It’s a blessing and a curse to be the benchmark by which all others are judged, but the Mercedes-Benz S-Class shoulders its obligations well. Launched first in 1972, and now in its sixth generation, the beefy sedan has always possessed a perhaps unusual duality. On the one hand, it’s the go-to vehicle for comfortable wafting, but on the other it’s a high-tech test bed for the latest and greatest Stuttgart’s geniuses can come up with.
No version encapsulates that dual personality quite like the 2016 Mercedes-Benz S550 4MATIC. Even for a car fan who’s also a huge geek like myself, it’s bordering on overload. Big screens are now increasingly commonplace in cars, so the S550 throws in two of them; massage seats are filtering down to the premium mainstream, so the S550 gets faux hot stone treatments. Think of a buzzword or gadget in the automotive space over the past few years, and this S-Class probably has it, cranked up to 11.
Which begs the question: is there so much technology here, some of the cosseting spirit has been lost along the way?
First things first. $98,650 gets you a 4.7-liter V8 biturbo good for 449 HP and 516 lb-ft. of torque, a 7-speed automatic transmission, air suspension, and 4MATIC all-wheel drive.
The styling is sharp and mature, with an opulence to the scale of the grill that’s offset nicely by the crisp daytime running lights and the muscular rear three-quarters.
Someone at Mercedes-Benz USA couldn’t resist the options list when this particular S-Class was ordered, and the extras stack up astonishingly.
$4,450 for the higher-quality Nappa leather with its beautiful diamond stitching; $1,300 of “designo” lacquered wood trim. $5,900 for the sport package with its gorgeous AMG wheels and subtle body kit; $2,2800 for the driver assistance package that throws in DISTRONIC PLUS adaptive cruise control, steering assistance, blind spot and lane keeping assistance, and a variety of other systems intended to react to fellow road-users and pedestrians.
$2,260 gets you night vision, while $990 adds a color head-up display. The Burmester 3D surround sound audio system is $6,400, while the “Premium 1” package adds, for $4,500, ventilated front seats, parking assist, powered rear window sunshades, massage seats at the front, and more.
It’s hard, sometimes, to decide whether the S-Class is really intended for the person behind the wheel or the person in the rear seat. On the one hand it’s astonishingly fun to drive: you can switch the air suspension to Sport mode and, despite a curb weight not far off that of a small studio apartment, the S550 hustles eagerly. The steering is very light, yes, but courtesy of the V8 and the biturbo it surges forward eagerly.
Even when you’re throwing a luxury limo around back roads, the 7-speed slurs gracefully from ratio to ratio. The most straightforward way to go hooning is to vacuum up the straights until, so close to the next corner, the area around your tailbone is twitching, and then rely on the excellent brakes to shed speed and thus help avoid body roll or understeer.
Comfort mode, meanwhile, is like surfing lazily on a sea of syrup. That’s even without the road-surface scan system, which uses cameras to spot bumps in the asphalt ahead and plan the suspension settings accordingly.
So, the driver isn’t left without entertainment, but there’s competition from what’s going on in the rear. Specifically, the $3,000 rear seat package, with 4-zone climate control, a power rear-right footrest, and airbags built into the seatbelts, along with another $3,500 for the executive rear seat package, that upgrades the seats with massage, and turns the rear-right seat into a lounger with greater recline angle and a power calf rest.
Finally, the $2,600 warmth and comfort package puts detachable headrest pillows in the rear, heats and ventilates them, and even heats the front and rear center armrests, so even your elbow isn’t left to suffer while your buttocks are taken care of. Since there’s only so much distraction from long journeys that toasted arms can provide, the $2,650 rear seat entertainment package adds a pair of displays.
There’s something hypnotically balletic about all of Mercedes-Benz’s various motorized seats in action. The front passenger seat slides closer to the dashboard while folding forward, allowing the throne behind to ease back and out, footrest extending, while the sunshades thrum into place covering side, rear, and moonroof glass.
