CARS.COM — As the auto world shifts to SUVs, it's easy to forget the pleasure unique to a big, powerful luxury car. But not when you're at the wheel of a deliciously decadent 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan.
The 2018 is a mid-cycle refresh of the redesigned 2014 S-Class with design tweaks and incremental improvements to its impressive array of technology — plus, most importantly, four new or updated engines. Mercedes calculates 1,600 new parts in the 2018, with the new engines counting as just one part. But the whole is greater than the sum of those parts, and the S-Class sedan, in all its variations, remains a statement as much as a car. Buyers don't just want to arrive, they want to say they've arrived.
The refreshed 2018 comes as new competition is on the horizon — particularly the new Audi A8, with its gee-whiz driving assistance technology unveiled recently in Spain and due in the U.S. next year.
We drove the S-Class at a Mercedes-Benz event in New York City and on the meandering byways of the tony Connecticut suburbs — the natural habitat of the S-Class, which does 20 percent of its total sales in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. (Per Cars.com's ethics policy, we pay our travel and lodging expenses for such automaker events.) So natural, in fact, that at a stop in busy downtown Greenwich, Conn., a Mercedes official directing the cars into reserved spaces snagged an S-Class sedan that wasn't one of ours.
The biggest changes for 2018 are under the hood, starting with a new V-6 base engine, a 362-horsepower, twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter in the S450. Next up is an all-new 463-hp, twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 in the S560 and Maybach S560. It includes cylinder deactivation and fuel efficiency is up around 10 percent from the 4.7-liter V-8 it replaces to 17/27/21 mpg city/highway/combined in the S 560. Both get a new nine-speed conventional automatic. All-wheel drive with a rear-drive bias is optional (standard on the Maybach). The 4.0-liter is amped up to 602 horsepower for the AMG S63. It gets an AMG-clutched version of the nine-speed automatic, and torque-shifting all-wheel-drive is standard. Mercedes' venerable 621-hp, twin-turbo V-12 powers the AMG S65 and Maybach S650, with a seven-speed automatic and only rear-wheel drive.
We had time in two versions: a 602-hp AMG S63 V-8 performance sedan and tamer, but still powerful, 463-hp V-8 S560 with all-wheel drive. The family also includes the V-6 S450, V-12 S65 and stretched (about 8 inches), limo-like Maybach sedans with V-8 or V-12 engines. Pricing starts at $90,895 with shipping for a base S450, but it quickly climbs into six figures.
How It Drives
While they vary in personality, all S-Class variants excel at their core job: smooth, comfortable performance befitting the luxurious and whisper-quiet cabin, whether cruising highways or navigating Manhattan's traffic and rough streets with above-it-all composure.
Handling was competent with the S560 test car and more so with the AMG-tuned chassis of the S63 muscle car, but it's still a 2-and-half-ton sedan and carving canyon roads is not in its DNA, nor is it likely to be for most of its buyers.
That said, the two test cars provided very different experiences, each enjoyable in its own way. The S560 had plenty of power on tap (zero-to-60 mph is rated at 4.6 seconds), but the V-8 was barely heard. Its nine-speed automatic was responsive but seemed tuned to be unobtrusive. The car's adaptive air suspension made road imperfections all but disappear thanks in part to a body control system that uses a stereo camera to scan the road ahead for potholes and other hazards and adjusts the suspension accordingly. It doesn't, however, alter wheel movement to the extent of the system in the coming Audi A8. The Mercedes' control system also moderates body shift in acceleration and braking, but the serenity of it all can make you feel a bit disconnected.
The S63 is a different animal — still a comfortable cruiser, but with neck-snapping acceleration on tap at most any speed. Zero-to-60 mph using launch control arrives in just 3.4 seconds. The AMG version of the nine-speed automatic clicked off shifts crisply on its own or via the paddles and downshifted willingly, dropping gears at the slightest provocation — and with crackling, popping exhaust notes in Sport Plus driving mode. And despite its wet clutch in place of a traditional torque converter, it was well-behaved in traffic. The S63's AMG-tuned air suspension was just as comfortable in most situations as the S560, even in Sport, Sport Plus and Comfort modes, but you feel more in touch with the road; there also is a configurable custom mode. The braking with 15.4-inch discs and six-piston calipers up front was impressive.
