The Car Connection Mercedes-Benz S Class Overview
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is an ultra-luxury sedan, coupe, or convertible that's the figurative flagship for the automaker.
Along with its traditional four-door sedan body style, the S-Class has absorbed the former CL-Class coupes, and offers convertibles called Cabriolets, as well as the revived, range-topping Maybachs.
With the S-Class, Mercedes-Benz not only has a rival for traditional foes such as the BMW 7-Series and Audi A8, but also for the Bentley Flying Spur and Continental, and even Rolls-Royce sedans, coupes, and convertibles.
MORE: Read our 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class review
The new S-Class
Mercedes redesigns the S-Class sedan for 2021, while the coupe and Cabriolet continue with last-generation designs. The new sedan, internally designated W223, gets updated styling on a new platform, a pair of mild-hybrid powertrains, a new interior layout that splits up the dashboard screens, and upgrades to its cutting-edge driver-assistance technology.
The design changes are subtle, with more muted lines and creases down the body. The profile is much the same, while the grille and headlights take on slightly altered shapes. The interior features greater change. The center touchscreen now takes on a portrait-style layout and grows to 12.8 inches. It runs the latest version of the brand's MBUX infotainment system, while the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster gains a 3D view. Augmented reality views are available for both. The turbine-style air vents we liked so much are now rectangular as part of a move from wavelike forms to more angular, squared-off lines.
Mercedes launches the S-Class with just two models called S500 4Matic and S580 4Matic. The Maybach and AMG models take the year off. The S500 has a 429-hp turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6, while the S580 features a 496-hp twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8. Both are aided by a 48-volt mild-hybrid system that adds up to 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, both are mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission, and both come standard with all-wheel drive.
The new S-Class is 1.4 inches longer, 0.4 inch taller, and rides a 2.0-inch longer wheelbase. The chassis has a wider track, and comes with rear-axle steering that cuts the turning radius by up to 7.0 feet thanks rear wheels that turn up to 10 degrees opposite of the fronts. Also standard is an air suspension that can raise the car by 1.2 inches or lower it by 0.7 inch.
The larger dimensions give a big car even more room. It has 0.6 inch more front headroom, an inch more rear seat leg room, and a trunk that tops out at 19.0 cubic feet.
Like past models, the S-Class comes loaded with features. Leather upholstery with power-adjustable heated, cooled, and massaging front seats are standard. So are wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, wireless smartphone charging, soft-close doors, a Burmester sound system, a panoramic sunroof, and 19-inch alloy wheels. Notable options include a heated steering wheel, heated armrests, a head-up display, nappa leather, 20-inch wheels, and an Executive Line package with adjustable rear seats, a rear-seat tablet, two 11.6-inch screens, and rear wireless smartphone charging.
The S-Class sedan is replete with driver-assistance features, too. It comes with automatic emergency braking, active lane control, adaptive cruise control, active braking to prevent turning into oncoming traffic, active blind-spot monitors, automatic parking. A rear front airbag is also offered, and so is a system that can take control on the highway as long as the driver keeps their hands on the steering wheel.
Expect the coupe and Cabriolet to be updated in the next year or so, and new AMG Maybach models to join the lineup as well.
Though the S-Class can trace its roots to some of the same W-sedan models of the 1950s and 1960s as the E-Class, its true history begins with the 1972 debut of the classically styled W116, the first car to be called an S-Class. Available with a range of 6- and 8-cylinder engines, the first S-Class was one of the first cars to offer airbags, anti-lock brakes, a passenger safety cell, and a turbodiesel engine. The second-generation S-Class, the W126, took over from the W116 in 1980, featuring a completely redesigned, more modern, aerodynamic exterior and an updated chassis. Aluminum-block engines lightened the car, and coupe models were introduced to the range at the middle of the car's cycle. In 1991, the W140 once again led the Mercedes design theme update, bringing an even fresher face and more aerodynamic shape. Some of the extensive features available include double-pane glass, self-closing trunk and doors, and rear-parking markers.
The W220's debut in 1999 marked a change in direction for the S-Class, shrinking in overall exterior size while offering more interior space than the W140. Unfortunately, despite—or perhaps because of—extensive safety, technology, and performance options, the W220 S-Class suffered from a poor reputation for reliability. Nonetheless, it marked the introduction of some of Mercedes-Benz's most innovative safety technology, including the debut of the PreSafe system, a collision avoidance and response system.
The W220 led directly to the W221, introduced in 2005, the fifth S-Class generation. New technology advances included night-vision cameras, the most advanced iteration of Mercedes collision avoidance systems, and, as of 2010, daytime LED running lights. A facelift included LED tail lights and restyled front and rear fascias. Reliability and quality were not been an issue with the W221 the way it was with the W220, with the S-Class winning numerous comparison tests against its competition from BMW and Audi. This generation of S-Class also spawned the Maybach cars, a revived lineup of ultra-luxury sedans that were sold in very limited numbers in the U.S. through the 2012 model year.
Six variants of the sixth-generation S-Class were available, including the S350 turbodiesel and the S400 Hybrid, both with six-cylinder engines; the S550 and the S63 AMG, both twin-turbo V-8s; and the S600 and S65 AMG, both turbocharged V-12s. The S350 BlueTEC made 240 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque, and offered standard all-wheel drive. The S400 Hybrid was the first production lithium-ion hybrid to go on sale in the world, further entrenching the S-Class's reputation for advanced technology. Its 3.5-liter V-6 engine and electric motor combined for a total output of 295 hp. A 7-speed automatic sent the power to the rear wheels.
