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Behind the Wheel of the All-New 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, One Smooth Operator

Behind the Wheel of the All-New 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, One Smooth Operator

The new standard. Again.

  • Completely redesigned
  • Tech-forward interior is dominated by a 12.8-inch infotainment touchscreen
  • New optional road-scanning suspension provides new levels of comfort and stability
  • 2021 model kicks off the seventh S-Class generation

What is the S-Class?

The S-Class has long been Mercedes-Benz's flagship vehicle platform to showcase the company's capabilities in luxury, comfort and technology. For 2021, Mercedes-Benz has comprehensively redesigned the S-Class and looks to continue the tradition of innovation and elegance that has long defined this iconic sedan and keep it ahead of rivals such as the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series and Porsche Panamera.

The most recognizable changes can be seen inside the new S-Class. It flaunts a larger touchscreen and fewer physical buttons, proof that Mercedes has delved further into using technology to enhance the comfort and driving experience. Even with a tech-heavy appearance, there's still the opulence and attention to detail S-Class buyers expect. Of course there are many, if not more, changes beneath the subtle metal restyling, featuring a retuned suspension, more sophisticated advanced driver aids and an impressive rear-wheel steering system. 

What's under the S-Class' hood?

Initially, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class will offer two engine choices, both paired to a nine-speed automatic and all-wheel drive. The S 500 4Matic is powered by a turbocharged 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine that produces 429 horsepower and 384 lb-ft of torque. Stepping up to the S 580 4Matic gets you a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 good for 496 hp and 516 lb-ft. We fully expect more engine options to come later, including higher-performance AMG variants, a silky smooth Maybach powerplant and perhaps some more eco-friendly hybrids too.

So far we've only driven the S 580 and found the power from the V8 to be more than adequate and befitting of a full-size luxury sedan. There's an abundance of low- and mid-range torque, which means the engine doesn't have to work too hard to provide strong acceleration. Shifts from the nine-speed automatic are nearly imperceptible and add to the luxurious nature of the S-Class. Even under full throttle, the S-Class doesn't break character since it pulls smoothly, with only a hint of V8 growl, all the way to redline.

The six-cylinder and V8 are augmented by a 48-volt mild hybrid system Mercedes calls EQ Boost. While it doesn't allow for electric-only propulsion, the EQ Boost system does augment the gasoline engine in certain situations, adding to the overall smoothness of the driving experience.  This is most impressive in low-speed driving situations, like slow-moving traffic, where the EQ Boost system adds just that little bit of extra acceleration without the transmission needing to downshift. Perhaps the most impressive benefit is the absolutely seamless stop-start actuation. With nary a shudder, the engine can be turned off and back on again for increased efficiency. The EQ Boost makes every other stop-start system on the market feel and sound clumsy by comparison.

The 48-volt system also powers the optional E-Active Body Control suspension system. In Comfort mode, it activates the Road Surface Scan feature, which uses stereo cameras to detect imperfections in the road surface and adjusts the suspension to glide over them with uncanny ease. In Curve mode, the vehicle leans into turns, much like a motorcycle. It's initially a strange sensation from behind the wheel, but passengers will probably notice a distinct lack of body roll and jostling.

Of the three suspension modes — Comfort, Sport and Sport+ — surprisingly, we found ourselves preferring the Sport+ setting. It provides excellent high-speed body control with very little detriment to ride quality. To our mind, the Comfort setting is simply too soft and felt too floaty at all but the lowest speeds. Thankfully, the S-Class lets the driver mix and match different settings for the engine, steering and suspension to create a more personalized experience.

There's definitely no getting around the sheer size of the S-Class, especially if you're navigating a tighter road. But thanks to the adaptive air suspension and four-wheel steering system (this reduces the big sedan's turning circle, allowing it to turn as sharply as the compact A-Class sedan), it is much more adept than you'd expect. Tight hairpins are negotiated like a car half its size, while high-speed sweeping curves highlight its exceptional stability. And parking the S-Class is a breeze — valet drivers will likely fight over the chance to maneuver it in a tight parking lot.

How's the S-Class' interior?

The new S-Class interior represents a significant shift from previous models. The broad dashboard top gives the impression that it starts at the hood before gracefully cascading down to a center console dominated by a 12.8-inch vertically oriented touchscreen. Mercedes eliminated 27 switches and buttons from the last-generation S-Class, leaving a sleek and modern cockpit. But it's one that may cause more distractions if you prefer using the touchscreen for basic audio and climate control functions.

