We know the Mercedes S-Class is something special, but does that sense of specialness extend to the entry-level version, the S350d? Jonathan Crouch reports.
The Mercedes-Benz S350d might be the first step on the S-Class ladder but that doesn't mean it's been short-changed in the talent department. This improved model gets a new 2.9-litre six cylinder diesel that's significantly more efficient than the previous 3.0-litre unit. Capable of 155mph, 52.3mpg and offering a hot-stone effect massage, this is still the large luxury saloon segment class benchmark.
Imagine being charged with designing a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It absolutely must be recognised by anyone who counts as the best car in the world. No pressure there, then. For as long as most of us care to remember, the S-Class has long been the go-to vehicle if you wanted to neatly encompass where the development of the horseless carriage had evolved to.
But is that still the case? Mercedes wants to assure us that it is with this much improved model. It's only a facelift of the sixth generation design but it's a more widely ranging mid-term update than any Mercedes has ever introduced. The key change is the introduction of a new 2.9-litre diesel engine for the variant most customers in our market buy, this S350d.
This improved S350d is powered by a completely new 2.9-litre in-line six cylinder diesel motor developing 286bhp. This powerplant uses variable valve lift control for the first time and is mated to a new, even smoother 9-speed 9G-TRONIC auto gearbox. In the S350d, 62mph from rest takes just 6.0s en route to an artificially-limited maximum of 155mph and on the move, the electronically controlled air-sprung suspension delivers ride quality that rivals can't quite match. Its incorporated MAGIC BODY CONTROL' set-up now incorporates a further curve-tilting function that tilts the body by up to 2.65-degrees through the bends so that passengers will hardly notice it as you go through tighter turns.
The nine-speed gearshift slurs its way between gears beautifully both up and down the box and it's only when you really start to drive the car that the software can occasionally prove a little dull-witted. Although some have complained about the throttle response in Comfort mode, I think it's beautifully judged, allowing you to measure progress without ever jarring the driveline.
We may be talking about a facelift here, but it's the most extensive model rejuvenation of any that Mercedes has undertaken in its entire history. You wouldn't really know that from a glance at the exterior of this car. Its dimensions are unchanged, so it remains 5,125mm long in its standard form, or 5,255mm in length in its long wheelbase guise. Changes are limited to details things: the prominent chromed front grille has been updated, as have the bumpers and the graphics of the LED headlamps and tail lights.
Inside, the cabin materials are of an even higher grade than before, but otherwise, the spacious interior will be familiar to previous buyers of this sixth generation design. That means the front of the cabin continues to be dominated by two 12.3-inch screens and uses touch-sensitive steering wheel controls. New is an 'Energizing Comfort Control' package that links together various comfort systems in the vehicle: you choose a mode ('freshness', 'warmth', 'vitality', 'joy', 'comfort') and the set-up uses a range of various elements - interior climate, music, massaging seat settings, cabin fragrance and so on - to deliver a co-ordinated 10 minute programme aimed at re-vitalising you. On a more practical note, there's a 510-litre boot.
Prices start at around £73,000 for the standard S350d model and the long wheelbase version tacks another £2,800 onto that. This buys you 'AMG Line' trim, the only spec level on offer. A key draw this time round will be the improved 'Intelligent Drive' driving assistance technology on offer which takes another step towards fully autonomous driving. DISTRONIC Active Proximity Control and Active Steer Assist now provide even more comfortable support for the driver to keep a safe distance and steer. The speed is now adjusted automatically ahead of curves or junctions. This is complemented by a considerably improved Active Lane Change Assist and additional functions of the Active Emergency Stop Assist.
What else? Well, a 'Remote Parking Assist' feature enables the car to be parked remotely using a smartphone app. The Burmester High-End 3D Surround Sound system now has even more speakers and an output of 1,520 watts. And a new Concierge Service can help the S-Class driver with everything from making restaurant reservations and obtaining tips about tourist routes, to gathering information on cultural or sporting events, before sending navigation destinations directly to the vehicle.
Choose this S350d model - as we suspect most British S-Class customers will - and you'll get 52.3 miles from a gallon of diesel, falling only fractionally if you go for the heftier long wheelbase version. Emissions are rated at 139g/km. Helping in this regard is Mercedes' almost obsessive quest to reduce consumption and emissions. All of the S-Class body is fabricated from aluminium to cut weight.
It's worth knowing that your maintenance outlay can be kept in check by going for the optional Service Care package that takes care of routine maintenance, spreading the cost of regular servicing, guaranteeing the price of parts and labour for up to four services and covering the cost of all recommended service items such as brake fluid, spark plugs, air filters, fuel filters and screen wash. There's also an ASSYST dashboard service indicator that monitors engine use and tells you exactly when a garage visit is due.
The longer you spend with the Mercedes S-Class, the more you appreciate the philosophy behind it. As a motoring journalist, I'm always hoping for radical and exciting because that's an easy sell for a story. Deeply ingrained brilliance? A car that's easy to live with? Not so much. The S350d isn't a car that will knock your socks off right away. In fact, you might even come away from a first drive slightly underwhelmed. After a week though, we think you won't want to give it back. You'll rarely have driven any vehicle that does so much so well for so little. True, most of us can't dredge around £75,000 from down the back of the sofa, but this car can make rivals that cost twice the price seem uncivilised - and that makes it good value in our book.
The best car in the world? That's a title that's pretty subjective but somewhat annoyingly, in our opinion Mercedes look to have pulled it off. This improved S Class dials back the show stoppers in favour of a maturity and comfort in its own skin. If money were no object we'd certainly have a petrol S500 over an S350d, but in the real world, the diesel would definitely get the nod.
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