The S-Class is the standard-bearer for Mercedes-Benz, but the new model launches into a fiercely competitive class. Is it once again a leader?

Ever since the W116 S-Class debuted back in 1972, Mercedes-Benz’s flagship sedan has set the bar for luxury limos, with other manufacturers subsequently playing a hurried game of catch-up to try and reach the Merc’s lofty standards. The S-Class has traditionally been the design and engineering frontrunner, with “Sonderklasse” (Special Class) firsts over the years, including crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, adaptive cruise control and Pre-Safe collision mitigation. Game-changing stuff, in other words.

Mercedes-Benz S500l 4MATIC 9G-Tronic

In recent years, it’s evolved into a more level playing field as fellow Teutonic brands Audi and BMW have become innovators in their own right, with the A8 and 7 Series often debuting pioneering technology ahead of the S-Class. Even so, the world sits up and takes note whenever a new S-Class is unveiled, and so it is with the latest W223-generation.

The W223’s South African launch is imminent, and we got a taste of what’s to come by sampling an S500 4Matic. Our test car was an extravagantly optioned unit that blew out the base price by almost 40%, so be warned that the spend escalates rapidly once you start ticking lots of option boxes.

Mercedes-Benz S500l 4MATIC 9G-Tronic
New vent design

In the past, ordering an S500 meant you’d get a V8 under the bonnet, but this designation now corresponds to a 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo engine that ekes out 320 kW and 520 Nm. It’s supplemented by an EQ Boost mild-hybrid system that kicks in an additional 16 kW and 250 Nm for short bursts. Drive is relayed to all four wheels – hence the 4Matic suffix – by a nine-speed 9G-Tronic automatic transmission.

Benz claims a 0-100 km/h split of 4.9 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 250 km/h, perfectly respectable numbers on paper. Out in the real world, though, the six-pot turbo motor can’t match the effortless, silky-smooth urge that was provided by the twin-turbo V8 in the former S500. You need to get the revs up to find the best in the new engine, and this entails greater noise levels and harshness than you might expect. Fear not, though, as a range-topping S580 model – powered by a 350 kW/700 Nm twin-turbo V8 – is in the pipeline, and so are various diesels and plugin hybrids.

Mercedes-Benz S500l 4MATIC 9G-Tronic
Tablet in the rear console

Other than the new S500’s lack of a V8, it comprehensively over-delivers in every facet. For starters, its design is an absolute masterpiece, both inside and out. Merc’s stylists are always conscious of preserving visual links to past S-Classes while moving the game on, and they’ve struck a fine balance with the W223. It has a wow factor and gravitas that’s slightly lacking in its A8 and 7 Series rivals, even though these two are highly accomplished cars in their own right.

The cabin has a real sense of occasion, thanks largely to the cutting-edge virtual instrument cluster and huge 12.3-inch OLED centre touchscreen that eliminates the need for buttons and switchgear, as virtually every vehicle function is controlled via it. The S-Class we tested was equipped with a boomtastic Burmester 4D surround-sound system with no less than 30 speakers and eight exciters to crank out crystal-clear music quality. There’s also voice activation that’s triggered by saying the words “Hey, Mercedes”. It can even tell you a joke if you ask it to. For the most part, the voice recognition works flawlessly, although occasionally it fails to comprehend what you’re asking of it.

Mercedes-Benz S500l 4MATIC 9G-Tronic
Central screen controls most functions
Mercedes-Benz S500l 4MATIC 9G-Tronic
Wood trim elegantly integrated into thefront seats

The driver’s seat is a great place to be, but S-Classes have always been about the rear living quarters, and the W223 fully lives up to expectations. Rear passengers have access to two 11.6-inch screens mounted on the front seatbacks as well as a 7.0-inch tablet in the rear centre console which forms part of the optional Business Centre Console package. Rear passengers can now also summon MBUX by using the “Hey, Mercedes” command and each passenger has access to their own individual media options. Benz claims that the interior fulfils the role of a “third place,” a private refuge between home and work. As such, passengers have access to a range of six Energising programme options – entailing functions such as climate control, ambient lighting, music and seat massage – tailored to each passenger’s physical and mental state. Sprawled out in the reclining rear seat, with your head resting on that super-soft headrest, the stresses and strains of daily life seem to melt away.

