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It’s almost futile to attempt to ‘objectively’ assess a vehicle like the peerless 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Does a buyer with anywhere from $200,000–$300,000 to spend really care about objective measurements anyway? Is there any merit in ‘comparing’ a vehicle to others when in reality it effectively sits alone in its class?
The answer is ‘probably not’ to both of those somewhat rhetorical questions, and yet here we are with the current Mercedes-Benz S-Class – back-to-back over two weeks.
First, we sample the S400dL – arguably the model where the smart money goes – and then into the S560L, where deeper pockets are required. Not just to buy the vehicle in the first place either, as you’ll be using a hell of a lot more petrol than diesel. We can attest to that.
Smart money is a novel concept when you’ve got the kind of pockets that accommodate the purchase of an S-Class of any kind. This could boil down to simply whether you prefer diesel or petrol. Regardless, there’s an S-Class to suit either buyer, and we have access to both. Now I just need a driver…
For me, this long-wheelbase limo class is about two things – comfort and amenities. The exact numbers escape me, but in Australia around 90 per cent of S-Class owners drive themselves. You’d expect in the Middle East or China, for example, those percentages would be the complete opposite. Regardless, Australian owners buy an S-Class so their passengers can be comfortable and as a statement.
Whereas an early adopter is effectively telling everyone they are ahead of the tech curve, an S-Class owner is making the subtle declaration that they know and understand the best available in safety, driving assistance and quality. In terms of run of the mill, off the production line vehicles, it still doesn’t get much better than an S-Class.
While handmade vehicles, built necessarily in lower volumes and without any of the concessions to mass production, will claim the moral high ground in terms of exclusivity, there’s much to be complimentary about with regard to the S-Class. While BMW’s 7 Series and Audi’s A8 continue to exist as alternatives, neither can really match the sumptuous luxury and cosseting ride of the S-Class. And, that’s what it’s all about in this segment.
As tested, the Mercedes-Benz S400dL starts from $222,500 before on-road costs while the S560L asks for $270,000 before on-road costs.
Our S400dL has black/porcelain Nappa leather ($3875), black poplar high-gloss wood trim ($950), 20-inch AMG wheels ($1000) and the AIR-BALANCE package ($800), taking the price out to $229,125 before on-road costs.
The S560L, on the other hand, has only the front seat comfort package added at a cost of $3875, taking the price out to $273,875 before on-road costs.
We’ll look at the two different engine variants in a minute, but first the cabin. Our S400dL tester is more heavily optioned than the S560L we swap into, and as such, it feels a little more luxurious. Softer leather (finished in an airier beige, not black), down-filled neck pillows and reclining seats in the second row, it’s as good as passenger-focused luxury gets.
Both cars get customisable LED ambient lighting, a subtle air freshener scent that can be dialled up or down to suit, and which wafts into the cabin through the AC system, and the twin 12.1-inch screen infotainment system. If you think something like the LED cabin lighting is silly, fiddle with the system in the dark of night and you’ll see how the cabin ambience changes as you change the colour. If you can’t decide on just one colour, let the system roll through a kaleidoscope for you.
Despite the obvious passenger focus, the S-Class is very much a driver’s car should sir or madam wish to pilot their own. The driving position, visibility, comfort, controls and ergonomics are all excellent, and the massive twin interactive displays are as good as current tech gets.
There’s no Apple CarPlay/Android Auto on offer, but there is inductive charging and a rock-solid Bluetooth connection that works faultlessly for phone calls and audio streaming. Using the phone as an iPod is as seamless as either Spotify or Apple Music too, and COMAND remains as intuitive and simple to use as it’s always been. It’s an ageing system, yes – and we know MB has smartphone-like tech coming – but it works seamlessly. And you can’t criticise that.
Crucially, both the S400dL and S560L ride perfectly. Some supposed luxury cars crash through potholes, bottom out over speed humps and feel way too firm for the intended task, but not the S-Class. Despite the big wheels and skinny tyres (20-inch for both), the S-Class has a way of wafting over any surface with consummate ease. It nails the luxury brief with aplomb the way I see it, and ride would be at the top of my list if I was shopping in this segment.
In short, the S-Class rides better than most luxury SUVs – even those sporting a Mercedes-Benz badge.
While there’s an obvious attraction to a powerful petrol engine, the S400dL surprises us most after a week of testing. The 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo-diesel engine is ridiculously smooth, such that you can barely tell it's a diesel at start-up and idle. It rolls out a buttery smooth 250kW and 700Nm. Irrelevant though it may be, it will scoot from 0–100km/h in just 5.4 seconds while the ADR fuel claim is 5.5L/100km.
With only a 120km highway run added to the mix of heavy traffic-snarled driving, the S400dL used an indicated 9.0L/100km, which is staggeringly efficient in the real world for such a big, heavy vehicle.
Efficiency doesn’t mean boring or slavish either; in fact, the S400dL feels even faster than its 0–100km/h claim would indicate. It roars off the mark, launching hard if you want it to, and you can manhandle it through traffic like a much smaller vehicle – despite the incivility of driving a limo in such a manner.
The 700Nm torque slab is a genuine kick to the back of the head (insulated by the goose down pillow, of course), and is the main reason the S400dL feels so effortless off the mark and through the rev range. Truth be told, once you’re riding the tail end of that 700Nm, you’ve started to ease off the throttle pedal anyway.
Conversely, under the S560L’s lengthy bonnet resides a 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 engine, which hammers out a mighty 375kW and the same 700Nm as the S400dL. 0–100km/h comes up in 4.7 seconds and the ADR fuel claim is a ‘slightly’ unrealistic 8.5L/100km. How unrealistic? Around town, we could not get the S560L under 20L/100km, no matter how gently we drove.
You could argue (with some merit) that the intended buyer won’t care a jot about the heavy thirst, but in the real world, the V8 is hardly any smoother than the diesel, and the diesel also has more than enough punch to justify saving buy-in money.
The V8 engine is a beautifully balanced blend of power and performance, though, and it feels utterly unstressed and effortless, even when you wind it right up to redline. The S560L has a way of maintaining an effortless relaxation in the cabin at all times too, regardless of how enthusiastic your use of the right pedal.
The S-Class remains the gold standard in the luxury limousine segment, with engine options to appeal to different buyers, sumptuous ride quality, and cabin luxury as good as it gets. This end of the market hardly needs our support in their buying decision, but they can rest assured that it doesn’t get any better than the S-Class.
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