Before Mercedes-Benz sold SUVs, crossovers, subcompacts or pickups, there was the S-Class. Five decades later, there is still the S-Class, and as luxury cars make way for luxury SUVs and crossovers, the S-Class is still the world’s (and North America’s) best-selling full-size luxury sedan. By a lot. With a revised 2018 S-Class lineup, Mercedes intends to keep it that way
The directive for this mid-cycle S-Class update was the same as it’s always been, according to Mercedes director of development Dr. Hermann Storp: “Build the best car in the world.” Storp says there are 6,500 new parts in the 2018 S-Class, and that’s if you count the new engines as one part. Given that this W222 S-Class debuted just four years ago, and considering the conservative pace at which European luxury marques once adapted change, the facelift seems almost like a changeover. Yet it takes some study to figure out what’s different about the new S-Class, if you’re just looking. That’s the S-Class way.
Highlights in the 2018 S include the obligatory appearance tweaks, updated chassis technology, broader Level II autonomous operation and, most significantly, new engines.
North America’s best-selling S-Class will now be called the S560, recalling the W126 560SEL of the 1980s. Its new V8 displaces four liters, down from 4.7 in the ‘17 S550, and its objective is familiar these days: deliver the incremental power increases luxury buyers expect and the improved fuel efficiency the market and government regulation demand. The new 4.0-liter V8 packs its two turbos in the V between the cylinder banks, aided by exhaust ports on the inboard part of the head, and it’s equipped with cylinder deactivation to run as a four during steady state, light-load operation. It makes 469 peak hp — 20 more than the old 4.7, with the same 516 lb-ft torque and nearly a 10 percent improvement in specific fuel consumption, according to Storp. He calls it “one of the world’s most economical V8 petrol engines.” EPA ratings are pending.
All S-Class variants except 12-cylinder models continue with the nine-speed 9G-tronic torque-converter gearbox introduced last year. The V12s stick with a seven-speed.
The hot-rod S63 AMG gets significant powertrain upgrades, too, starting with the lighter, 4.0-liter V8 with cylinder deactivation. Here, displacement drops from 5.5 liters in 2017. Also here, fuel pressure, fuel volume and boost are cranked up considerably, generating 603 hp — up 26 with 1.5 liters less displacement — and the same 664 lb-ft as the ’17 S63. There’s a transmission upgrade as well, to the nine-speed automatic, from 7 ratios in ’17. The trans is called AMG Speedshift because it replaces the torque converter with a single, multipack wet clutch. All-wheel drive is standard on the S63.
Chassis additions include Mercedes’ Curve control for the S-Class sedan’s air suspension. This electronically managed gizmo is drawn from the S-Class coupe, and it’s geared more toward passengers than the driver. Curve tilts the body nearly 3 degrees back toward the inside of a curve in hard bends, or rearward under hard braking, in an effort to reduce the perceived g load and protect the squeamish from car sickness
Styling adjustments include a grille with three horizontal bars across the sedan line. More obvious are the larger, more aggressively styled intake port below the front bumper and larger tailpipe tips with a chrome connector in back.
Inside, the S-Class sedan gets two wide display monitors melded under a panoramic span of glass, like the E-Class. Looks modern, to be sure, but it’s still a little off-putting. From the driver’s seat, the steering wheel and sightlines create some visual separation between what’s showing behind the wheel and what’s at the top of the center stack. From the passenger seat, the display looks like a 3-foot slab of glass bonded to the dash.
Finally, the S-Class Intelligent Drive system adds several new functions, starting with the autonomous lane-change feature introduced on the E-Class. Just hit the blinker and wait for the cameras, radar and electronic brain to do their work. The assisted steering now operates in curves with tighter radius, and semi-autonomous operation adds GPS location data to the control algorithms. That means the S-Class can know when the speed limit is going to change, or slow in anticipation of bends, tollbooths or freeway exits.
The 2018 S-Class will roll out in August with more or less the same model range, though some numerical designations have changed. The North American lineup will not include Mercedes new inline six. The lowest rung here will be the S450, with a 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V6 generating 362 hp and 369 lb-ft. Expect prices to follow the current range, plus a couple percent. The next S-Class coupe and convertible will debut at the Frankfurt show late this summer, reaching market in about six months.
The most significant change in this S-Class? It might have less to do with drivers or passengers and more with portents of the future. When the ’18 S-Class sedan gets to the end of the line at Mercedes’ plant in Sindelfingen, it’s no longer driven off by a human. Its autonomous operating features drive it out of the plant and into the holding area.
Those 6,500 new parts in the 2018 S-Class add up to what we’d call incremental improvement, but at its core, the new S is what it already was. It’s a big, smooth, imposing sedan, loaded with technology and dynamic potential, and it makes it difficult finding things to complain about.