The S63 performance was so impressive that I had to ask why Mercedes still offers the 6.0-liter V-12 AMG S65 brute, which is 0.7 seconds slower to 60 mph, has the older seven-speed automatic and does not offer all-wheel drive to help harness the 621 horses and 738 pounds-feet of torque. A Mercedes official pointed to the V-12 badge on the fender and said it's demand from buyers who want the "ultimate." Apparently, that's not the ultimate performance of the S63, but rather the cachet of a V-12 and its unique exhaust note — not to mention the most chrome on its face of any S-Class sedan.
Safety and Assistance Tech Pushes Level 2
The already ample offerings of S-Class driver assistance technology is refined further in the 2018, with the sensor systems looking farther ahead and behind the car, building on some of the advances first seen in the redesigned E-Class sedan last year. The adaptive cruise control now employs navigation GPS and map data to adjust speed for upcoming curves, turns and intersections (and, if you choose, follow speed limit changes). It takes a while to trust, but the system worked smoothly in my testing.
Steering assist also is advanced beyond previous lane centering to handle tighter curves, more speeds and degraded lane markings, as well as assisting in keeping control in evasive swerves. It also now includes an automatic lane change: Press the turn signal and the car will search for a safe opening, including checking the speed of more distant approaching vehicles, and then change lanes on its own.
The overall package pushes the envelope of Level 2 autonomous driving but is more conservative than some of the coming A8's Level 3 autonomous technology, though it's not clear how that will be deployed in the U.S.
Make It Your Own, for a Price
The exterior design changes are subtle, though enough for Mercedes cognoscenti to spot the 2018's new front and rear bumpers, grilles, wheels and lighting.
There are more functional changes inside, the most obvious being the simpler dashboard with a single glass panel that spans the two 12.3-inch screens: a center screen handling multimedia and vehicle control functions, and a configurable instrument and information display in front of the driver. The multimedia system remains controlled by voice, a touchpad or knob controller and shortcut buttons. It sounds complicated, but in practice it was easy to use and kept distraction to a minimum.
A new steering wheel includes touch-sensitive buttons (like tiny touchpads) at the right and left that can be used to control most of the car's screens and systems. I had to master the right touch, but I ended up liking the utility of the new buttons. The sophisticated cruise control now moves to the new steering wheel, marking goodbye to Mercedes' unique cruise-control stalk.
But spotting the 2018 design changes is complicated by a dizzying array of appearance options and special upholstery and trim packages that let the buyer, for a price, personalize their new ride inside and out. That's along with a myriad of pampering and technology options and rear-seat packages.
Checking the boxes makes it yours, but it also quickly balloons the price. The well-optioned S560 test car grew from $103,895 with shipping to $134,455, while the AMG S63 test car weighed in at $183,995 with nearly $40,000 in extras, from additional performance upgrades to rear-seat entertainment, and including matte-gray paint and blacked-out trim that didn't look altogether comfortable to my eye on an S-Class sedan (but would look great on a Dodge Charger).
The Silly Stuff
Part of the fun of such a full-out luxury car is some features no one really needs but can surprise and delight anyway. The S-Class has no shortage. Among them are 64 color choices for the interior ambient lights, with a choice of intensity and zone. And the light show is all around you, from the dash and doors to speakers and footwells.
You can add a rear seatback refrigerator, too, if you're willing to sacrifice a big piece of trunk space. And the Maybach offers a $3,000 silver champagne flute option.
But perhaps the most novel is the Energizing Comfort system purported to promote wellness. It lets you select a holistic cabin atmosphere with 10-minute sessions to perk up or calm down your mood. The center display graphic shows you a choice of six packages: Freshness, Warmth, Vitality, Joy, Comfort and Training, which has three routines. They combine preprogrammed music with an appropriate beat, cabin aromatherapy, seat massage settings, seat heating and ventilation, and ambient lighting for suitable rejuvenation. The system also can scan your personal music for appropriate beats. We went for Vitality; Warmth seemed too relaxing for safety, but the novelty wore off quickly for me.
Buy or Wait?
Most S-Class models are on sale now, with the AMG S65, the S560 rear-wheel-drive version and Maybach S650 V-12 due by the end of the year. A 2018 S560e plug-in hybrid, unveiled in Germany in September, will arrive in the U.S. in mid-2018, Mercedes-Benz officials said.
The differences with the coming new A8 are so much at the high-tech margins, particularly the driver assistance systems, that whether to wait may be as much a matter of aesthetics and emotional response as any feature — i.e., which car would get your juices going just sitting in your driveway. For my money, you could not go wrong, depending on your tastes, with either the S560 or AMG S63 available right now.