The 2015 Mercedes-Benz S-Class has a few issues, but overall it preserves the nameplate's premium reputation with a deft mix of comfort, drivability and technology.
If your daily commute is a real headache, top-shelf luxury sedans like the BMW 7 Series, Lexus LS and Audi A8 are the auto industry's ibuprofen — and the S-Class, which outsells all three of those cars combined, is the proverbial leading brand. Discerning shoppers will find that the Benz falters in a few areas, but it mostly lives up to the hype: The S-Class is one fine car.
We drove a 2014 model, but the car carries over with few changes for 2015. There are four S-Class drivetrains for 2015, including two high-performance AMG versions; we drove an S550. Click here to read our take on the group's quickest performer, the S63. Mercedes also added an S-Class coupe, which replaces the erstwhile CL-Class. Explore the whole gamut here, or stack up the 2014 and 2015 S-Class here.
Exterior & Styling
The S-Class uses not a single halogen light, Mercedes says; instead, as many as 95 LEDs populate the sedan's nose and tail — just a few of the nearly 500 LEDs used throughout the car. The result is a hulking face, complete with plunging stripes that arc toward a lower bumper opening, setting the tone for Mercedes' entire car lineup. The C-Class and E-Class look like junior versions of the S-Class.
AMG versions have deeper bumper openings, much of which the S550 mimics when equipped with a $5,900 Sport Package. That package also replaces the standard 18-inch alloy wheels with a choice of 19s or 20s, which the S600, S63 and S65 include standard. Curiously, you can't get an S600 with the Sport Package; that car — a $167,000-plus, V-12-powered sedan — maintains a reserved appearance.
How It Drives
The S550 pours on speed in an effortless manner. Even in Economy mode, the seven-speed automatic tucks in a two-gear downshift so imperceptibly that you don't realize it, and suddenly you've turned 70 mph into 80 mph — and the engine is whisper-silent even when that happens. It sings out a midrange pitch if you bury your right foot into the gas, but even that sounds composed.
Accelerator lag, a problem that plagued the last S-Class, is tolerably slight here, and the car's fuel-saving stop-start sequence is the best in the business, turning the engine off and on with imperceptible speed when you come to a stop then continue again. Ride quality retains the utter composure of the prior car, whose Airmatic air suspension reduced manhole covers to the borders of imagination. That's still the case today; you get a bit more feedback in Sport mode, but even then the S-Class rides softly. I sense it's a touch firmer than before, but our test car lacked Mercedes' new Magic Body Control system, which employs cameras to scan the road ahead for bumps then prepares the suspension to quell them. But even without MBC — which is standard on the S600 and S65, unavailable on the S63 and a steep $4,450 on the S550 — those who want plushness at all costs have found their chariot. If you want more feedback, the XJ and A8 dial out the road a bit less.
Naturally, handling takes a backseat — but, as one editor noted, the S-Class isn't trying to be a sporty car. It steers with a soupy, light touch that's as low-effort as you'll find in power steering these days. The nose points where it needs to, but there's a boat-like aspect to it all. Wheel the S550 into a hard corner, and the car wallows into its outside wheels, even in Sport mode. The tires — I drove on 20-inch Goodyear Eagle F1 high-performance summer rubber, which are optional with the Sport Package — were the lone positive in the equation, holding the 4,773-pound sedan on impressive course until the chassis finally surrendered to modest understeer.
Highway road and wind noise are hushed, and the S-Class' suite of semi-autonomous driving systems function as advertised, keeping the car on course behind the vehicle ahead. Mercedes' Active Steer system works in concert with Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control to nudge the wheel left or right and keep you in your lane. It briefly disengages if you leave your hands off the wheel too long and scolds you with a gauge warning. The system follows a combination of cues, including the car ahead and the lane markings. In one bumper-to-bumper highway situation, the car ahead abruptly changed lanes — and our car began to follow it. Fortunately, a slight tug on the wheel overrides the movement.
Posh cabin materials are to be expected in this league and the S-Class delivers. Stitched wrappings abound, from the steering wheel hub to the upper doors, dashboard and center console. Clad in optional exclusive Nappa leather, our test car's seats had pillow-soft head restraints and supportive backsides. Ours was the middle choice among five available leathers in the car, which include ascending grades of Nappa and, finally, Designo semi-aniline cowhide. Tremble, all ye bovines.
Absent the shorter-wheelbase version offered by many competitors — and Mercedes itself, in some overseas markets — the S-Class' rear seats have scads of legroom and decent headroom, though the chairs could sit another inch or so off the floor to optimize thigh support for adults. The backseat offers a gamut of optional luxuries, from a passenger-side rear seat that reclines 43.5 degrees, to power-extending foot and leg rests, heated and cooled rear cupholders, seat massagers and aluminum-edged tables.
Ergonomics & Electronics
For 2015, the S-Class' standard Comand multimedia system adds the redesigned C-Class' touchpad atop a control knob. You can swipe, pinch and tap the touchpad to control menus along the 12.3-inch dashboard screen (and if you don't like it, the knob's familiar menu tiers and nudge-and-turn functionality remain). Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, navigation, two USB ports, Burmester surround-sound audio and in-car Wi-Fi are all standard (Wi-Fi subscription is required after a three-month trial). Options include dual rear entertainment screens, an even higher-end Burmester stereo and a split-view front screen that projects separate programming to the front passenger that the driver can't see.
Comand's maze of submenus can get a bit Byzantine, as various vehicle, seating and multimedia settings reside in separate menu threads you have to re-access from the top. Some menus make you sit through seconds-long animations of the S-Class approaching, leaving or swinging its doors open. You can start the next command before the animation finishes, but it's not always clear what you're doing until it's done. And beware: Too many commands can overwhelm the system. As we worked through a submenu in vehicle settings, the S-Class' screen froze for some 10 minutes, refusing to access the backup camera or any other menus. Stopping and restarting the car didn't amend things; finally, we left the car for an hour and the system rebooted to its original state. At least the freeze didn't affect the adjacent 12.3-inch screen, which holds the speedometer and tachometer.
Cargo & Storage
The S-Class has 16.3 cubic feet of trunk volume, though any of the option packages involving the rear seats diminishes that space. Mercedes officials furnished no specifications on what's left when those options are chosen, but our car was equipped with power rear seats and a fair amount of trunk space remained. A power trunk is standard.
The S-Class has not been crash-tested. Standard features include an auto-braking forward collision warning system, drowsy-driver warning, adaptive high-beam headlights and Mercedes' Pre-Safe system, which cinches seat belts and begins to close any open windows or sunroof if it intuits an imminent collision. Nine airbags are standard. For the rear seats, cushion airbags and seat belt airbags, which inflate in the belts to spread out the restraint force, are optional. So are blind spot warning, lane departure warning and active steering systems.
Value in Its Class
Seldom does a single car overtake its segment, but that's what the S-Class has done. Effortless power with any drivetrain, a plethora of safety tech and handsome (if expected, given the segment) interior quality explain why. Shoppers have a lot of plush choices when it comes to top-shelf luxury sedans, and the S-Class may not be your winner — especially considering its $200,000-plus price ceiling. But it's safe to say that for anyone with that budget, Mercedes' storied flagship is a must-try.
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