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2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class will go down in history as peak ICE

Mercedes-Benz develops a new S-Class every seven years. As the flagship of the lineup, every new S-Class sets technology and luxury benchmarks for the brand. Mercedes likes to think it does the same for the whole automotive industry as well. Given the technology the car has spawned and the luxury and comfort targets it has set, it’s hard to argue with them.

The new 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class represents the state of the art for not only Mercedes and the industry, but also the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. It could go down in history as peak ICE as we transition to electric vehicles.

Mercedes is tipping its hand, too, by developing a new electric flagship, the EQS, which is due later this year. This could very well be the last gas-powered S-Class, with a new 2028 EQS carrying the mantle as the brand and perhaps industry flagship. 

Until then, however, luxury buyers will just have to enjoy the most luxurious, most tech-heavy full-size sedan Mercedes has ever created.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

I traveled to the East Coast to drive the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class from Newark Liberty International Airport to Taylor Swift’s house in Rhode Island (OK, maybe not T-Swizzle’s house, but the beautiful hotel next to it) and judge the merits of peak ICE.

Arriving this summer, the 2021 S-Class adds new mild-hybrid powertrains, as well as a fusillade of driver-assistance improvements, not to mention an array of touchscreens and digital displays with the latest infotainment system. Don’t blink, though, because the EQS is getting next-generation infotainment featuring the brand’s new Hyperscreen.

Two S-Class models arrive at launch, both with standard all-wheel drive. The base model is the S500 4Matic with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 that makes 429 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque. Above this is the S580 4Matic, which adopts the brand’s twin-turbo V-8 with 496 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are mild hybrids with starter-generators that add up to 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque at takeoff and during harder acceleration. Both also route their power through a 9-speed automatic transmission. Expect an S63 model next year.

My first drive is in an S580 4Matic with the AMG-Line package. It gets AMG-inspired body trim, brushed stainless steel pedals, AMG floor mats, and 19-inch AMG wheels. This car, however, has optional 21-inch wheels.

The low-profile tires and 21-inch wheels should be challenged by the crumbling freeways of New Jersey and New York, but they aren’t. The car’s standard air suspension works with adaptive dampers to not only fight most road imperfections but erase their family names from history.

Comfort mode makes the car feel like it’s floating, for better and worse. Bumps and ruts barely break through, except for one of New York’s finest potholes that must be vying for sinkhole status. However, the ride also feels floaty, with some undue wobble, front end dip when coming to a stop, and a general feeling that the car is loosely connected to the road.

Sport mode lowers the ground clearance 0.4 inch and firms up the dampers. This adds some road feel, tightens up the light steering, and better controls those body motions. Sport+ is even better, with firmer damping and a ride height lowered by a total of 0.7 inch. Given my choices, I settle for Sport mode for most of my driving, then go into the Individual setting to choose Sport for the dampers, engine, and steering settings. I’m not too concerned about changing the stability control thresholds; I’m not going to treat this $140,000 full-size sedan like the sport sedan it isn’t.

Throughout the drive, the mild-hybrid V-8 rides along as a welcome and protective friend. It doesn’t need to snarl and bark and jolt me back in my seat. When you’re the big dog you can lay on the porch until it’s time for action. The V-8 speaks only when spoken to with deep stabs of my right foot. Then it lets out a subdued growl and passes the transportation appliance ahead like it didn’t belong there in the first place. Should the whim strike me, I could also pin the throttle from a stop and hit 60 mph in 4.4 seconds. But that wouldn’t be elegant.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The drive soon graduates from freeways to roads with curves and bends that can highlight the handling enabled by a revamped chassis with a wider track—by as much as two inches—for better stability. In addition to the air suspension and adaptive dampers, the S-Class is fitted with standard rear-axle steering. It cants the rear wheels in the opposite direction of the fronts by up 10 degrees, which cuts the turning radius by 7 feet to less than 36 feet, about the same as the much smaller A-Class. The AMG-Line’s wider, staggered tires—255/35 front and 285/35 rear—limit the angle to a still-substantial 4.5 degrees.

The highway behavior translates to the handling. Comfort mode has a lot of lean, while Sport and Sport+ modes afford better control, though the S-Class never feels like a sport sedan. Like other Mercedes models, the S-Class has direct steering and it feels quick in this large car. The rear-axle steering helps make the car seem smaller than it is at lower speeds, but it does little for handling as the rear wheels begin turning with the fronts at 37 mph for greater highway stability. The mission is clear: supreme comfort, not agility.

