2011 Mercedes-Benz S Class Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
June 13, 2011

From earth-friendly to exclusive and exotically fast, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class does it all in superb comfort.

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.

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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. 

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2011 Mercedes-Benz S Class

Styling

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is conservative yet fashionable, with smooth, nicely sculpted exteriors and rich, inviting interiors.

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a luxury standard for upper-crust families and businesspeople, and it carefully maintains that image with a look that's conservative, yet expressive.

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. The exterior of the current S-Class is laid out with emphatic curves and precisely drawn lines—yet that's a serious departure from the bank-vault look of the earlier models. There's quite a bit of feminine sculpting and gentle arcs, along with a wrap-around, double-decked treatment in back, and alongside the wheel wells are flared out noticeably.

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. Round fog lamps and It's not entirely cohesive, but the S-Class' sheetmetal conveys great road presence, especially from the rear quarters, where the perfectly blistered fenders intersect with a rising bumper line.

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. It's capped by a large LCD screen for secondary controls and adorned by a minimum of buttons and switches; gauges are lit in bright white. The shift control sits on the steering column, which frees the dash from the clutter that afflicts some competitive cars. Crawl around the interior or just take a glance inside, and it's not surprising that furniture designers were brought in to help style the interior. 

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2011 Mercedes-Benz S Class

Performance

From mindful and green to pavement-scorching, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class lineup runs the gamut of affluent image machines when it comes to performance.

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. But for those looking for something not only better-performing, but more exclusive, there's the (circa $150k) rear-drive S600, its 510-hp twin-turbo V-12, its 0-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds, and its peaceful whir during any sort of ordinary commuting. The V-12's automatic has manual-shift programming and the engine is so torquey that it hardly needs to be worried with shifting, but its transmission has only five gears instead of seven.

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. We would advise, though that the electric power steering in the S550 feels somewhat lifeless compared to the hydraulic-boost system that other versions get. In any case, there's plenty of feedback when you're rounding tight corners at speed, but little 'feel' of the road; the steering's weighting is just a little too artificial.

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. The S63 uses the same seven-speed automatic as the S550, while the S65 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. These AMG cars are more different than ever at high speed and on a twisty road because AMG has reworked the electronics for the Active Body Control and employed a torque-vectoring system for quicker turn-in and a more confident corner exit.

The Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid, which was new last year, provides the slowest performance of any model in the S-Class lineup, but its fuel economy figures, of up to 25 mpg highway, are 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 to provide relatively brisk acceleration (about 7.2 seconds to 60). It's a mild hybrid system, but the S400 Hybrid can run on electric power only at low speeds and shuts of the engine sometimes at stoplights. 

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2011 Mercedes-Benz S Class

Comfort & Quality

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a luxury car in every respect, with a very spacious, well-designed cabin and rich appointments—no matter which variant you choose.

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.

The standard front seats are 16-way power-adjustable, leather-trimmed, and suitably wide and firm. There's heating and cooling on offer for front and rear occupants, but our preferred option is the optional multicontour seats, which employ air bladders that inflate or deflate either to help keep you in place on mountain roads or to help invigorate on longer trips. 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. The backseats are sculpted comfortably, too, and interior upholstery and trims are top-notch; we especially like the AMG models' sueded fabric.

You'll rarely find space at a premium within the cabin of the S-Class. There's plenty of storage space for smaller items—including a glovebox and console large enough for small handbags and even the larger electronic gadgets. The fold-down armrest in back has its own hidden stowaway space and a pass-through to the 16-cubic-foot trunk that's well-shaped for suitcases of golf bags.

Ride quality is nothing to fret about either, even if you choose one of the top-performance AMG variants. 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.

Over repeat drives of various S-Class trims, varying from the Hybrid to AMG, we've found these big luxury sedans to be about as tightly assembled and vaultlike as their predecessors, with a detailed, delicate look up close. While the S-Class's cabin is outdone at the base level by top efforts from Audi and BMW, step up to any of the uplevel trims and you get some of the richest textures and finishes you'll see in a German car: case in point, the lush wood trim applied to the dash, doors, and consoles. 

