On the panoramic 34th floor of One World Trade Center, with a phalanx of 2018 S-Class sedans parked below, Mercedes kicked off a press drive with what could only be described as homesickness. The German brand may have packed up its U.S. headquarters in the Tri-State area and moved to money-saving Atlanta back in 2015, but executives still cite New York as its spiritual home. It’s the city where Mercedes-Benzes were sold between 1957 and 2012 in a Park Avenue showroom designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, its spiral rotunda an inspiration for his Guggenheim Museum. Its replacement, the showpiece Mercedes of Manhattan—the only Mercedes-owned dealership in America—fulfills 41,000 repair orders a year, their owners driving from the below-ground service center, up another winding ramp, to emerge gleaming onto 11th Avenue.
New Yorkers have returned the favor. 20 percent of America’s S-Classes are sold in New York and its satellite regions of New Jersey and Connecticut. From Berlin to Beijing, the world’s most popular large luxury sedan helps keep the carmaker flush with profits—as well as helping widen Mercedes's lead in America’s closely-watched luxury sales rankings, with just over 340,000 total brand sales last year. According to J.D. Power, if you tally up every buyer of a six-figure automobile—sedans, SUVs, sports cars, you name it—one in three drives home in a Benz. This 2018 model is only a mid-cycle refresh, but with as many as 6,500 new parts aboard, the S-Class seems bound to defend that position.
After a speedy elevator descent from One World Trade, I walk past solemn tourists at the 9/11 Memorial and into the driver’s seat of the utmost S-Class: An emerald-green Mercedes-AMG S65, whose bi-turbo V12 chucks out 621 horses and 738 pound-feet of torque. From its Nappa leather headliner and night vision system to its $8,950 AMG carbon-ceramic brakes, the S65 is the definition of “too much is not enough.” But you don’t really want that one, unless you’re among the few hundred Americans a year who will happily fork over $230,495 for a single car when they could have his-and-hers S-Classes for the same price. An inside joke at Mercedes: Why do people buy the S65? Because there’s no S75.
At the other end of that price-no-object scale—and our row of cars—lies the new S450. America’s first six-cylinder, non-hybrid gasoline S-Class since the poorly received S350 of 2006, the S450 coaxes 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet from a 3.0-liter, bi-turbo V6. You don’t want that one, either, unless you’re shopping strictly on price. Americans are denied the better six-cylinder version anyway: Europe’s mild-hybrid S500 that makes a lusty 429 horses from a 3.0-liter inline-six paired with a cutting-edge 48-volt electrical system.
As for the Mercedes-Maybach—with its eight-inch wheelbase stretch and airliner-style rear seats—I slid into the back, snuggled the Maybach-embroidered pillows and wondered how much one would cost to replace if it fell out of the car, perhaps during a pillow fight with club-hopping socialites. That limo-length Maybach S560 starts at just $169,595, or just under $200,000 for the more-powerful, V12-powered Maybach S650. But people who enjoy driving over snuggling pillows or barking orders at the chauffeur can cross the Maybach off their list as well.
That leaves the S-Classes you do want, the middle children of a six-model sedan lineup (not counting all-wheel-drive 4Matic variants) that spans a breathtaking price range, from that V6 S450 at $90,895 to the aforementioned S65 at $230K.
Quite rightly, the bulk of buyers will empty their bulky wallets for the new S560, which adopts the lusty bi-turbo 4.0-liter V8 that’s familiar from the AMG GT sports car. It makes 463 horsepower, up 14 from last year’s S550 and its 4.7-liter bi-turbo. Torque stays at an identical 516 pound-feet, but the downsized engine has a flatter torque curve and is more fuel-efficient, thanks in part to the excellent new nine-speed automatic transmission. We’re talking a power yacht that kicks up a 0-to-60-mile-per-hour wake in 4.5 seconds with AWD (or 4.6 for rear-drive models), yet earns an impressive EPA rating of 17/27 mpg in city and highway, respectively.
