “wellness” while driving. There are six programs, including Freshness, Warmth, Vitality, Joy, Comfort and Training. All have their own ten-minute routines that include five separate music tracks synced up with the lighting and massage function. The Training program is great for perking up your muscles during long drives, while the rest — well, I did say this was a tech cocoon, didn’t I?
Engine: 4.0-liter turbocharged V8
Transmission: nine-speed automatic, rear- or all-wheel drive
Power: 469 or 603 horsepower
Torque: 516 or 603 lb-ft
0-60: 4.5 or 3.4 seconds
In terms of actually transporting yourself from A to B, the car’s most significant enhancement is a series of new functions that were added to its semi-autonomous drive system. The S-Class can now use active steering to drive itself down regular roads in addition to freeways — with driver attentiveness still required, of course. It can automatically change lanes, even waiting up to ten seconds for an opening to appear if the adjacent lane is occupied, and it now uses map data to automatically modulate speed when encountering turns, hills, and things like tollbooths and driving circles. I tested this out on some of the suburban roads in Germany in multiple versions of the S-Class, and while it’s a bit nerve-wracking at first, once you learn how the system works and are able to trust it, it really does make navigating life’s little circles and chicanes far easier. Just remember that the speed with which it tackles challenges is determined by your drive mode. So if you’re in Sport, it’ll blast through the driving circle pretty briskly. Comfort mode produces a more leisurely crawl.
The car’s air suspension will now let it lean into turns to help reduce the centrifugal forces experienced by occupants, and a newly enhanced camera system will scan the road ahead for bumps and set up the suspension to compensate for them. Along with the speed control enhancement, it all adds up to a smooth, increasingly effortless experience that, once you have it dialed in, feels virtually invisible.
To boost power without compromising fuel economy, Mercedes updated its V8 with cylinder deactivation that proved far less obtrusive than the jarring stop/restart such systems usually produce at each and every stoplight. In the end, the S560 produces 21 MPG city and 36 MPG on the highway while still churning out 469 horsepower. The S63 AMG version, with a 603 horsepower V8, gets to 60 mph in a startling 3.4 seconds, while the “normal” S-Class does it in 4.5 seconds — both ridiculously impressive numbers.
It is, of course, rare to find such performance in a large luxury sedan. It’s fast, as luxurious as any not-excessive car possibly can be, and tuned like a Stradivarius. Is the S-Class a perfect car? Officially… no, of course not. The disco lights and “Joy” mode are quite a bit over the top for my tastes and ding the car’s street cred slightly. And good Lord is it expensive. Off the record, though — yeah, it’s pretty freakin’ perfect.
Mercedes-Benz hosted us in Germany to experience all variants of the new S-Class.
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