Mercedes-Benz S500l 4MATIC 9G-Tronic
When the vehicle detects the key fob within the immediate vicinity, the flush door handles pop out

One of the hallmarks of an S-Class is impeccable ride quality and refinement, and the newcomer’s E-Active Body Control, which features air suspension that can individually control each wheel, doesn’t disappoint. The S-Class floats along serenely yet select sport+ mode and it corners with remarkable agility for a limo that stretches almost 5.3 metres in length and weighs over two tonnes.

New for the W223-generation is four-wheel steering, which reduces the turning circle by 1.9 metres – effectively making it as nimble as an A-Class – by steering the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the fronts at low speeds.

The latest S-Class is loaded with too much tech to delve into all of it here, but one of the inevitable firsts are front airbags for the rear passengers, and these are claimed to significantly reduce the loads on their heads and necks in the event of a severe frontal collision. Another interesting feature is the Pre-Safe Impulse Side, which raises the side of the car by 80 mm if sensors detect a side-collision is imminent. This enables the car’s doorsill structure to absorb most of the crash force, which helps keep occupants safe. There are also seat cushions in both front seats that inflate in microseconds to push occupants towards the centre of the car, reducing their vulnerability in T-bone crashes.

Mercedes-Benz S500l 4MATIC 9G-Tronic
The resolution of the Digital Light system is more than 2.6 million pixels

There is so much to take in with the new S-Class that you need to live with it for at least a few days just to begin to absorb the depth of engineering and microscopic attention to detail that’s gone into it. The W223 is a techno powerhouse, as well as a thing of beauty. Job well done, Mercedes-Benz.

Other than the lack of a V8, it over-delivers in every facet.

Mercedes-Benz S500l 4MATIC 9G-Tronic

The S-Class has long been viewed as the standard-bearer in the luxury-car segment, and the new model looks to continue that legacy despite fierce competition from the A8, 7 Series and LS.

Mercedes-Benz S500l 4MATIC 9G-Tronic

At a Glance

Price: R2 428 840
Engine: 3.0 L, 6-cyl, turbopetrol
Transmission: 9-spd AT
Driven wheels: 4
Power: 320 kW @ 5 900 r/min (+16 kW EQ boost)
Torque: 520 Nm @ 1 800-5 500 r/min (+250 Nm EQ Boost) 0-100 km/h: 4,9 sec
Top speed: 250 km/h
Fuel consumption: 8.4 L/100 km
CO 2 : 192 g/km

Surprise & Delight

  • Thirty-one loudspeakers and eight exciters are included in the Burmester high-end 4D surround-sound system. You’ll pay for it: R149 800.
  • At the touch of a button, the new 3D driver display for the first time allows spatial perception of the scene with a real 3D effect thanks to eye-tracking.
  • Using cameras overhead and learning algorithms, MBUX recognises and anticipates the intentions of the occupants.
  • Active ambient lighting with around 250 LEDs is now integrated into the driving-assistance systems and is able to reinforce warnings visually.
  • Ten different massage programmes are available in the new S-Class. Again, it’s optional: R34 300.

At The Cutting Edge

  • Digital Light tech allows completely new functions, e.g. the projection of marking aids or warning symbols onto the road ahead.
  • The upcoming plugin hybrid variant of the S-Class (to be confirmed for South Africa) will have an electric range of up to 100 kilometres.
  • More than 98 kg of components made from resource-conserving materials are used in the new S-Class, twice as much as before.
  • With a Cd figure from just 0.22 (wheel size dependent), the S-Class is one of the world’s most aerodynamic cars despite a larger frontal area.
  • When a looming side impact is detected, the vehicle body raises within a few tenths of a second, displacing the energy to the doorsills.