The Mercedes S-Class springs a surprise in six cylinder petrol-powered S500 form: it now makes logical sense as an ownership proposition. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Possibly the most innovative version of the latest Mercedes S-Class saloon is this one, the six cylinder 435bhp S500 petrol model. Electrified technology vastly improves this variant's efficiency and all the usual S-Class attributes apply. You'd like one.
The Mercedes S-Class. It's traditionally been the sensible answer to the question every motoring expert likes to dodge - 'what's the best car in the world?'. Other vehicles can be more opulent, faster or better to drive but over the years, no other model has so consistently delivered such a technologically-advanced blend of automotive virtues. Here, we're looking at a vastly improved version of the sixth generation model. And checking it out in its six cylinder S500 petrol guise.
Over 6,000 components have been either created or re-designed to change the 'W222'-series model launched back in 2013 into the car you see here - which makes this the most comprehensive mid-life update made to any car in Mercedes history. You can see why the Stuttgart maker felt the need to do that, with all-new versions of BMW's 7 Series, Audi's A8, Porsche's Panamera and the Lexus LS all recently launched with jaw-dropping technology in a bid to tempt away traditional S-Class buyers. So how does it all stack up? Let's find out.
Most S-Class saloon buyers in the UK will go for the 3.0-litre 286bhp diesel fitted to the S350d variant but here, we're looking at an arguably more interesting engine. It's another brand new 3.0-litre 'six', this one fitted to the petrol-powered S500 variant and putting out 457bhp. It draws on what Mercedes calls 'systematically electrified' technology to simultaneously boost power while saving fuel. This refers to a cutting-edge 48-volt electrical system that supplies an electric compressor - basically a turbocharger powered by an electric motor, hence this variant's instant throttle response. 62mph from rest is dispatched in about 4.5s on the way to a top speed that, as with all S-Class variants, must be rather pointlessly limited to 155mph.
On the move, this car drives much like an E-Class and after the first few miles, you quickly forget the prodigious length and width. Even through the bends, it's not immediately obvious that you're piloting something weighing well over two tonnes. The brakes are reassuring and even the steering isn't too remote, though it's predictably lighter on feedback than is the case with a rival Jaguar XJ or BMW 7 Series. What we did anticipate was an exemplary standard of ride - which to a point is what you get. The full air suspension you'd now expect from a car in this class is of course a standard feature, adapting its demeanour to the 'Comfort', 'Sport', 'Sport+' and 'Individual' settings provided by the 'DYNAMIC SELECT' driving modes system. These also tweak steering feel and the responses of the '9G-TRONIC PLUS' nine-speed auto transmission that's been introduced to replace the previous 7-speed unit.
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.
The S500 is available only in 'AMG Line' trim with the long wheelbase bodystyle and it costs around £85,000. That's about £10,000 more than you'd pay for a comparable S350d diesel lwb variant.
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.
All the headlines with this current S-Class model have centred around the improved 3.0-litre diesel engine, but even greater efforts have been made with this S500's inline petrol 3.0-litre six cylinder unit. This variant can boast a huge efficiency improvement, with fuel economy up from the 31.7mpg combined cycle figure achieved by the pre-facelifted version of this derivative to 40.9mpg now. Emissions are now super-competitive too, rated at 157g/km of CO2. Both these stats are way better than those achieved by the nearest directly comparable class competitor, BMW's 750i.
Mercedes has achieved such a startling improvement with this 3.0-litre petrol variant by radical engineering changes, the S500's six cylinder unit now featuring a 48-volt electrical system supplementing the usual 12-volt set-up. Plus, instead of a conventional alternator, this powerplant has an integrated starter-generator that provides power for energy-sapping items like the water pump and the air conditioning compressor. It regulates engine idling and is integral to the brake energy regeneration system. In short, this is what Mercedes describes as a 'systematically electrified' engine, a phrase the brand has coined to avoid confusion with the Plug-in hybrid powertrain also developed for this car that offers a full-electric driving range of around 30 miles.
This sixth generation S-Class saloon remains very competitive with - and in some cases a step ahead of - more recently introduced Luxury segment rivals, especially in this S500 guise. We're especially impressed with the efficiency improvements made by its newly electrified drivetrain. As a result, the S350d diesel variant can no longer be considered the automatic default choice in the range.
As for the overall S-Class saloon proposition, well yes, other rivals may look more avant garde or handle with a touch more involvement. In overall terms though, Mercedes has done enough here to enable this model to remain a benchmark for the kind of luxury saloon every prestige brand would like to build. As it always was, it's a reference point for the current state of automotive technology. The best car in the world? You'll feel like it is if you buy one.
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