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2011 Mercedes-Benz S Class

Safety

A longstanding reputation for occupant protection, combines with some of the latest accident-avoidance developments, allow us to point to the 2011 S-Class as one of the safest sedans—even if crash-test scores aren't available.

Crash-test ratings aren't available from either of the major U.S. testing organizations (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety), yet we can say with relative certainty that the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is one of the safest passenger cars on the road.

For years, the S-Class has been among the vehicles with the lowest rates of accident fatalities, and it enjoys a long-standing (and global) reputation as one of the safest vehicles. That reputation is backed up in the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class models with comprehensive safety features, such as front and rear side airbags; full-length side curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction and stability control; active head restraints; adaptive brake lights; and the PRE-SAFE system, which tightens seatbelts and locks doors when it senses an imminent collision and can now apply full braking force to mitigate injury and damage from accidents.

There are also a host of top-tech accident-avoidance features, including Attention Assist, which detects sleepy drivers and asks them to pull over for a rest via a coffee-cup icon; Nightview Assist PLUS, which uses infrared sensors to highlight unseen objects ahead on dark roads; Lane Keeping Assist, which alerts drivers wandering out of their driving lane and nudges them gently back on track; blind-spot alerts; adaptive cruise control; and automatic high beams.

Even though the exterior of the current S-Class is a step curvier than before, we've found visibility to be excellent. Front and rear parking sensors, as well as an available rearview camera further improve parking safety. 

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2011 Mercedes-Benz S Class

Features

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class has plenty of features that coddle and entertain—as well as some that improve the driving experience without adding fuss.

Mercedes-Benz has with some past models been known to place certain tech developments into vehicles just because they can. But that's not the case here in the 2011 S-Class; this flagship sedan shows the fruits of some very smart, no-nonsense decision-making. And despite being about five years along, the S-Class's interior tech was leading edge when it was introduced so it still feels fresh and ahead of much of the high-end sedan crowd.

The main gauge cluster in the S-Class is a pretty sophisticated feature in itself; it's separated into three panes, with the outer panes holding real gauges. At center is a high-res screen that can be configured to display an 'analog' speedometer, trip functions, or the available Night View (night-vision) system. Active Body Control is available on the S550 and standard on upper models, and it improves both performance and comfort. One complaint is that some features—such as those for the multi-contour seats—are only accessible through the COMAND interface. That interface, despite being significantly improved, is still a weak point compared to the latest systems from Audi and Lincoln (as well as the much-improved BMW iDrive).

In addition to tech features, traditional luxury and comfort features are here in full force. 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.

Last year, sound systems on the S-Class were redone to include a better Bluetooth interface, plus Sirius and HD radio, USB and SD ports, improved voice recognition, and Zagat travel information, as well as built-in music storage (4 GB).

Optional on the S400 Hybrid, S550, and S63 AMG are a rear-seat entertainment system; four-zone automatic climate control; and multicontour rear seats. All those features are standard on the S600 and S65 AMG.

Other features offered on various models include a heated steering wheel; a panoramic sunroof; and a power rear sunshade. 

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2011 Mercedes-Benz S Class

Fuel Economy

Most of the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is very thirsty for premium fuel, but the S400 Hybrid is a smart choice for anyone wanting to alleviate some of the guilt.

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is first and foremost a large luxury flagship, prioritizing comfort and technology (as well as performance) above some other more frugal interests, like gas mileage.

That said, compared to other large luxury sedans, the S-Class can be pretty green—if you get the right model, that is. The S400 Hybrid, with its V-6 engine and lithium-ion-based hybrid system, doesn't make a lot of compromises yet it returns an EPA-estimated 19 mpg city, 25 highway.

On the other hand, pick any of the other V-8 S-Class models—especially one of the high-performance AMG models—and the ratings are enough to stoke any righteous environmentalist's rage. City ratings range down to a paltry 12 mpg in the city for the S65 AMG, and are at best (among V-8 models) 15 mpg city for the rear-wheel-drive S550.

On the bright side, the S-Class models do score pretty well for smog-forming emissions; despite its low mileage, the S65 earns a 6 out of 10 on the EPA Air Pollution Score. 

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Performance 9
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