Even though almost 30 different models comprise today’s Mercedes-Benz portfolio in the U.S., the launch of an all-new S-Class is still a defining moment for Germany’s most successful premium automaker. Mercedes SUVs, particularly the GLE and GLC families, might today be the brand’s volume sellers, but an S-Class is still intended to be nothing less than a statement of engineering excellence and technical expertise that underpins the very credibility of the three-pointed star. The mission statement for the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is thus crystal clear.
The 2021 S-Class, codenamed W223, is built on a new platform known internally as MRA2. Effectively an evolution of the current car’s underpinnings, MRA2 has been reworked to package a new rear-steer axle and a larger battery for plug-in hybrid versions of the car. Compared with the outgoing long-wheelbase W222 S-Class, the distance between the front and rear axles has been increased by 2 inches to 126.6 inches. Overall length has grown 1.3 inches to 208.2 inches, width has gone up by 2.1 inches, and height has increased by 0.4 inch.
Although the S-Class is available elsewhere with a variety of powertrains, the U.S. lineup will initially be restricted to just two, with standard all-wheel drive. The entry-level S-Class will be the S 500 4Matic, powered by the M256 3.0-liter inline-six with the 21-hp, 184-lb-ft EQ Boost mild-hybrid system. It produces 429 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque. The S 580 4Matic will be powered by the M176 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8, upgraded to work with the same EQ Boost mild-hybrid setup as the six-cylinder engine. Outputs are 496 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque.
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The exterior design is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, though in detail every panel is dramatically different from the outgoing car. Up front is a bigger grille and smaller high-tech headlights; at the rear are two-section taillights that echo the vaguely triangular format seen on the A-Class sedan. Pop-out door handles that nestle flush with the door skins complement a clean bodyside that’s anchored by a crisp shoulder line that runs almost the full length of the car. The raking C-pillar flows more seamlessly into the trunk, the inside of which is slightly larger than that of the outgoing model. Standard wheels for the U.S. market are 19 inches, with 20- and 21-inch wheels available as an option. The family resemblance with the existing S-Class is clear, though in person the W223 has a distinctly fresher, more contemporary look.
Inside, it’s a different story. The 2021 S-Class’ interior is a dramatic combination of traditional luxury materials and state-of-the-moment digital technology, anchored by a modernist schema that makes the current BMW 7 Series and Audi A8 cabins look so last century.
In the S-Class, the screen is celebrated, but not with the drab austerity you see in a Tesla. A simple, rectangular digital instrument panel stands proud of a dash that rolls forward to a padded section under the windshield and enhances the sense of spaciousness for the front-seat passengers. The large central touchscreen, an OLED display behind a haptic glass facing, 64 percent bigger than the screen in the previous model, flies over the dash. The silver edging on the curved panel integrates it with the center console, making it look as if it’s taken off from somewhere near your elbow.
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The 2021 S-Class drives… well… like an S-Class. Actually, it damn near drives itself, the lane-keeping and steering assistance systems seamlessly working with the adaptive cruise control to the point where pretty much all you have to do on a freeway is lightly hold the steering wheel unless you want to change lanes. It will park itself: A trial project at one of the parking structures at Stuttgart airport will allow S-Class owners to simply pull into a special valet area, step out the car, lock it, and complete a handover to the building’s embedded digital infrastructure via their smartphones. The car will then start up and motor away, negotiating turns and ramps, before parking in its allocated space.
Those of us who still enjoy the art and science of driving will rejoice in the fact that while the new S-Class is a big, quiet, lavishly equipped luxury limousine, its chassis has the deep capability that is the hallmark of all great Mercedes-Benz sedans. Left to its own devices, it will effortlessly cosset and comfort the average driver, yet when pushed it digs deep to deliver the enthusiast remarkably consistent levels of response, grip, and balance. The standard air suspension gives a plush yet controlled ride, regardless of whether the big Mercedes is tiptoeing down a cobbled street at walking pace or hammering down the Autobahn at a buck-fifty. The steering is nicely weighted; the brakes effortlessly haul the big car down from triple-digit speeds.
We’ve been impressed by the mild-hybrid 3.0-liter inline-six in other Mercedes models, and it feels right at home in the S 500, being virtually silent at low speeds and making little more than a distant hum at full-throttle acceleration. It’s good enough to make you wonder why you’d pay extra for the eight-cylinder S 580. That said, the S 580’s 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 plays nicely with the EQ Boost e-motor to deliver a relaxed surge of thrust with little more than a distant murmur emanating from under the hood. Relaxed? The torquey e-motor, mounted between the engine and the transmission, helps the S-Class ooze away from a standstill, but once the tach needle swings past 3,000 rpm, the V-8 loosens up the way elite runners settle into their stride. At 100 mph in ninth gear, the engine is turning just 1,900 rpm.