And if you’re determined to spill rich blood on the streets like some plastic-wrapped Patrick Bateman, the AMG S63 squeezes 603 horsepower and 664 pound-feet from AMG’s handcrafted version of that same 4.0-liter V8. That one starts from $148,495, and it’s good for 0-60 mph in 3.4 seconds—nearly as quick as the McLaren F1 of the Nineties, then the world’s fastest supercar. It's also a perfect stoplight match for another big ’un that has no business going that fast, the 707-horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.
For the S-Class, however, a steroid injection from the mad doctors of AMG has always struck me as beside the point; that 603-hp V8 actually makes more sense in the smaller AMG E63 sedan. Stretching nearly 207 inches in length, the S-Class will never be a sport sedan, no matter how impressively flat the AMG’s S65’s body stays when I fling it around backroads near Greenwich, Connecticut, or how often I roast the rear tires after shutting off traction and stability control. In this gloriously silent and cosseting car, such antics seem silly, like downing a double Wild Turkey for high tea at the Plaza Hotel.
My opening stint in the S65 does underline perhaps the S-Class’s biggest competitive advantage versus the BMW 7 Series, Audi A8, Lexus LS, et al: A luxury cabin that weakens knees nearly as well as a Bentley or Rolls-Royce, but with technology and features that those bespoke British brands can’t match. That includes a pair of dazzling, 12.3-inch, high-resolution display screens, integrated into a single panel that makes them look like a wide-screen TV splayed across the dash.
I spent a few minutes goofing with 64 colors of adjustable ambient lighting that seem to glow from every pore of the Benz, now hooked into a new system called “Energizing Comfort Control.” Think of a giant Seventies mood ring (look it up) crossed with a Napa Valley spa. The Benz coordinates and adjusts its massaging seats, ambient lighting, climate control, audio, and in-cabin fragrances into roughly 10-minute-long programs called Freshness, Warmth, Vitality, Joy, Comfort and Training. You can select pre-programmed music—or the system will analyze your own media, based on its beats-per-minute, to select tunes for the chosen mood. “Ride of the Valkyries,” perhaps, for the CEO who just acquired a new company. A gimmicky feature? You bet, especially when awful, New Age-y music starts wafting through the cabin along with the onboard fragrance. But the individual elements are terrific, from the endlessly adjustable, power-massaging thrones to the sparkling Burmester 3D audio system with 24 speakers and 24 separate amplifier channels, whose beautifully perforated metal speaker grilles are being shamelessly copied by even mainstream brands.
It's hard to fault the car's style, be it inside or out. To go along with the subtle exterior changes front-and-rear—including “triple torch” headlamps with stripes of LEDs—the interior brings two new natural grain ash wood treatments and three new upholstery color combos. The only exterior wart is a piece of transparent plastic set into the grille, part of the car’s radar array, that looks as tacky and jarring as a beer-pong cup on a luxurious banquet table.
I know exactly which interior I’d spend my lottery winnings on: The tri-tone “Mahogany Silk Beige” that blends cream- and nougat-colored Nappa leather, here paired with pinstriped black lacquer wood from Benz’s Designo collection. The effect was like being wrapped inside an expensive Swiss confection, and this interior does look good enough to eat. At one point, I randomly dialed up a pink shade of ambient lighting (perhaps closer to salmon)...and even as I joked about it, I realized it actually looked great with the surrounding colors.
After years of complaints, Mercedes has finally ditched the clunky, annoying cruise-control stalk that drivers would reliably confuse with the turn signal, and vice-versa. For 2018, the Distronic adaptive cruise control (and many other vehicle functions) can now be controlled via a pair of lozenge-like buttons on the steering wheel. Said Distronic now uses onboard maps to automatically adjust its speed when approaching curves and intersections, somewhat like Porsche's new InnoDrive; owners get three years of free updates to the Comand system's maps.
