First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The 2018 Ramona-Benz S650 Maybach has a certain ring to it, don’t you think? If not for the order of four names on the birth certificate of a baby girl born in 1889 — Mercedes Adrienne Ramona Manuela Jellinek — it could very well be so. The Mercedes-Benz brand has come an infinitely long way from the heady, 19th century roots of Mercedes Jellinek and her father Emil. Mercedes has come a long way, even, from the introduction of the first car to inspire the S-Class in 1954, the W180 “Ponton” sedan. Now, some 45 years since the introduction of the W116, the first car to be officially designated an S-Class, Mercedes-Benz is rolling out the latest version of what has become a time-tested benchmark of the luxury full-size sedan segment — the 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Replete with all the semi-robotic functions you’d expect in a 21st Century gadget of six-figure proportions, the 2018 S-Class doesn’t disappoint, despite not being all that visually distinguishable from the 2014-2017 model it’s replacing, particularly inside. That visual similarity isn’t a bad thing; the S-Class was already a very handsome vehicle. Other than a new V-12-style grille, new lights all around, gently massaged front and rear bumpers and a few other minor updates, the sheetmetal remains unchanged.

But Mercedes’ engineers didn’t just phone this one in. They just spent their efforts elsewhere: on a whole new line of engines and transmissions; on a new 4MATIC+ all-wheel-drive system; and on enhanced technology on all fronts from self-driving to entertainment, and even into new frontiers of “well-being.”

An entirely new slate of engines and transmissions means there’s a bit of model-name mix-up coming for the 2018 models: the S560 replaces the S550, the Mercedes-Maybach S560 and S650 now sit atop the range in place of the S600, and the S63 and S65 carry forward, changed but with their names intact. A new S450 model will also join the range at launch. For the U.S., that launch happens in fall of 2017 for most models, though the rear-drive S560, the S65 sedan, and the Mercedes-Maybach S650 rear-wheel-drive won’t arrive until “late 2017.”

The S450 gets the 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 we’ve seen in several other applications from the brand (rated here at 362 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque), while its 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 finds its home in the S560 as well as the S63 after some AMG fettling. In S560 trim (both standard and Maybach), the 4.0-liter turns out 463 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, a gain of 14 hp over the previous 4.7-liter twin-turbo. The S63 gets an even bigger bump, gaining 26 hp over the old twin-turbo 5.5-liter for a rating of 603 hp and 664 lb-ft of torque.

Behind the wheel, the power differences of the newer engines aren’t really all that palpable. The car’s all-new 9-speed automatic transmission, however, helps the updated 2018 S-Class feel a bit smoother and quicker, thanks to its close ratios and slick, easy shifts. No doubt the new 4MATIC+ all-wheel-drive system plays a role in making the car feel quicker off the line, too — but more on those in a second.

The biggest news in the S-Class engine world isn’t news at all for the United States. A new S500 model is being launched in Europe and elsewhere in the world, powered by an all-new M256 engine sporting a cutting edge 48-volt electrical system that allows it to combine mild hybrid functions with starter-generator functions through a sandwiched electrical drive unit. This, in turn, allows Mercedes to convert all of the external accessories from their archaic belt-drive to more efficient, and more controllable, electric-driven accessories. Getting rid of the accessories on the front of the engine also decreases its length, making it easier to package the M256’s inline six-cylinder layout. Electric-drive accessories on the M256 include the engine’s water pump and the air conditioning compressor, but also an electric supercharger that fills the 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder’s torque gaps. The result? A more efficient, smarter engine that’s capable of 429 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque in S500 trim. Those figures net the M256-powered S500 a 0 to 60 mph time of roughly 4.7 seconds. Unfortunately, we won’t get this powertrain in America — or at least there are no plans for it as yet.

The aforementioned 9-speed automatic transmission lies at the heart of every 2018 S-Class with the exception of the V-12s, which soldier on with the high-torque handling 7-speed MCT. For the non-AMG models, that means a 9G-Tronic with paddle shifters. The new transmission offers a wider spread of available gear ratios for more efficient cruising at speed. For the S63, the upgrade to 9 speeds means an AMG Speedshift MCT transmission with multiple downshift capability and a rev-matching feature that uses a single wet clutch in place of the torque converter.

Both variations of the 9-speed are crisp and responsive (noticeably more so in manual and sport modes) without acting balky or awkward at lower speeds. It’s not the sort of transmission to get a gearhead’s veins flowing with lube, but it is the transparently smooth sort of power delivery device you’d expect and want in an S-Class. That’s not to say the S-Class is sleepy; even the base V-6-powered S450 scampers to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds (4.8 with 4MATIC); the S560 manages the run in 4.5 seconds. The Maybachs are a touch slower, checking in at 4.8 seconds (S560 Maybach 4MATIC), and 4.6 seconds (S650 Maybach). The mighty, hulking S65 requires just 4.2 seconds to hit 60 mph.