Maybe that will change for the 2022 model year with the addition of 48-volt E-Active Body Control. It will use the air suspension and hydraulics to enable individual wheel control for damping in corners and over obstacles. It promises to not only improve the already sublime ride with its ability to read the road ahead and prepare the suspension for what’s coming, but also improve handling by fighting lean. Audi already has this system, so Mercedes is playing catch-up in at least one area.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The car’s comfort mission becomes evident immediately upon entering the exquisitely appointed cabin. The S-Class welcomes passengers inside with forms that have been ironed flat and squared off to build a new environment for the driver and front passenger. Changes for 2021 make a great interior even better. The S-Class arrives stretched a bit in almost all directions. It’s 208.3 inches long (up from 206.9 inches), 59.2 inches tall (up from 58.8 inches), and has a 126.6-inch wheelbase (versus 124.6 inches). That translates into 0.6 inch more front-seat head room, an inch more rear-seat leg room, and a larger trunk that’s up to 19.0 cubic feet. Every seating position is spacious.

Seating ranges from plush to lavish, with multi-contour massaging seats available in four seating positions, plus shiatsu and Swedish and other massage programs, heating, cooling, reclining, and even heated armrests. It’s a car that can do hot yoga or cool-down laps while you drive, all while shutting out the noise of the outside world to create a serene environment.

The $15,150 Executive Line package adds some features for the front seat, but more for the back. Front seat occupants get a heated steering wheel and heated armrests, while rear seat passengers revel in heated armrests, four-zone automatic climate control, heated adjustable seats, wireless smartphone charging, and a rear entertainment system with two 11.6-inch touch screens and a 7.0-inch tablet between the seats. The touchscreens are integrated with the MBUX infotainment system, so rear-seat passengers have access to music, navigation, and other infotainment functions.

It’s the driver, however, that can tap into the most technology. The second-generation MBUX system has 50% more processing power, and it comes with a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and a 12.8-inch portrait-format center touchscreen. The days of two screens under one piece of glass that take up two-thirds of the dashboard are over. Instead, the center screen is set lower for easier access. It’s an OLED screen with the richer colors, better contrast, and lower energy usage of that technology.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

A camera on the windshield projects a view ahead at stops so drivers can see stop lights on the screen instead of craning their necks forward to view them through the windshield. Optionally, MBUX also gets augmented-reality overlays with fishbone-style arrows to call out turns when using navigation. The overlays also appear on the instrument cluster when the navigation view is chosen and on the optional head-up display. A fingerprint reader at the base of the center screen can determine who is driving the car and switch to their profile (settings include seating position, drive modes, ambient lighting colors, and screen preferences.)

The new party trick, however, is left for the digital instrument cluster, which offers a cool 3D view that’s only apparent to the driver. The system uses cameras to track the driver’s eye position and create the effect for that position. The navigation map looks like it’s tilted away from my eyes and the various screen styles—Discreet, Sporty, Exclusive, and Classic—each have elements that stick out in the foreground and others that appear to be layered underneath. It may be a gimmick, but it’s a cool one.

On a purer note of pleasure, the S-Class’ new 4D Burmester surround-sound system can pump jams through 30 speakers with up to 1,750 watts of power. The fourth dimension is pulses sent through two resonators in the backrest of each seat. Speakers can be tuned to the needs of different passengers and profiles; one can whisper navigation commands in the driver’s ear, while another can amplify a deep bass groove for another through the seat cushions. 

All of this adds up to industry-leading comfort and luxury that any car, be it ICE or electric, will be strained to match.

Safety moves forward, too. A set of speedy new processors enables more sophisticated driver-assistance systems. The gamut of S-Class technology bundles adaptive cruise control with speed limiting based on route; stop and go functionality up to 35 mph; active lane control with emergency-stop and lane-change assist; active brake assistance that can prevent turning into oncoming traffic; active blind-spot monitors with brake support and vehicle-exit support; active park assistance; and warnings for approaching stop signs and traffic lights. There’s also an available rear-seat airbag system.

Mercedes says it will begin to implement Level 3 autonomous driving in Germany soon, and that the new S-Class comes with the hardware to enable Level 4 autonomy—but all implementation is subject to local law. In the U.S., where mounting even a minimally effective public-health campaign is next to impossible, Level 4 autonomy is at least one Presidential administration away from becoming reality.

The S-Class arrives this summer with standard navigation, keyless start, LED adaptive headlights, multi-contour front seats, leather upholstery, wireless smartphone charging, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android, an air ionizer with fragrance dispenser, a surround-view camera system with a 3D view for parking, soft-close doors, six USB-C ports, a Burmester surround sound system, a panoramic sunroof, rear-wheel steering, and 19-inch wheels.

Options include a heated steering wheel, heated armrests, nappa leather, 20- and 21-inch wheels, the augmented-reality head-up display, and the AMG-Line and Executive Line packages already discussed.

Priced from $110,850, including destination, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a tour de force of power, technology, and luxury. It shows just how far we’ve come after 130 years of the internal combustion engine, and it will provide a great link to a luxurious electric future.

Mercedes-Benz paid for lodging and travel for Motor Authority to bring you this first-hand report and unlock the possibility that the author could become the subject of a Taylor Swift song.

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