That super-smart adaptive cruising is tied into roughly a zillion other safety and semi-autonomous functions. This S-Class is born for semi-autonomous operation, since you’re basically driving it with two fingertips anyway. Active lane changes may be a parlor trick for now—is it really that difficult to move the wheel two inches?—but the Mercedes can indeed switch lanes on its own at the flick of a turn signal, as long as the coast is clear. Ignore warnings to get your mitts back on the wheel, and the Mercedes will eventually roll itself to a safe stop, unlock the car, turn on the hazard lights, and send an SOS for help.
The Benz’s “sensor fusion” wraps the car in a protective cocoon—including stereo cameras that can peer up to 250 meters ahead with 3D “vision” extending 90 meters to the sides—allowing the Benz to perform all manner of evasive maneuvers or safety activations if you do get hit. Including, by the way, saving occupants' eardrums from collision noise damage by emitting a “pink noise” interference signal that triggers a protective reflex in the ear’s stapedius muscle.
So go ahead, speed toward a car or pedestrian, then fire off a few text messages. (I’m kidding, this is theoretical behavior. Or not.) The S-Class’s automated stoppers will prevent a frontal collision at speeds up to 62 mph, even if the driver takes no action whatsoever. Road Surface Scan uses a camera to search for bumps on the road ahead and soften the Active Body Control suspension accordingly, and now has more ability to operate in dusk and at higher speeds.
The “Curve” function, introduced on the swanky S-Class Coupe, now comes to rear-drive sedans only. (AWD models have too little space to package the hardware). That system actually pivots the Benz’s body to the inside of a turn by up to 2.65 degrees, which subtly-but-noticeably reduces lateral centrifugal forces that might upset pampered occupants. It’s the difference between a car zinging around a banked oval, versus a flat road. The stereoscopic camera looks for curves and surface changes, its chip-based controller linked to suspension struts at four corners. Hydraulic plungers and springs incline the body within fractions of a second, based on the car’s speed and the radius of the turn. Passengers are held straighter and tighter in their seats.
You’re probably getting the picture: If something is available in the world of automobiles, it’s on this Benz, whether standard or as an option.
Now, that bi-turbo six-cylinder engine is available as well. It escorts the S450 version from a stop to 60 mph in a reasonable 5.4 seconds. It’s the perfect engine for, say, the compact C-Class sedan or AMG GLC 43 SUV, and it’s adequate here. But who’s looking for “adequate” in an S-Class? After an hour of driving the S450, I decided the V6 isn’t the best soldier for the S-Class’s missions, whether it's blissful cabin isolation or effortless forward progress. If I wanted to hear an engine at work, I’d get an AMG. (Or a Mustang.) And if I’m looking to cheap out, and losing sleep over a $10,000 premium for the V8, then I probably shouldn’t be buying (or leasing) an S-Class at all.
After some excellent homemade gelato at celebrity chef Jean-George Vongerichten’s rustic locavore inn in Pound Ridge, Connecticut, I find the lineup’s own sweet spot in the S560 4Matic. With its bi-turbo 4.0-liter V8, the S560 (replacing the previous S550) is the bread-and-butter model that’s best suited to wealthy palates. 4Matic AWD, which Mercedes once resisted applying to sedans—until it realized it was getting killed by competitors equipped with four-wheel traction in the Northeast and other snowy markets—helps the S560 boost grip and lay down serious force.
Swinging onto a Connecticut country lane, I roll onto the throttle. The Benz surges ahead, flaunting the magisterial power. Ah, that’s more like it. The V8’s sound—cranked up for industrial-rock menace in the AMG GT—is swaddled in the S560, but still impressive. It’s the rock star locked in your expensive wine cellar, his smoky baritone barely audible through the floor.
The price? $103,895, though an options splurge can boot even this S-Class into pre-owned Bentley territory. My stuffed S560 rang (or broke) the register at $149,805, packing everything from a refrigerated rear console for $4,950, to the Burmester “High End” audio for a high-end $6,400, to a $5,900 AMG body kit and wheels. Ah, but what the hell: If you fall short on payments, the S-Class is stealthy and powerful enough to ditch any repo man. Crack open a chilled champagne, dial up a soothing massage, music, scent and light show, and all will be well.
Lawrence Ulrich,The Autance’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at [email protected].