2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class First Drive Review: Tech and Luxury Collide

The S-Class is hands down the best-selling luxury car in its class, so where do you begin in trying to describe a whole new generation? For as long as I can remember, the S-Class has always been a hotbed for world-blazing technical innovations. From the first-gen Sonderklasse – or "Special Class" – revealed in 1972, to the 8th-gen W223 model at my disposal, the S-Class sits at the pinnacle of the luxury car hierarchy. I was spoiled with unprecedented levels of comfort, sportiness, refinement, and an eye-watering lineup of technologies.

From a design standpoint, the latest Mercedes S-Class is a bigger car than before but still maintains a perfectly timeless proportion. The wheelbase is 2.1 inches longer, now 126.6 inches from the front to the rear axles. With an increased width of 2 inches, combined with a longer wheelbase, you can't help but notice a much more elegantly defined, muscular presence. Thanks to rear-wheel steering, though, maneuvering the S-Class through tight parking lots is much easier.

Whether this is the best-looking S-Class is down to the eyes of the beholder. Even though the big distinction belongs to the fourth-gen W220 S-Class produced from 1999 to 2005, particularly the S600 long-wheelbase model, I still find that the elongated hood, flowing C-pillar, strong shoulder lines, and tapering rear end blends the desirable attributes of old-school styling and modern architecture.

To my eyes, the 2021 S-Class is by far the most dynamic-looking of its lineage. Pictures just don't do it justice, so seeing it in the flesh as it drove up towards me in a sea of cars at LAX airport was eye-candy. The narrower headlamps, with their signature three-point daytime driving light, flanking the higher-status radiator grille makes it unmistakably an S-Class.

As I walked around the rear for a better look, it's hard to miss the finely sculpted surfaces with the smartly designed flush door handles that pop out ever so gently as you approach the car. At the back, my first thought was that the taillights looked a little sober in comparison to the rest. That was quickly addressed when the precious individual LEDs gently woke, to illuminate each section of the lamp cluster.

Despite the larger 200 sq. cm frontal area, the design team and engineers were able to drop the drag coefficient down to 0.22, making the S-Class one of the world's most aerodynamic cars. The spaces between the front wheel arch and the bumper are like air chambers that prevent airflow interruption ahead of the front wheels; at the same time, hot air from the engine bay goes directly to the air chambers. Then, inlets ahead of the front wheels have large ventilation slits and a 3D suction spoiler, resulting in the best possible airflow management on the underside and front wheel arches.

There are two engines available stateside, starting with the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class S500 and its 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six with a 48-volt EQ Boost mild-hybrid assist starter-generator. It pumps out a healthy 429 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque, with 21 more horsepower and 184 pound-feet of assistance from the mild-hybrid system anytime you get a twitchy right foot.

My test car, meanwhile, was the S580 4MATIC with a 4.0-liter bi-turbo V8 engine, good for 496 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque. It also has a 48-volt mild-hybrid system for a total of 517 hp and 700 lb-ft of torque at your behest. Both engines are mated with a 9G-TRONIC 9-speed automatic gearbox, which I found to be smooth and always seems to be in the right gear depending on the drive mode and driving scenarios. I pleasantly discovered that power was never in short supply in my first three-hour drive from LAX to our lunch stop. Then again, the S-Class is never about brute force; if you need more than 517 horses in your S-Class, I'm pretty sure Mercedes-Benz is cooking up a storm with its next-gen AMG -S-Class model.

On the other hand, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class is known for its many proprietary technical highlights. It has a 2nd-gen MBUX infotainment system with up to five screens onboard, along with an updated voice control system. The new and improved MBUX allows for the use of natural language to communicate using "hey Mercedes."

If you're feeling tired or stressed out, for example, you could simply say, "Hey Mercedes, I'm tired or stressed," at which point, one of many comfort programs (refresh, vitality, warmth, joy, and comfort) magically appear to help heighten my senses through sound, sight, smell and touch. Not only that, I love that the Energizing Coach knows you when you "log in" to the car. It takes into account sleep quality, and stress level via a compatible wearable, then factors in trip data to offer the best setup for your commute. "Hey Mercedes, you had me at hello."

A long commute is hard on your body, no matter how you look at it. One of the most important touchpoints is the seat; this is among the best, with buttery-soft headrests and up to 19 motors to offer a bevy of massage functions. Nice, rich feeling materials only get you so far, but having a car that knows your dimensions and automatically sets the seating positions perfectly is priceless.

Four vibrating motors for the massage are squeezed inside, along with five fan motors. Mercedes offers a whopping 11 massage programs, with two levels of intensity. Energizing seat kinetics, meanwhile, consists of small but noticeable changes in the angles of the seat surface and backrest tension. I found that this helps to relax my back muscles after about an hour into my long drive. This, to me, is the equivalent of being able to stand up and stretch in the middle of a long commute.

The centerpiece of the cabin is a magnificent-looking 12.3-inch OLED center touchscreen display, making it seem like I'm piloting a hi-tech spacecraft instead of a land-bound machine.

The latest MBUX is up to 50-percent faster than before, enabling it to power a new 3D driver display with eye-tracking technology and a cool augmented reality heads-up display. The latter works in tandem with the navigation system to deliver a video game experience while finding your way around town. It's hard to explain through words, but I can't help but imagine how much better navigating in everyday cars and trucks will become if fitted with this mind-bending tech.