The S560 will glide smoothly and as stable as a granite block at 120 mph. Its few discernable sounds come from the speakers, a jabbering passenger or, in complete solitude, the whirr and plunk of Goodyear tires. It will always deliver a quick downshift and more torque when you dip the gas pedal, no matter how fast you’re already going, and it will almost never create stress in its driver, even in a stiff crosswind, rain or darkness.
Or it will carry its occupants through the tedium of stop-and-go traffic and crowded city streets, enveloping them in a cocoon that the mundane will not penetrate. It will massage your buttocks and lumbar and gently waft scents like eucalyptus oil, and create ambient lighting chosen to promote your desired state of mind. It will almost infallibly instill the feeling of well-being — superiority, if you let it settle that way — that one expects from a sedan that starts around $100K. And if you’re just getting to know it, the S560 won’t confound because its various buttons and touch pads are too challenging to learn.
The 603-hp S63 is probably as you’d expect, too: the quarter-mile times of a muscle car in Prada-cut duds, a missile to drive on the right roads, but not really a whole lot of fun through the twisties, if you aim to attack. Its transmission is smooth, even with a single clutch, and it doesn’t extract revenge for its quick manual shifts when you’re stuck in that traffic or coasting down toward a school zone.
The S63 is at its best in three ranges: blasting off from a full stop, blasting along at triple-digit speeds (same as the S560), and navigating two-lane roads with big, sweeping bends and lots of opportunity to pass. These allow it to build gradually toward the substantial maximum grip in its tires, and as it moves in that direction, you might not realize how crazy fast you’re actually flying.
Yet even with air suspension that studies the road ahead of the car, adaptive shocks, active roll control and gadgets like Curve comfort trying to ease the stress on your passenger, there’s still nearly 5,000 pounds of S63 shifting side to side or fore/aft when you change directions frequently. This big sedan dutifully responds, consistently, but it feels like work. The S63 is not exactly eager to change direction, and it’s a challenge to be smooth. If you want to go fast you can, but you have to earn it, and it will probably help if you’re good. And that’s probably OK because it wouldn’t seem that a lot of owners are taking their S63s to the gymkhana.
Many more will drive their S-Classes from Saddle River to the Hamptons, or from Brentwood to Palo Alto or Las Vegas. And now, if they’re feeling particularly harried or distracted, S-Class owners have help. We’re not talking about a hired driver.
Enter the freeway or pull onto a swaying two-lane, engage the Intelligent Drive systems and set the speed, and off the S-Class goes. It will track curves, adjust speed to maintain appropriate spacing and slow immediately if whatever’s ahead dictates such — all without driver participation, even when lane markings are worn away, as long as the person in the driver’s seat keeps a hand on the wheel or fiddles with the little mouse pads on the wheel spokes. The S-Class will switch lanes by itself if the driver tells it to by turning on a blinker. After two seconds, the cameras and radar will start looking, measure and then guide the S-Class into the next lane in an appropriate gap. And in 2018, it will slow up when the speed limit drops, even if you don’t notice, or before it heads into a tight curve.
The S-Class will even try to protect you and the world in the event of a medical emergency. Mercedes calls it Active Emergency Stop Assist, though we might call it Heart-Attack Monitor. If the driving-assist systems are engaged, and the S-Class determines that the driver is no longer actively involved in the process — by that hand on the wheel, ignored warnings or other means — it will switch on its hazard lights and brake to stop in its lane. In the process, it will make a 911 call through its telematics system and unlock its doors so emergency responders have immediate access.
The S-Class is inching toward Level 3 in autonomous operation, and Mercedes-Benz autonomous systems are the best developed and most advanced currently available. It’s up to you whether that’s good or bad.
It’s silly to evaluate the S-Class primarily on its acceleration times, braking distances, or even how well it absorbs the potholes on Chicago freeways. This car has succeeded through a holistic approach to engineering and development — and by convincing the well-heeled that it’s worth their hard-earned cash. It absolutely does its job.
Not sure if the 2018 S-Class is the best car in the world, only because we embrace no monolithic definition of “best,” but it might belong in the conversation. If any sedan can slow the shift to luxury SUVs, this one can.
On Sale: August 2017
Base Price: $99,000-$230,000 (projection)
Drivetrain: 4.0-liter turbocharged V8, nine-speed automatic, rear- or all-wheel drive (S560 and S63 AMG)
Output: 469 hp @ 5,250 rpm, 516 lb-ft from 2,000 (S560); 603 hp @ 5,500, 664 lb-ft from 2,750
Curb Weight: 4,630 lbs (S560, projection); 4,810 (S63, projection)
0-60 MPH: 4.5 sec (S560, manufacturer); 3.4 sec (S63, manufacturer)
Fuel Economy: 21 mpg city, 36 highway (S560, converted from European cycle); 20 mpg city, 32 highway (S63, converted from European cycle)(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Good at most everything, bad at nothing; a reasonably gentle learning curve on all the tech gizmos
Cons: The “Mercedes Tax,” vs. prices for other big, powerful luxury sedans from Germany, Japan, Korea or the United States
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