Soft, supple leather; gentle warmth; and the insistent pulsing of pseudo-shiatsu massage at your back. There are few ways better to spend a road trip, though perhaps Mercedes-Maybach’s own S600 is one of them: that adds eight extra inches of length and means you can truly stretch your legs out in the rear – the taller plutocrat in the S550 may discover their tootsies clashing with the back of the seat in front.
The technology is near-overwhelming. I drove a couple hundred miles before I realized everything the cruise control system could do for me – maintain speed in changing traffic, help me steer, keep me in the lane, and more – while trying to navigate through the hundreds of features in the menu, done either via a scroll wheel or a touchpad in the center console, could readily distract you from the road for an hour.
Mercedes thankfully includes a reasonable number of dedicated buttons and switches, including the basics for the HVAC system, audio, and seat adjustment, but if you stop there you miss out on many of the more thoughtful touches. The “Dynamic Multicontour Seats” for instance, which individually and swiftly inflate the side bolsters to support you as you’re cornering, are so pleasing that I’ve missed them on every car since.
Serious luxury may be a serious business, but the S550 isn’t short on showmanship, either. The tweeters for the Burmester audio system, that corkscrew out of the A-pillars when you turn the music on, are an excellent example. I’m not entirely sure the perfume system, which feeds scents from a vial in the glove compartment through the HVAC, is something every car should aspire to, but it’s certainly different.
What saves the S550 from being a geeky gimmick is the degree of completeness Mercedes-Benz achieves. There are lots of cars with gadgets, but few are put together with the attention, care to detail, and quality of materials you’ll find in the S-Class.
Nothing feels cheap or plasticky. The buttons have just the right degree of dampening and resistance; the detailing of things like the knurled vent controls, the etched metal window switches, and the copious quantities of carefully stitched leather is sublime.
It’s a masterclass in how to put together a luxury sedan, and even if you ignore the technology entirely, you’ll struggle to critique the consistency.
You pay handsomely for that, of course. All in, when the raiding of the options list is tallied up, this particular S550 comes to $142,625 (including $925 destination). You’ll pay at the tank, too: Mercedes and the EPA rate the V8 as good for 16 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway, and 19 combined, but in my own mixed driving I maxed out at 17.9 mpg.
Those who take “treat yo self” to heart can pick from the S63 AMG 4MATIC with 577 HP and 664 lb-ft. of torque, the even more extreme S65 AMG pushing 621 HP and 738 lb-ft. from its V12 through the rear wheels, or the S550e Plug-In Hybrid, which can run for up to 12 miles on electric power only. Then there’s the S-Class Coupe, shedding doors but not luxe, and the S-Class Cabriolet, which cuts off the roof so that pedestrians can better see the beatific satisfaction writ large across your face.
The S-Class’ crown is coveted. BMW ladled in the tech for the new 7 Series but, as we found in our review, lost a little “Ultimate Driving Machine” soul in the process; Audi’s current A8 – launched in 2009 – is showing its age, but given recent hits like the new A4 and Q7, the all-new fourth-generation A8 expected next year should be a fierce competitor.
Dig deeper, meanwhile, and you can have Bentley’s Flying Spur on your drive. Crewe’s finest has the heft, horsepower, and hide to keep up with the S550, but you’ll miss the technology.
If there’s a downside, it’s that I wouldn’t especially want to be on the wrong side of the standard 4-year/50,000 mile warranty. When I read the options list to my father, in fact, a sensible northern British man, his first comment was “what a lot to go wrong,” and he’s not mistaken. Imagine your horror at hearing the sick-snake susurration of a failing seat-inflator, or any of the dozens of motors expiring.
I suspect most S-Class buyers don’t especially concern themselves with that, and I can’t blame them. There are few more comfortable places to experiment with the cutting edge in semi-autonomous driving, mobile excess, and all-round extravagance than an S-Class, and while the 2016 S550 4MATIC may not be a low-cost addition to your garage, there’s a very good – and still more than valid – reason why it’s the bar by which every other luxury sedan is judged.