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Spanning a wide gulf at the top of the Mercedes sedan range, the S-Class appeals to captains of industry, celebrities, and the merely affluent. It's just short of the doily crowd's Maybach 57 and 62—more than $200k in top AMG S65 tune, and about $90k in its most affordable S400 Hybrid guise.
Whether from the inside or the outside, the S-Class has changed little in appearance since the current generation made its U.S. debut, for 2007. But to most people, that's fine; the S has never been particularly edgy from a design standpoint. Last year, the S-Class got a reshaped grille, smoother front bumpers, new rear bumpers, and LED turn signals within the headlamps; meanwhile, AMG versions gained a new grille, deep air dams, and new wheel designs up to 20 inch. Inside the S-Class, Mercedes-Benz has gone with a simplified, living-room aesthetic; the overall look and feel is relaxed, with a wide, ornately grained wave of wood bridging the cabin.
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is again offered in five models, each with distinctly different powertrains. Two offer V-8 engines, two have V-12s, and one melds V-6 and electric power. The mainstream model of the lineup is S550, powered by a 382-horsepower, 5.5-liter V-8. It comes with a seven-speed automatic and either rear- or all-wheel drive, and can spool up to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds. V-12 models move even quicker and with an almost effortless quiet whir, while the entry Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid, which was new last year, provides the slowest performance of any model in the S-Class lineup, yet comes with fuel economy figures of up to 25 mpg highway—a much better fit for the socially conscious. The Hybrid pairs a lithium-ion battery pack with 20-hp-equivalent electric motors, a 275-hp V-6 gas engine, and a seven-speed automatic.
Either of these S-Class models handle quite well—and probably considerably better than you might think; and that's at least in part due to a host of electronics. The standard air suspension gets adaptive damping in the S600, which tailors ride quality to suit rough roads or fast-change switchbacks. Even without it, the S-Class has a very absorbent, well-settled ride that manages to soak up small potholes with little jarring inside the cabin, while remaining remarkably quiet.
For those craving a near exotic-car level of performance (and exclusivity), but with practicality that's on par with other S-Class models, there are two blistering AMG models. The S63 AMG installs the in-house tuner's 6.2-liter V-8 worth 518 hp, and a 0-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds, while the S65 AMG, topping $200k, throttles the turbo V-12 for a stupendous 604 hp, twists out a 4.3-second time from 0-60 mph, and hurtles on to a limited top end of 186 mph.
Regardless of which powertrain you choose in the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, you essentially get the same interior packaging. And that means you get superbly accommodating front seats, a spacious, well-designed cabin, and easy access and entry for those in back, too. All S-Class variants here in the U.S. are long-wheelbase versions—meaning that even with the front seats back all the way, there's still enough back-seat space, and doors open wide for easy access; it's truly limo-like. Whether you get the active suspension system or the base air suspension, the S-Class will soak up even the roughest washboard surfaces or potholed city streets without ever feeling floaty.
Interior tech is among the best in any vehicle, with a number of features aiding, not distracting the driving experience. Active Body Control aids ride and performance, while items like multicontour seats help hold you in place and in comfort. One of the few exceptions is COMAND, an interface that's still a bit involved and distracting—and less intuitive than the systems from most other luxury automakers.
In addition to tech features, traditional luxury and comfort features are here in full force—including a heated steering wheel; a panoramic sunroof; and a power rear sunshade. Even the S550 has a wood and leather steering wheel; active ventilated and heated front seats; new wheels; ambient lighting and a power trunk lid. A sunroof is standard, along with a power tilt/telescope steering wheel; 14-way power heated front seats; and leather upholstery. The S400 Hybrid shares all this gear, minus the automatic high beams and front-seat ventilation.