Five distinct models make up the S-Class range; two offer V-8 engines, two have V-12s, and one melds V-6 and electric power.
The mainstream model is the $92,000 S550, powered by a 382-horsepower, 5.5-liter V-8. Coupled to a seven-speed automatic and driven by either the rear or all four wheels, it can spool up to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds while earning an EPA-rated 15/23 mpg. That's abundant, somewhat thirsty power-but it pales in comparison to the rear-drive S600's $150,000 price tag, its 510-hp twin-turbo V-12, its 0-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds, its peaceful whir-and its 11/17 mpg fuel economy. The V-12's five-speed automatic has manual-shift programming, but could use more gears for no other reason than total world domination.
Thanks to a host of electronics, these S-Class sedans handle quite well. 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. One note: The base S550 adopts electric power steering that can feel relatively lifeless compared to the hydraulic-steering systems in other versions.
Two AMG models flip the S-Class' intensity switch to exotic mode. The $134,000 S63 AMG installs the in-house tuner's 6.2-liter V-8 worth 518 hp, a 0-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds, and fuel economy of 11/18 mpg. The $202,000 S65 AMG throttles the turbo V-12 for a stupendous 604 hp, ekes out a 4.3-second time from 0-60 mph, hurtles to a limited top end of 186 mph, and gulps premium gas at the rate of 11/17 mpg. The former uses the same seven-speed automatic as the S550, while the latter gets the five-speed automatic; both adopt AMG's SpeedShift controls, with three shift modes (Comfort, Sport and Manual) for near-total control of power changes. New algorithms for the AMG cars' Active Body Control settles the suspension more firmly in crosswinds, while a torque-vectoring system applies brakes to inside wheels to give the sports sedans better, quicker turn-in. Adaptive braking primes the pedal and pump so that drivers can call on full brake force more quickly, too.
The "eco" light goes on with the $88,000 S400 Hybrid, which is new for 2010. It pairs a lithium-ion battery pack with 20-hp-equivalent electric motors, a 275-hp V-6 gas engine, and a seven-speed automatic to provide relatively brisk acceleration and much better fuel economy than the V-8 S550. With 0-60 mph acceleration of about 7.2 seconds, it's the slowest and most fuel-conscious S-Class, with EPA figures of 19/26 mpg. The only thing missing from the S-Class experience with the Hybrid, aside from some steering feel lost to its electric turn-wheels-box, might be engine noise at parking lot speeds. That's when the Hybrid rolls on battery power alone.
Cars.com: S550's 5.4-second acceleration "is stunning considering the sedan's 4,465-pound curb weight"
Edmunds: "Zero-to-60-mph times range from the low-four-second to low-six-second range-seriously quick by any standard"
Kelley Blue Book: "effortless power"
ConsumerGuide: "downshifts are quick"
Cars.com: automatic "performs in a purposeful, quiet way"
Automobile: 4Matic a "priceless feature for those who live farther out in the sticks"
Cars.com: "pretty easy to maneuver through heavy, fast-moving highway traffic"
Edmunds: "steering is fairly quick and precise"
Car and Driver: cars without ABC have "gulp!-electric-assisted steering...it's nowhere near as smooth and satisfying"
ConsumerGuide: "Sport makes the ride slightly more taut but at little sacrifice in comfort"
Car and Driver: "brakes are super-strong and offer lots of feel"
Edmunds: "most competing luxury sedans are more fun to drive"
Car and Driver: S63 AMG "adds a new level of athleticism to the line"
Kelley Blue Book: Hybrid "isn't the fastest S-Class going"
New York Times: "stop-start function is above average, but not seamless"
Edmunds: Hybrid matches mileage of the Lexus LS 600h "while costing almost $20,000 less"