Although it launched locally late last year, the only Mercedes-Benz S-Class available to drive was the entry-level S350 turbo diesel.
The S350's 190kW, 620Nm 3.0-litre V6 delivers a super sweet-spot of performance and economy, and the $215,000 asking price seems fair given the indulgent interior and benchmark ride quality and refinement.
The model grade at the other end of the S-Class line-up is the $385,000 S63 AMG, a twin-turbocharged 5.5-litre brute in a pinstripe suit which we are yet to sample.
And sitting between those two is the $285,000 S500 and the specification we’re testing here – the $310,000 S500 L. So is the S500 L worth almost $100K more than the S350?
The ‘L’ stands for long wheelbase, stretching the standard Mercedes-Benz S-Class body by 130mm to 5.25 metres so longer-legged high flyers are even better accommodated.
The longer-wheelbase variant strains the corporate credit card by a reasonable $7500 on the S350, but it adds $25,000 to the price of the S500 - though some of the extra ask is attributable to equipment such as electrically adjustable rear seats with memory, electric rear and side blinds and goose-down head restraints.
The recipe to make the rest of the S500 L package is as straightforward as the stretch in length. Behind the behemoth Mercedes chrome grille and beneath the stately three-pointed-star badge lies a 4.7-litre twin-turbocharged petrol V8 engine producing 335kW of power and 700Nm of torque.
Only just part of the double-tonne club, weighing 2015kg, the S500 L accelerates from standstill to 100km/h in 4.8 seconds – two seconds faster than the diesel. (And if time does equal money for you, that equates to $50K per second saved. )
Auto stop-start technology helps the seven-speed-auto-equipped, rear-wheel-drive limousine achieve a combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 9.2L/100km, though a chauffeur driver with a lead right foot will almost double that in mixed conditions. We achieved 16.3L/100km during a free-flowing extra-urban run at night.
Inside, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class presents as a perfectly executed modern twist on traditional limo themes. There’s the expected lashings of leather, analogue clock, nautical-style circular air vents that rotate with precision, and even a two-spoke steering wheel that isn’t usually associated with today’s premium cars.
The 12.3-inch screen connects with a TFT speedometer and tachometer that both sit raised from the leather-topped dashboard to create a floating effect. Behind the screens is soft mood lighting that also glows from the doorhandles and lower dashboard. The lighting colour can be changed, but it isn’t an easy task as the Mercedes-Benz Comand infotainment system can be tricky to learn.
The circular dial in the middle of the console cleverly stops rotating when you come to the end of a menu – say, an album playlist or settings. It’s flanked by shortcut buttons to access media or satellite-navigation, for example, but not climate, which is accessed by its own ‘menu’ rocker switch on the line of climate controls. It’s tricky because to simply change the ventilation direction drivers need to press menu then access a further sub-menu. The climate control information flanks only a small line on the bottom of the screen, and the circular dial also needs to be pressed down to access each climate function.
Even adjusting the lumbar support – as one front-seat passenger wanted to do – requires delving deep to find the right, erm, Comand.
It is complicated, but then the features the Mercedes-Benz S-Class offers are also complex.
The NTG5 Comand system includes Google Earth and Street View, an internet browser and apps functionality for weather-checking, to name one example. The S-Class can become its own wifi hot-spot if a SIM card is used and it is signed up to an internet provider, or the driver’s phone can be tethered to the car and share its internet with other passengers (read more here).
NTG5 offers 250Gb of storage (though it is not a solid-state hard drive), WLAN, DTV, an SD card reader, two USB ports and Bluetooth technology, but curiously there’s no simple auxiliary-in port – which that same passenger also found bemusing.
But into the S500 L’s all important rear cabin…
Although Sir is able to recline in the plushly padded back seat of the S500 L, the options list stretches further than the legroom given back there. Massaging front seats are a $3875 option, and if you want a back-rub where it’s arguably most needed in the rear, that’s another $5500. There is standard four-zone climate control to keep cool or warm, though, and side blinds to keep the paparazzi out.
My passenger who has driven a Range Rover Evoque did, however, ask if the large front centre screen can change what it shows depending on the angle it’s seen from – to allow the passenger to watch a DVD where the driver only sees the sat-nav functions, for example – but that is another $2200 option.
The wonderful 1540-watt, 24-speaker Burmester audio system fitted to our test car adds $9900, but for a real bit of magic the S-Class asks a further $9675.
Magic body control is Benz-speak for the system that uses a rearview-mirror-mounted stereo camera to read the surface of the road, then adjusts the adaptive suspension to deal with the obstacle ahead. With speed humps, for example, the system knows exactly when the front and rear wheels are going to hit the impact, and pulls each damper up then pushes it down to keep the body flat. It works unbelievably well, literally making speed humps feel like road plates.
The Mercedes-Benz S500 L wears 20-inch low-profile tyres as standard, and these perhaps contribute to some jarring over sharp potholes around town. There’s more suspension noise than you might expect, but big hits are rarely felt in the cabin. The wheel and tyre package might also be the culprit for the slight ripple effect from the suspension over imperfect arterials.
Otherwise, the ride quality is stunning, particularly the way the S500 L manages to feel both plush and tight at the same time. There’s a Sport button that can be pressed to firm up the suspension, but that switches magic body control off.
The silence really is golden. A V8 engine it might be, but the distant roar from behind the firewall dulls the sensation of speed, while wind and road noise is the lowest of any car I’ve tested – a quietness that stunned my passenger, too. Sink the slipper slowly and the swell of torque gently presses the heads of occupants into the goose down padding; stab the throttle quickly and some AMG product clearly lurks within because beyond a moment of surprising turbo lag the S500 L is keen to spin its rear tyres, particularly in the wet.
On tighter roads the S-Class feels a bit cumbersome, as you might expect, but its composure and sharpness on smoother, sweeping bends is remarkable. Its steering is superbly judged for a limousine, with a light weighting, connected feel and a quickness from lock-to-lock that belies its size. The S500 L had a tighter turning circle than the mid-sized Infiniti Q50 diesel tested in the same week.
Although it doesn’t feel its size around town, the S-Class does secure its large footprint on the road with Driving Assistance Package Plus standard on all models. Using a total 28 cameras, sensors and radars, the S500 L can stop then go using the active cruise control, detect lane markings and subtly move the steering wheel to keep the car in the lane, and recognise cars and pedestrians then automatically brake should a driver fail to.
As tested during our drive, wandering out of a detected lane results in the S500 L subtly applying brakes on one side of the car to pull it back into lane. A bus that got too close to our rear three quarter panel on the Sydney Harbour Bridge resulted in a visible alert and slight brake to pull us away from the bus – slight, but not intrusive.
Unfortunately, however, neither lane detection nor magic body control worked at night in the rain, the conditions for part of our drive. Night vision assistance, which projects an infra-red image of the road ahead between the speedometer and tachometer, would have been useful, but it is a $4650 option.
Although not fashionable in a world of niche luxury SUVs and sexy sports cars, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class successfully puts a modern spin on a traditional segment and its technology is amazing. It does charge a lot for the privilege, though, and its price is arguably at a high enough level to include more of those truly special items, rather than require option boxes to be ticked.