All eyes are on Mercedes-Benz’s new suite of electric vehicles, spearheaded by the flagship EQS and soon to be joined by the EQE and some even more advanced conceptual visions. The EQS is accomplished – no doubt about that – but for the time being it shares top billing with the long-established ruler of the Mercedes roost, the S-Class sedan. A new version of the Mercedes S-Class was recently unveiled, perhaps the last to be conventionally powered before electrification has the whole company in its grip. 

We sampled the S500, a car so festooned with technology that it requires a short briefing session before you can even get behind the wheel. From a facial recognition system that does away with the need for an ignition button, to rear wheel steering that appears to shrink the size of the car in small spaces, to all the necessary plumbing and sensors required for future automated driving on (German) motorways and heavy traffic. 

The new Mercedes S-Class
The new Mercedes S-Class has a stately presence (shown here in S350 trim)

The S is a very big car, with more than ample back seat space (and amenities) for the most demanding of passengers. They can recline with the bespoke control tablet and set the temperature and lighting to their satisfaction. Up front, the control surfaces are even more copious, dealt with by two large touch screens on the central console. The facial recognition can apparently detect which wing mirror you’re looking at in order to help you adjust it and the voice control is starting to approach parity with the best digital assistants.

However, as with all technology that involves speaking or gesturing, familiarity is the key to effective functionalism, so the longer you own your S-Class, the more in tune you’ll get with its systems. 

Augmented reality navigation in the Mercedes S-Class
The Mercedes S-Class has augmented reality navigation that projects direction information onto the windscreen

Mercedes S-Class and AR navigation

Other innovations have more impact straight out of the box. Mercedes design boss Gorden Wagener has spoken about the increasing amount of information being projected onto the windscreen and the S-Class paves the way. The augmented reality navigation slaps big 3D arrows onto the display ahead of you, effectively and coherently pointing the way at junctions and roundabouts.

The effect feels a little bit cyberpunk, almost as if someone has hacked into your visual cortex, but within five years or so, this kind of thing will be standard in high-end cars

Mercedes S-Class rear passenger compartment
The Mercedes S-Class rear passenger compartment is still a special place to sit

That future thinking was always the S-Class’ big selling point; the model was a trailblazer for tomorrow’s technology, keeping its owners ahead of everyone else. However, it’s getting hard to justify having a conventionally fuelled car as your technological flagship, hence the arrival of the equivalently sized but pure electric EQS.

Both cars are being built in one of the company’s newest facilities, the Mercedes-Benz Factory 56. Designed by German mega-practice HENN Architects, established by Gunter Henn in 1979, the 220,000 sq m plant is all about more automation and lower emissions. Designed to be fully carbon neutral by using, amongst other things, 12,000 photovoltaic panels and an energy-storage system based on reused vehicle batteries, the €730m plant will also build the Mercedes-Maybach S-Class, the current pinnacle of the company’s range. 

 the Mercedes S-Class
This is how you build a modern dashboard: the Mercedes S-Class

Hush and handling

The S500 offers no surprises in performance and handling, it’s just quietly superb. The rear-axle steering makes it nimble, but at highway speeds the level of hush feels weirdly incompatible with the acceleration on offer. Mercedes used to offer an ultra-high-performance AMG-fettled version of the S-Class, but a variant based on this new model hasn’t yet surfaced. In any case, the AMG version was always a bit too gauche for the S-Class image, although doubtless there’s still demand for such a powerful car.

A much better option is newly introduced plug-in hybrid version of the S-Class, the S580e L. This will deliver 63 miles of pure electric range, working in conjunction with a straight six engine. There’s also no longer a coupé or cabriolet version on offer. 

The Mercedes S-Class
A class act to the end: the Mercedes S-Class

In standard form, the Mercedes S-Class remains a towering achievement, more comfortable and refined than practically any other car you can buy. Yet even after 60 years at the top, the model can still claim to be relatively low-key compared to rivals from Rolls-Royce and Bentley, perhaps due to its ubiquity (it’s still the world’s best-selling luxury car, although market share is on the decline). It still carries more cachet than its German rivals, the Audi A8 and BMW 7-Series.

However, as priorities are reshuffled, all of these companies will be introducing new flagships, using the opportunities of electric drive to transform the shape and image of the luxury car. Staying one step ahead will doubtless get harder and harder. §