Also new for the S63 AMG is the automaker’s 4MATIC+ all-wheel-drive system. Instead of the fixed-ratio setup AMG cars were once known for, this version now implements infinitely variable front-rear power distribution for the 2018 model year. This is made possible by an electromagnetic clutch, which constantly adapts to road conditions and driver behavior, functioning as a rear-drive car when grip is good, but adding progressively more torque to the front axle as needed. In practice, the 4MATIC+ system, like the new 9-speed AMG Speedshift MCT, is exactly as it should be: very good, and seamlessly transparent. Thanks to the combination of new engine, transmission, and 4MATIC+ all-wheel-drive, the new S63 shaves 0.5 seconds from its 0 to 60 mph time, now doing the deed in just 3.4 ticks of the stopwatch.

When the W222 S-Class debuted for the 2014 model year, it brought with it a huge innovation: Magic Body Control, which allowed the car to scan the road ahead and pre-adjust to upcoming road imperfections. Not only was it innovative, it’s truly effective, too. Now, it’s been enhanced, with even better bump-mitigation performance, but also with “curve-tilting” built in. That means it can make your S-Class very nearly lean into the corners — even though the standard air-ride S-Class handles the corners with minimal body roll. The upgraded Magic Body Control with curve-tilt is standard on S65 models, and an optional upgrade on all rear-drive S-Class variants.

It’s not the only driver assistance package that’s been upgraded for the 2018 model year. Improved camera and radar systems enhance the raw data being pumped into the car’s brain, allowing it to see further than before, while richer map and navigation data help the car automatically adjust its speed for curves and speed limits when using the Active Distance Assist Distronic feature. The 2018 S-Class will also do an automated lane change, brake to a stop in an emergency, and even find a parking space and then park in it. The semi-autonomous self-driving system alerts the driver to return their hands to the wheel after 15 seconds, and abandons control of the car entirely when no human input is detected for 1 minute. It’s still just a driver assistance system, rather than a true semi-autonomous highway driving feature, but it’s as good at the parts of the job it does as anything else on the market. We did notice it had trouble keeping a lock on the lane when the road’s markings are faded or substantially outside the normal range. That said, when the 2018 S-Class is doing the steering for you, it’s perceptibly smoother and even more confidence inspiring than in the previous model.

One of the most curious offerings of the 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is the optional Energizing Comfort package. This system could be thought of the Distronic Plus of vehicle cabin comfort systems, pulling together several previously independent systems to create a more holistic result. The only difference is that instead of integrating steering and ABS and throttle position and more, the Energizing Comfort system is integrating climate control, ambient lighting, massage, and fragrance to “configure a specific wellness setup to suit their current mood or needs, enhancing physical comfort and performance on the road,” per Mercedes-Benz.

Not that you’ll need too much digital cossetting to complement the analog comfort of the S-Class’s cabin. Real leather, metal, and wood abound, and even the plastic surfaces and buttons in the cabin are, with the exception of the controls mounted near the headliner, of top-notch make. The seats, already among the most comfortable and spacious in the industry, are as good as ever, ready for your longest drive.

All of this shows how far Mercedes-Benz has come since just 2014, let alone over the 45-year run of the S-Class, or the 63-year run of its predecessors. Not to mention the 131 years of car-building experience since Dr. Benz’s Patent Motorwagen in 1886. It’s enough to make you wonder what Mercedes-Benz will be up to in another four years —let alone in another 20, 50, or 100. Whatever it is, if it’s anything like the new 2018 S-Class, it’ll be pushing the boundaries of technology, breaking new ground in the human element of luxury, and continuing to set a benchmark that measures one of the longest-running traditions of excellence in any industry.

2018 Mercedes-Benz S450 and S560 Specifications

ON SALE Fall; Late 2017 (RWD)
PRICE N/A
ENGINE 3.0L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/362 hp @ 5,500-6,100 rpm, 369 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,000 rpm;

4.0L twin-turbo SOHC 24-valve V-8/463 hp @ 5,250-5,500 rpm, 516 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,000 rpm

TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD/AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 206.9 x 74.8 x 58.8 in
WHEELBASE 124.6 in
WEIGHT N/A
0-60 MPH 5.0 sec, 4.8 sec (4MATIC); 4.5 sec (S560)
TOP SPEED 130 mph

2018 Mercedes-AMG S63 Specifications

ON SALE Fall
PRICE $147,700 (est)
ENGINE 4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-8/603 hp @ 5,500-6,000 rpm, 664 lb-ft @ 2,750-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 9-speed MCT
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD/AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 208.5 x 75.0 x 59.0 in
WHEELBASE 124.6 in
WEIGHT N/A
0-60 MPH 3.4 sec
TOP SPEED 186 mph

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