The S550 sedan was available with all-wheel drive, and featured a 429-hp, 4.6-liter V-8 engine paired with a 7-speed automatic transmission. The S63 had a 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 with 536 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque, with thrilling acceleration and all kinds of adaptive electronics for ride and steering. At the top of the range in price and prestige was the S600, powered by a 510-hp, 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged V-12 engine that routed its power through a five-speed automatic transmission, and the S65 AMG, which got its power from a 625-hp, 6.0-liter twin-turbo V-12 engine that churned out a massive 738 lb-ft of torque via a 5-speed automatic. All of that power enabled the big sedan to rocket to 60 mph in just 4.2 seconds.
The last-generation S-Class, called the W222, made its debut in the 2014 model year, with two-door coupes joining the lineup in 2015, along with AMG performance models, while a Mercedes-Maybach S600 sedan was added for the 2016 model year. For 2017, Mercedes added the Maybach S550 and S650 Cabriolet.
The W222 cycled through powertrains, with new engines arriving with the 2018 update. A new base mode for 2018l, called S450, featured a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6. A new twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 was added under the hood of S560 models. It put out 469 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque and wass mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission. A more powerful version of that engine powered the AMG S63 model, where it made 603 hp and 664 lb-ft of torque. Its 9-speed automatic used a wet starter clutch instead of a torque converter; Mercedes says it saved weight and responded more quickly to throttle inputs. All-wheel drive was standard on the S63, which could run up to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
Both 4.0-liters shut down four cylinders to save fuel under light load conditions. The S450 and S560 were available with rear- and all-wheel-drive, called 4Matic, while the S63 got 4Matic+ that could vary torque continuously and completely front to rear.
Also offered were the Mercedes-Maybach S650 and Mercedes-AMG S65, both of which featured a 6.0-liter V-12 making 621-hp and 738 lb-ft of torque. The V-12 was paired with a 7-speed automatic. Despite the added power, the S65 AMG was slightly slower to 60 mph than the S63 AMG, due to its rear-drive-only arrangement.
The S560 replaced the S550, which had a 449-hp twin-turbo 4.7-liter V-8. It was mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission, then received the 9-speed for 2017. The S63 was formerly powered by a twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V-8 churning out 577 hp and 664 lb-ft of torque. Zero to 60 mph took 3.9 seconds.
An S-Class hybrid sedan, dubbed the S550e Plug-In Hybrid, arrived for the 2016 model year and was suspended for 2018. This model featured a twin-turbocharged V-6 paired with an in-transmission electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack. Electric-only range was about 12 miles, and it achieved an EPA combined fuel economy rating of 26 mpg or a 58 MPGe rating. The S550e employed some clever tricks to get maximum economy, including the use of GPS to determine when a particular driving mode was the most efficient choice.
The standard air suspension with adaptive dampers carried over but the available Magic Ride Control system got a new feature for 2018. This system used steel springs with active hydraulics and a new Curve feature tilted the car inward 2.65 degrees in turns to counteract g forces.
Each model in this sixth-generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class came packed with technology aimed at not only entertaining and coddling, but protecting the vehicle’s occupants.
The S-Class's Level 2 self-driving capabilities were updated for 2018 with improved cameras and radar sensors and increased use of map and GPS data. The map data allowed the car to slow for twists and turns, as well as junctions. It's still in use in the new model.
Inside, the 2018 S-Class added the Energizing Comfort system that uses the climate control, fragrance diffusion system, ambient lighting, music, seat heaters/coolers, and seat massagers to create 10-minute programs aimed at helping the driver relax. They had names like Joy and Well-being and the programs range from warm and calming to upbeat and cool. For those who really wanted to reward themselves, Mercedes offers the Executive Rear Seat Package Plus option package, which added reclining rear seats with fold-out footrests, a central console with laptop trays, a hot-stone massage function, and heated armrests.
Mercedes relaunched the Maybach brand on the S-Class under the Mercedes-Maybach sub-brand, with its first endeavor being an extra-luxurious version of the S600. This V-12 mega-sedan and the S550 Maybach added for 2017 were stretched compared to the long-wheelbase S-Classes we normally get, with the back-seat passengers benefiting from the extra room.
Finishes and appointments of all Maybachs were a step above those found in standard S-Classes, and the Maybach badge appeared in several places inside and out, while the exterior remained very close to the S-Class sedan's look. An even longer version of the Maybach, dubbed Pullman, was also offered for a true, personal limo experience.
Further changes for 2017 included a new Magic Sky Control sunroof option and the mbrace2 Connect package as standard equipment. The Magic Sky Control panoramic sunroof could be adjusted for opacity front and rear. The mbrace 2 Connect package came with five years of service and includes a mobile app, non-streaming apps, web services, a roadside connection, and diagnostics data.
The S-Class received an update for the 2018 model year and momentarily reverted to a sedan-only lineup, though the Maybachs were still available. The updated coupe and Cabriolet were introduced at the Frankfurt auto show in September 2017. For 2019, Mercedes announced a plug-in hybrid 560e, but it was not available for 2020, when the non-Maybach V-12 AMG S65 was dropped as well.