As Mercedes pivots from one generation of S-Class to the next, it's paring most of the sedan's drivetrains from the lineup, at least for the time being.
None of the niche offerings in the S-Class family carry over into 2014, at least at launch--not the V-12s, not the turbodiesel six, and not the hybrid. The sole engine and transmission combination is the twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V-8 engine that was new last year, teamed to a seven-speed automatic with paddle shift controls and a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive. The AMG model arrives in the U.S. this November.
Power rises in the V-8 in the new S550 application; it's up from 429 horsepower to 455 hp, enabling the car to hit 60 mph in about 4.8 seconds or less, to a top speed of 155 mph. In the last-generation sedan, we found this powertrain to be a real-world joy, with plenty of power on reserve, and just a little turbo whistle to augment its surge of acceleration. If you'd like your S-Class to approach Olympian levels of power, there's the S63 AMG, rated at 577 horsepower and a monstrous 664 pound-feet of torque. Despite the punch of the extra power, the S63 AMG gives up little in the way of comfort or refinement--and it even manages to look rather restrained, though a sharp eye will pick it out from the non-AMG crowd.
The S-Class doesn't add any weight in its latest generation, thanks to body panels stamped from aluminum, so in the new S-Class, it's almost identical--save for a near-total lack of sound at cruising speeds.
The seven-speed automatic shifts imperceptibly, and paddle controls don't mix messages of sport and luxury, no matter what other brands would have you think. Gas mileage is a slight improvement over last year's car, which was rated at either 15/25 mpg with rear-wheel drive, or 24 mpg highway with the added traction of all-wheel drive. This year's car manages 17/25 mpg.
Those other powertrains will come along soon, by the way. The S63 AMG reaches the market in November, and a plug-in hybrid version recently made its debut at September's Frankfurt Auto Show; we'd expect the diesel to return shortly, too, along with the V-12s perhaps in a longer-wheelbase body.
The real focus of the new S-Class comes in composure, in honing its steering and handling to an even higher level of comfort. The components are familiar--there's an independent setup front and rear, with AIRMATIC air springs and adaptive dampers on the base versions, and the S550 steers via electric motors. The dampers can be toggled from comfort to sport, as can the steering and throttle inputs. An optional Magic Body Control system scans the road with cameras and pre-emptively adjusts to make bumps even less noticeable, without seriously impacting handling or performance. Magic Body Control isn't available on S63 AMG models, but with AMG tuning, the car is supple yet firm, never hinting that it's somehow less able than its more ordinary alternatives.
Even in Sport, steering the S-Class isn't as rewarding as any smaller Mercedes sedan; it's light to the touch, and almost without feedback--a reality that's true of the AMG version as well. It's telling that the active-parking, lane-keeping, and following functions of the adaptive cruise control are probably going to be some of the more sought-after upgrades that come with this generation.
The hardware that truly impresses is a stereo camera that reads the road surface about a hundred feet ahead of the S-Class. With the data it provides--in daylight or in darkness, lit up by LED headlights--the S-Class' adaptive dampers can "predict" the road surface ahead, delivering an active suspension response that irons out the road ahead to an eerie smoothness. When the cameras sense a big bump in the road, they allow full travel, only to stiffen again when the obstacle's absorbed. It's capable of doing so at speeds of up to about 80 mph, so long as the car is in comfort, not sport, mode.