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Our test cars were fitted with the 10-degree rear-steer system, which delivered amazing low-speed agility, enabling the big Benzes to jink and weave down narrow streets and through tight turns like a small hatchback. The system, which cuts more than 6 feet from the car’s turning radius, will only be available in the U.S. on the S 580 4Matic as part of the top-shelf Executive Line options pack, which, among other things, includes 20-inch wheels, a rear-seat entertainment system, and the 30-speaker, 1,750-watt 4D Burmester audio system. Ordering the AMG Line options package also gives you rear-wheel steering, but the package’s wider-section rear tires—on 20- or 21-inch wheels—mean the maximum steering angle is restricted to 4.5 degrees.
Good as it is, you could argue that, in terms of its mechanicals, the 2021 S-Class doesn’t really push the envelope. Hybrid powertrains, nine-speed automatic transmissions, air suspension, rear-wheel steering—none of this stuff is new. Where the new S-Class makes the case for being the three-pointed star’s engineering and technology flagship is in the digital realm.
It’s in the 2021 S-Class that Daimler’s second-generation MBUX infotainment system makes its debut, featuring 50 percent more processing power and advanced voice control that works in 27 different languages and can learn the voices of individual drivers and passengers. The system can recognize who’s behind the wheel in four different ways: via facial recognition using eye-tracking cameras; via fingerprint recognition activated by a small touchpad in the frame at the based on the central screen; via voice recognition; or via a PIN typed into the screen. It then adjusts all the car’s settings to the relevant driver’s stored preferences.
Gen 2 MBUX’s showstoppers, though, are the 3-D instrument panel and augmented reality head-up display, both of which are available as options across the 2021 S-Class lineup.
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Activated via a virtual button in the top left-hand corner of the central touchscreen, the 3-D instrument panel system uses two cameras located at the top edge of the instrument panel screen to track the movement of the driver’s eyes. The system then creates two slightly different images on the high-definition instrument panel screen that are combined to create a 3-D image. In addition to the choice of four different instrument layouts, the instrument screen can be switched to provide a full-screen navigation display or a driver assistance display that renders data from five radar units, five video cameras, and 12 ultrasonic sensors into a real-time overhead view of the car’s place on the road and the movements of surrounding traffic. These last two are particularly vivid in 3-D mode.
The augmented reality head-up display builds on the technology used in the screen-based augmented navigation system that made its debut with Gen 1 MBUX, overlaying arrows and other information on what you’re seeing to help you follow the right road. The difference is the information is now projected, via a digital mirror device made by Texas Instruments, onto the windshield, with a depth of field that makes it appear as if it’s floating in space 32 feet in front of you.
The effect is uncanny, yet after a few minutes, it seems totally natural and—in our daylight test conditions, at least—not distracting. In addition to all the usual information you expect, the augmented-reality HUD display also shows, by way of green glowing lines, which vehicle ahead the active cruise control system is monitoring and whether there are vehicles cruising in the blind spots to the left and right. It’s brilliant, a near sci-fi technology that even the most hands-on drivers will appreciate for its ability to improve their situational awareness.
The S 500 4Matic and S 580 4Matic are both scheduled to arrive in the U.S. in the first half of 2021. Prices have yet to be announced, but don’t be surprised if the six-cylinder car nuzzles $100,000, with the V-8 stickering for about $10,000 more.
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The lineup will be expanded later with the addition of the S 580e plug-in hybrid, which will combine a 362-hp version of the 3.0-liter inline-six with a 140-hp e-motor to give a total system output of close to 500 hp and the same 516 lb-ft of torque as the mild-hybrid S 580. A 28-kWh battery means it will be able to travel up to 60 miles on pure electric power, more than double the range of the 2020 S 560e PHEV. And, of course, there will be AMG-massaged versions for those who want serious power—as much as 800 hp, sources say—as well as serious luxury.
The 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class nails its mission statement, with a slightly unexpected twist. The oily bits work with the Teutonic precision expected of a flagship Mercedes sedan, and it has the commandingly luxurious presence its loyal customers want. But the advanced electronics, especially the carefully engineered driver support systems and the nascent AI capabilities of the second-generation MBUX setup, make this S-Class really feel like the future has arrived. Wearing the three-pointed star.
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