There have been a few attempts to bring glassesless 3D to mobile devices, but they've all failed miserably. Knowing that, I was somewhat skeptical as to how well the new 3D driver display would work in everyday use. Within minutes, it became clear that Mercedes-Benz has ruined me for life. Words, pictures, and videos alone cannot demonstrate how amazing it is to see beyond what's there on the surface. Every pixel comes to life – for instance, the shimmering blue from the ocean comes to life with proper lights and shadow. I never once got dizzy or felt sick.

Active ambient lighting taps up to 250 LEDs and is now integrated into the driving assistance systems. It means you not only get a soothing glow inside the cabin, but visual warnings for better awareness. As you'd expect for Mercedes de-facto showcase, the S-Class is overflowing with active safety tech, possibly making it one of the safest cars on the road. It has an active distance assist that predicts the speed regulation ahead of speed limits, and active steering assist that follows the driving lane up to 130 mph. Meanwhile, the S-Class also comes with standard active lane-keeping assist and active lane changing assist, blind-spot assist, and active brake assist, to name just a few.

Another favorite feature of mine is the new head-up display, which floats a virtual 77-inch diagonal screen out at a virtual distance of 32 feet. I had a lot of fun with this feature. The augmented reality aspect virtually projects all your driving information, such as speed, driving assistance settings. Still, it goes a step further by overlaying navigation instructions as well. I love how precise the lane markings are shown in almost true to size. The system also tracks the vehicle in front as well.

For the front passenger, there's the new OLED central display. I found that the 9.4 x 8.6-inch display is simply the perfect size and placement. Everything – and I mean everything – takes place on the display, which removes unnecessary buttons and touchpads. There's so much minimalism happening here that even the light switch is now moved to the armrest.

The technology and safety systems may be all present and correct, but they're wrapped in an incredibly refined cabin. I may be alone in this conviction, but I genuinely believe the new S-Class has the best car interior in the world, as I speak, barring a Bentley or Rolls-Royce.

The way the center screen floats above the dashboard is an elegant display of modern simplicity, mildly exaggerated in the presence of premium polished wood and the most refined metal and leather materials.

Driving tunes are courtesy of a bespoke Burmester 4D surround sound system, pumping out 1,750 watts of power via 30 high-end speakers and two resonators in each seat. It allows a virtual four-dimensional listening experience, which feels like the artist is playing on a rotating pedestal to recreate the harmonics of an actual live performance. The system can also direct navigation instructions to the driver's seat only, to not disturb the passengers from their dreamy listening experience.

As expected from a flagship luxury conveyance, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is brimming with a great lineup of standard equipment. There's wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, intelligent LED headlights with adaptive high beam assist, a 360-degree surround-view camera, soft close doors, rapid heating and ventilating front seats, Nappa leather, and more.

Building on that, my S580 4MATIC test vehicle came with power rear and side window sunshades, infrared-reflecting laminated glass, rear-axle steering, and AIRMATIC air suspension with continuously adjustable damping. Coming soon in the 2021 S-Class is Mercedes-Benz's E-Active Body Control active suspension, which uses hydraulic dampers to support the vehicle body without overriding the suspension settings.

The latest Mercedes S-Class is not without faults, mind. The black piano finish under the center display screen attracts dust and fingerprints like bees to honey. Also, the styling could be bolder, for lack of a better word. Nitpicking aside, the S-Class remains a benchmark that lesser brands and vehicles can aspire to be. It continues to lead the field by surrounding the driver and passengers with the finest innovations possible today.

Available in the U.S. summer of 2021, the S-Class price starts at $109,800 for the S500, while the S580 4MATIC starts at $116,300. My S 580 4MATIC came to a grand total of $128,550 ($1050 destination and delivery included) for the AMG Line 2021 S-Class. The $4300 AMG Line package features an AMG sport body package, stainless steel sport pedals with rubber studs, special floor mats, and exclusive AMG wheels.

Unsurprisingly, Mercedes' options list is long and varied. There are $1,950 21" AMG V-Multispoke wheels with black inlays, $1,300 4.5-degree rear-axle steering, a $250 heated steering wheel, and my favorite option – the 3D Technology package. In return for your $3,000, you get the MBUX augmented reality head-up display and 3D instrument cluster.

The AMG Line is only one of three trims available. Stepping into the Luxury or Executive Line, you find additional features such as the jaw-dropping Burmester 4D surround sound system ($6,730), along with the Executive rear seat package with a multi-contour outboard rear seat with massage, more recline angle and power calf rest, plus neck and shoulder heating for $3,150. While you're at it, you may as well add the rear entertainment package for $3,400. Available on the Executive Line is the fantastic rear-axle steering allowing for up to 10 degrees, and throwing a further $1,300 on the order sheet. The Rear Seat Package – at $3,500 – will bring the Executive package to a grand total of $147,590.

Expensive? Sure, but the S-Class has never pretended to be attainable. Instead it's Mercedes' vision not only of luxury – whether you're in the front or the back – combined with cutting-edge technology; a preview of the automaker's vision of what the rest of us may be experiencing a decade or so down the line.

It's a reputation the big sedan has maintained pretty much consistently, even in the face of strong competition from rivals like the BMW 7 Series and the Audi A8, and the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class throws down the gauntlet for a new generation of high-end competition. If you're lucky enough to own what's been named the 2021 World Luxury Car of the year you're in exclusive, cosseted company. For the rest of us, meanwhile, this is a beguiling preview and a compelling promise of the sort of technology we can expect to trickle down to more attainable cars and SUVs in the years to come.