There are sufficient safety features to fill an encyclopedia, although many – including the new rear belt bag, which incorporates an airbag within the belt strap, plus night vision and radar cruise control with an automatic braking function – are optional. The same goes for the extensive connectivity features, which are based around a WLAN Hot Spot head unit that now forms part of the multimedia system.
Start the S-class with its incongruously old-fashioned black plastic electronic key and the engine catches with a faint hum before you draw the shift lever down a notch and pull away. One of the main assets of the new car is its advanced suspension, and its uncanny ability to absorb bumps while providing a perfectly level ride can be felt well within the very first mile. It is also immediately obvious that noise suppression is exemplary.
The S 500 gathers speed with a degree of smoothness that underlines Mercedes’ efforts to make mechanical refinement a top priority. The aim was not merely to match the Audi A8, BMW 7-series and Jaguar XJ for driveline finesse but to attain similarly silken on-throttle qualities to the Silver Spur and Ghost. Less inherent sportiness, more indulging luxury is the clear message here.
There is sufficient power to endow the S 500 with solid acceleration, given a determined squeeze of the throttle. A claimed 0-62mph time of 4.8sec makes it 0.2sec quicker than its predecessor, and there’s terrific stability as you approach the limited 155mph top speed. The S-class spears along with a wonderfully nonchalant manner that will make it hard to beat as a trans-continental express.
That said, it feels just at home on a steady cruise at motorway speeds. Long gearing and reasonably strong reserves of torque provide a superbly relaxed yet flexible quality that makes the S-class as impressive from the driver’s seat as it is with your legs stretched out in the back. Backing up the improved response from the engine is enhanced operation of the gearbox, which, with revised electronic mapping, is more impressive than ever.
Yes, the performance and driveline refinement really are masterful. But the S-class’s crowning achievement is the way that it cossets its occupants. At both low speeds around town and higher speeds on the autobahn, it possesses superb primary and secondary ride and unflappable body control. Noise, vibration and harshness levels are also among the lowest I’ve ever come across.
Negatives? The speed-sensitive electro-mechanical steering, while providing a more confidence-inspiring feel with more weighting than the helm of the old S-class, sometimes feels synthetic and lacks conviction off centre. Perhaps it is a drawback of some of the technology that it has been engineered to support, including a highly effective lane-keeping function. It is nothing too off-putting – you can thread the new model along winding country roads with a solid degree of confidence – but in a car that excels in so many other areas, you’re left feeling that the steering could offer more feedback to allow you to better place it in corners.
A high parcel shelf and large rear seat headrests combine with an angled rear screen and more tapered C-pillars to limit rear vision. I get the feeling that the advent of systems such as blind spot control have allowed the designers more freedom at the expense of basics such as uninterrupted visibility. Boot capacity is reduced, too, and in a car of this size it really is an oversight. Beyond that and the somewhat ordinary ignition key, I’d be scratching for excuses. It is hard to see how you could improve it on many levels.