The virtual instrument panel looks similar to other displays in the Mercedes-Benz lineup, but it features a visually stunning 3D effect. To the driver's eyes, it looks as though the gauges are floating upright, while the information panel between them is set farther back or flat while in map mode. It may not be all that useful, but it certainly turns up the wow factor and is the best-executed example of a 3D instrument panel on sale today.

The entire cabin is outlined with sharp multicolor ambient lighting that sets the mood but also alerts occupants to possible hazards by flashing red in certain situations. As with previous S-Class models, the quality of materials exceeds expectations even in this prestigious class.

How comfortable is the S-Class?

Comfort is the absolute priority in the S-Class, but that priority isn't limited to only the driver. Every occupant enjoys a generous amount of leg- and hiproom, and if you like a built-in massage function, you're in luck — massaging front seats are standard equipment. After hours of driving, you'll likely feel no fatigue and arrive at your destination refreshed and relaxed. That is a hallmark of a truly comfortable car.

If rear seat comfort is a concern, the S-Class offers three options: a standard bench seat, Comfort Seats and Executive Seats. All provide three-passenger seating, but the Comfort and Executive options offer reclining seats, the latter allowing for up to 43.5 degrees of recline. Heated cushions for the rear headrests, massage functionality and even rear passenger airbags are all available.

As you'd expect in a luxury sedan, interior noise levels are extremely low. Wind noise is at a minimum even at higher speeds, and in our test car, the twin-turbo V8 engine was only rarely heard. Credit can go to multi-layer windows but also to new acoustic foam that has been injected into critical body panels and structural components. We wouldn't be surprised if the new S-Class was one of the most serene cars on the market today at any price.

How's the S-Class' tech?

Mercedes' MBUX infotainment system was an immediate hit with us when it debuted a few years ago. This new S-Class gets an updated version with more features, but for some buyers it may also be a step backward. The tracepad found on current MBUX systems is gone, though the driver can control the system via touchscreen, voice and capacitive pads on the steering wheel. Those who favor the previous tracepad or dial controller might find the new system distracting to operate. During our time in the new S-Class, we found the new touchscreen both easy to use and fast-acting. We came to rely on both voice commands and touchscreen interactions equally to achieve our desired changes.

On the plus side, the voice functions are more robust than those in last year's S-Class and give the driver substantial eyes-free control of the MBUX system. A new head-up display helps keep your eyes on the road by appearing to project information in the distance rather than directly in front of the driver. As an added bonus, an augmented reality overlay superimposes animated arrows when your navigation route has a direction change; in previous MBUX systems, that overlay was shown in the main infotainment screen. Audio prompts for route directions can also be isolated to the driver's headrest speakers so music isn't interrupted for other passengers.

The S-Class allows for different driver profiles to ensure their preferred settings for seat adjustments, mirror positioning, audio presets and so on. Unlike other cars with these features, the S-Class uses a variety of techniques to identify the driver and passengers, including facial recognition, a fingerprint scanner or a simple four-digit code.

How will the S-Class keep me safe?

As expected of a luxury vehicle in this price range, the S-Class offers a full suite of safety features, plus a few other goodies. All of the optional driving aids from the last-generation S-Class are now standard. It also has the hardware needed for hands-free driving, but the system won't be activated until Mercedes is confident it's ready for public use. Once approved, the Mercedes' hands-free driving system will be available as an over-the-air update.

In addition to all of the standard advanced safety features, the available Pre-Safe Impulse Side system uses the E-Active Body Control hardware to help keep occupants safer in a side collision. If the system detects an imminent accident, the ride height of the vehicle will instantly rise, increasing the likelihood that the frame-reinforced side sills will take the brunt of an impact rather than the less rigid doors.

How's the S-Class' storage?

Interior storage for your personal effects isn't what we'd consider generous, but it should be adequate for most people. The door pockets, center armrest bin and cupholders are average in size, and there is an additional rubberized tray behind the big center screen.

The trunk space is deep but somewhat narrow. You should be able to fit enough luggage back there for a couple's getaway, but accessing the deeper recesses of the trunk will require an awkward stoop to reach them. Large golf bags will likely need to be inserted headfirst since there are no storage pockets aft of the wheel humps. Depending on the rear seat configuration, the rear seatbacks can fold for more space.

Edmunds says

With its full redesign, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class leaves no doubt that it offers one of the most technologically advanced and refined driving experiences on the market. Bristling with technology that provides not only comfort but also intense personalization as well as safety, the S-Class again sets a new standard for a luxury sedan. It might take some buyers a bit of time to adjust to the radically new interior, but our time in the new S-Class has left us deeply impressed. We can't wait to put it through our battery of expert vehicle evaluations.