At this point, Benjamin Franklin’s famously short list of life’s certainties—death and taxes—might need updating to include the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which has consistently set the bar for the executive sedan category since its introduction nearly 50 years ago. And for 2021, the automaker’s newest flagship makes even its own high-tech predecessor seem as outdated as a powdered wig.
Unlike its (admittedly pricier) British rivals from Rolls-Royce and Bentley, the S-Class has always presented a particularly German take on the luxury saloon—an understated sort of opulence that focuses less on esoteric materials and craftsmanship techniques, and more on reliability, safety and a heaping dose of high-tech goodies. Case in point: Inside the newest model you’ll find an optional augmented-reality head-up display (comprehensive without being distracting, which is no small trick) and the next-generation MBUX infotainment system, displayed across five separate screens and activated by fingerprint, voice or facial recognition. Also inside the aggressively textured, maximalist interior are 18-motor-adjustable seats, a 30-speaker Burmester audio system (available as an upgrade), 64-color ambient lighting and a menu of on-demand aromatics. New safety tech includes front-facing rear-passenger airbags—an industry first—and a frame that can elevate up to three inches before a side collision, to better absorb the impact. (Currently available for the European market, this feature arrives in US models next year.)
Surprisingly, from behind the wheel we found our tester—the top-tier S 580 4Matic, from $116,300—looser even than the Rolls-Royce Ghost’s famously floaty “magic carpet ride,” at least in Comfort mode. That’s due in part to slight turbo lag from the new 4.0-liter biturbo V-8, paired with a 48 v electric system. Switch to Sport Plus, though, and the 9-speed automatic gearbox answers with greater immediacy and precision in its delivery of 516 ft lbs of torque and 496 hp across the power band. And despite the length and wheelbase increasing by 1.3 inches and 2 inches, respectively, over the outgoing model, the 4,775-pound four-door is nimbler and more responsive than expected when tracing curvy wine-country roads or autonomously three-point parking in tight spaces, thanks to the new option of rear-axle steering that shortens the turning radius by seven feet—a clever and extremely usable bit of automotive sleight of hand.