With the advent of products like the Genesis G90, the Tesla Model S and, later this year, the Lucid Air, the full-size premium luxury segment has been getting extremely crowded. Yet, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has long served not only as the German brand’s flagship but the benchmark by which all competitors, new or traditional, are judged.
As it turns out, the 2021 S-Class punches all the traditional buttons, with a striking design and all the expected luxury touches, from wood and metal accents to the massaging, heated and cooled seats. But, in keeping with the direction of the last several S-Class generations, it’s with the vast array of technology onboard that Mercedes really aims to remain the industry benchmark.
To get a feel for what the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S 580 has to offer I flew into Newark Airport last week where one of the new Teutonic sedans was parked and waiting. I spent the next two days wandering up the coast to the exclusive resort town of Westerly, Rhode Island and back, a route that mixed scenic back roads, high-speed Interstates and the congested knot leading up to and away from New York City’s George Washington Bridge.
The 2021 S-Class punches all the traditional buttons, with a striking design and all the expected luxury touches, from open pore wood and metal accents to the massaging, heated and cooled seats. But, in keeping with the direction of the last several S-Class generations, it’s with the vast array of technology onboard that Mercedes really aims to remain the industry benchmark.
Just arriving in U.S. showrooms, the seventh-generation S-Class — known inside Mercedes as the W223 model — is a showcase of high-tech features, from the studio quality Burmester “4D” surround sound system to the augmented reality head-up display. It debuts an updated version of the MBUX voice assistant and an assortment of new driver assistance and smart safety systems.
Even the sedan’s powertrain goes high-tech with the addition of new EQ Boost mild hybrid technology. Using an integrated starter-generator, or ISG, it can punch out an additional 184 pound-feet of torque, as well as 21 more horsepower, for short bursts — while also helping improve the sedan’s fuel economy under less aggressive driving conditions.
From first glance, you will recognize this seventh-generation S-Class. It retains the more coupe-like silhouette of the outgoing model, along with the classic, long hood that signals the power barely hiding beneath. The grille appears slightly more imposing, and there are different takes on the lower portion of the front fascia, depending upon your chosen model and powertrain. The 2021 S-Class is offered in a conventional Benz package, as an AMG or, in stretched form, as a Mercedes-Maybach model largely targeting those who will be chauffeured.
The “base” model lengths was stretched 1.3 inches to 208.2 inches, with width adding 2.1 inches, and height increased by 0.4 inch
The overall shape clearly shows the influence of aerodynamics meant to enhance fuel efficiency. That shows up in numerous ways, including the now seamless door handles which automatically extend when the driver approaches the vehicle. From the side, the S-Class gets a smoother surface, with more subtle character lines.
The new model features thinner and more high-tech headlamps. Unfortunately, the U.S. still does not allow the active headlight technology increasingly common in Europe which uses an array of LEDs to automatically dim light to avoid blinding other motorists. That could be approved before the end of the new model’s lifecycle, however. For the first time in three generations, meanwhile, the 2021 S-Class adopts horizontal taillights.
Lighting has become as much a luxury queue as leather and wood, and the interior of the new S-Class makes elegant use of ambient lighting. The new system is brighter than on the outgoing Benz, and smarter, automatically adjusting levels depending on whether its day or night. And the optional system now reinforces vehicle alerts. A driver doesn’t have to plow into the infotainment system’s menus to adjust ambient lighting, either, as it can be controlled by the updated MBUX voice assistant.
The cabin of the new S-Class has undergone extensive updates, starting with updated seating and the use of more recyclable materials. Front seat occupants will immediately notice the all-new and more sculptured instrument panel. There’s a more minimalist feel to it, with fewer traditional controls. Most operations now can be handled either by touch control on the steering wheel, using the massive touchscreen atop the center console or by simply talking to the MBUX voice assistant, which, Mercedes notes, gets a 50% boost in processing power.
As with the prior generation S-Class, a digital display replaces traditional analog gauges, but the new sedan takes things a step further. The digital cluster appears to float behind the steering wheel thanks to a 3D effect (which can be disabled if, for some reason, you so prefer).
The cabin is as roomy as ever and as handsome as anything in its class. It strikes a perfect balance between traditional luxury and the tech-savvy layout that is becoming ever more the norm in an age of electric drive and digital displays. The OLED touchscreen is the largest Mercedes has yet offered, with the ability to display numerous bits of data simultaneously. That reduces the need to go searching when, say, you want to adjust the heated, cooled and massaging seats.
There was just one design flaw: the new climate control system puts four well-designed vents atop the instrument panel, directly above the infotainment display. I found that its chrome surround frequently reflected off the windshield when the sun was out, something that could be mildly distracting.
On the powertrain front, the new S-Class will be offered with a pair of initial options — and more to follow, including a plug-in hybrid and the next-generation S 63 from the AMG side of the house.
At launch, there are two packages to choose from. That starts with an electrified inline-6 in the S 500 4Matic, for example, turns out 429 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque. Power comes on faster than before, thanks to the EQ Boost system which, as earlier mentioned, can briefly deliver an additional 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque.
Both models will be offered in the U.S. solely in 4Matic all-wheel-drive configuration.
For my two-day journey, I had the chance to drive the S 580, with its twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8. As with the S 500, it uses the mild hybrid 48-volt technology, which delivers an identical boost on demand. The biturbo engine is a remarkable piece of engineering and, on its own, delivers plenty of power for quick launches and easy, high-speed passes. The EQ Boost system adds the sort of neck-snapping launch feel that you’d expect from a vehicle substantially smaller and lighter.
If you’re looking for a greener option, you might consider hanging tight until the next-generation Mercedes-Benz S 580e rolls into showrooms. It will pair a modified version of the S 500’s 3.0-liter I-6 making 362 hp with an electric motor. Forget the days when going green meant sacrificing performance. Combined output will come in at 500 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, or roughly the same as the S 580. Yet the plug-in model will also deliver an estimated 60 miles in all-electric mode, drawing from a 28 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. That’s about double the range of the outgoing S 560e.
At the other extreme, expect to see an AMG edition which, Mercedes has hinted, will push upwards from 600 hp, some reports suggesting we could see an 800 hp monster.
Safety and Technology
I’ve written entire stories about all the technology on board the new S-Class, from its ambient lighting to the 1,750-watt, 30-speaker Burmester 4D auto package, as well as the latest advanced driver assistance systems.
Motorists will most directly interact with the sedan’s various digital displays. The 3D gauge cluster uses two cameras mounted into the instrument panel that constantly track where a driver is looking — even when wearing sunglasses. If switched on, it will present ever-so-slightly different images to each of your eyes.
The latest-generation system allows data and images to be moved, in many instances, from one screen to another. A zoomed in map can pop up in the center of the gauge cluster, for example, and even on the head-up display. The HUD is, without question, the most sophisticated on the road today with an Augmented Reality, or AR, function that can only be described as uncanny.
It will project the usual mix of data, such as vehicle speed, directly into a driver’s line of sight, as if floating 32 feet off in the distance. But it really comes to life when you have a destination plugged into the navi system. Approach a turn, say, or a fork in the road, and animated blue arrows will pop up on the screen, seemingly pointing directly to where you’ll make the turn.
The instrument screen can be switched to provide a full-screen navigation display or a driver assistance display that renders data from five radar units, five video cameras, and 12 ultrasonic sensors into a real-time overhead view of the car’s place on the road and the movements of surrounding traffic. These last two are particularly vivid in 3-D mode.
The new S-Class relies on a variety of “eyes and ears” to see what’s happening all around the vehicle — five external radar sensors, five cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors. The data they provide is “fused” to operate a long list of ADAS technologies, like forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and blind-spot monitoring. It also takes active cruise control to new heights, at least for Mercedes.
Switch the system on and it will smoothly merge you into traffic, maintaining your position in your lane while also adjusting the vehicle’s speed to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle ahead. It’s not as sophisticated as Cadillac’s Super Cruise, however. And though it now allows you to tap the turn signal to change lanes you still must maintain at least a light grip on the steering wheel at all times.
The new S-Class can handle smartphone-style over-the-air updates for 50 different electronic modules. Mercedes will use that not only to address potential software glitches but also to download new features in the future. It is developing a parking system, for example, that would permit a driver to exit the vehicle at the entrance to a parking structure and have the S-Class drive off and find a parking spot on its own. Later, you’ll be able to summon the car by using a smartphone app.
While the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S 580 might not fall into the “groundbreaking” category, it is, nonetheless, a substantial step beyond what was offered before.
The sedan has the smooth, quiet ride one would expect of it while cruising down the highway. But slam the throttle, whether at a light or when executing a high-speed pass and you’ll get muscle car performance as the EQ Boost kicks in.
Give some of the credit to the latest version of the E-Active Body Control. The standard air suspension, meanwhile, makes all but the worst ruts and potholes seem to vanish and minimizes body roll in sharp turns. The S-Class also proved to be much more nimble than I’d have expected. Give some of the credit to the rear axle steering system. At low speeds, the rear wheels turn opposite those up front to increase maneuverability. They turn in the same direction above 36 mph to enhance handling.
Driving through backwoods New England, I found myself able to weave and bob along winding country roads in a way I wouldn’t have expected of such a big, heavy beast.
The system can turn the back wheels up to 10 degrees — reducing the turning circle of the long-wheelbase Maybach edition to less than 36 feet. The system turns up to 4 degrees on the AMG edition, reduced by the performance model’s wider tires.
During two days of driving I had plenty of time to test out the new digital assistance technology. For the most part, the augmented reality system really helped out, allowing me to see precisely where roads forks and exits came up. The active steer and cruise systems likewise reduced stress on long highway stretches.
But, when dealing with bumper-to-bumper traffic and the sort of constant lane changes required around Newark Airport and the George Washington Bridge, the AR system occasionally seemed to have trouble flagging a turn quickly enough. And the active driving system wanted to maintain more distance than other drivers liked, so they frequently cut in front of me.
If Mercedes set out to maintain its position as the benchmark of the premium full-size sedan market — and it did — the new S-Class fully delivers. Save for an odd, unexpected reflection, it’s difficult to find anything to complain about. But there’s plenty to love — if you have the cash, off course.
The S 500 starts at $109,800, up nearly $16,000 from the 2020 model. The S 580 begins at $116,300, up $8,905 over the S 560 4Matic. That’s before factoring in delivery fees and taxes — but potential buyers should also consider that there’s substantially more content, the seventh-generation S 580 making virtually everything you could imagine standard.
How well the new S-Class will fare in the market is uncertain. Sales in the premium segment have dipped in recent years, many buyers shifting to SUVs. There, of course, Mercedes will be glad to sell you the big GLS. And for those who’ve gone electric, with products like the Tesla S-Class, the automaker will have another critical launch later this year when the battery-powered EQS model lands in U.S. showrooms.
But for those who want a classic luxury sedan that pretty much does it all, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S 580 is hard to beat.