First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

ZURICH – The Mercedes-Benz S-Class sits atop Mount Luxo-Sedan like an imperious overlord, gazing across the land while keeping an eye on its worthy foes as they scramble for the summit. Many of these hail from Germany, and some from as far away as Sweden, Japan, and the US, yet King S is not worried – he built this mountain and he’s not going anywhere.

The 2018 S-Class brings with it a seismic conceptual shift to the Stuttgart automaker.

Whenever rumblings of change emanate from this lofty perch, you better believe they will be heard far and wide. Whatever happens up top eventually trickles down to lesser Benzes, and indeed, to the rest of autodom. The Mount is rumbling right now, and I’m in Switzerland to see what is afoot.

The latest generation S-Class, launched in 2013, is getting a major mid-cycle makeover for 2018 that includes new engines, new forms of heretofore unimaginable sybaritic trappings (and we thought heated armrests were over the top…), and of course, upgraded and expanded driver assist systems that continue the unstoppable march toward autonomous driving. Of which the S-Class is a card-carrying pioneer.

Interestingly, Mercedes has changed its nomenclature when labelling these autonomous systems. The word Pilot has been banished, replaced with Assist in most cases. It seems Pilot implies “Sure, read the paper and have a coffee,” while Assist suggests you still have to pay attention.

We will see the 2018 S-Class late summer, and you’ll need a keen eye to spot the visual differences. The most obvious cue is a grill that gets the three-strake “double lamella” treatment that previously belonged to the V12 model. Now the 2018 S 65 V12 ($254,800) gets additional vertical chrome elements.

Front fasciae for all models are re-contoured with larger air intakes, and the rear fasciae are spruced up as well. Some new wheel designs and standard active Multibeam LED headlamps round out the changes – all fairly subtle brushstrokes to this stately sedan that still cuts a mighty regal profile.

Ah, but it’s what’s under the skin that counts. The 2018 S-Class brings with it a seismic conceptual shift to the Stuttgart automaker. Was BMW right all along? There’s a new generation of straight-six engines making its debut under the S’s hood in both gas and diesel form. But don’t get too excited – they are not making it to North America – for now. Paired with a 48 volt electrical system, these sixes are true beltless engines – all ancillaries are powered by electrics. Electrically spun turbochargers all but eliminate turbo lag.

Canada’s six-cylinder entry model, the $106,400 S 450 4Matic SWB (short wheelbase), retains its 3.5L bi-turbo V6 but sees a power boost of 33 hp to 362 hp, and torque increases by 15 lb-ft to 369 lb-ft. A nine-speed transmission replacew the outgoing seven-cog unit.

Moving up to the V8 cars nets a new-to-S-Class 4.0L bi-turbo V8 that comes from the house of AMG. This engine first saw duty in the hot C 63 AMG and flagship Mercedes-AMG GT sports car, and according to AMG powertrain engineer Thomas Ransteiner, it was originally developed purely as an AMG-only mill. But since Benz asked nicely… and it is one helluva fine bent-eight, here making 463 horsepower and 516 lb-ft in the 2018 S 560 4Matic, in both short ($115,200) and long wheelbase ($124,400). Again, a 9G-Tronic auto replaces the seven-speed gearbox.

This smaller-displacement V8 (down from last year’s 5.5L V8) benefits from standard cylinder deactivation, auto stop-start, and a “sailing” feature (it drops to idle when coasting) to put up better fuel economy numbers.

The engine might be downsized, but it sure doesn’t act like it. A swift and drama-free blast to an indicated 255 km/h on the Autobahn in an S 560 LWB proves one would never need any more power in your S-Class. Although want is a different matter.

Hence the $163,500 Mercedes-AMG S 63 4Matic that finds a tad more potential in that 4.0L blown V8 – 603 hp and 664 lb-ft to be exact. It gets paired with a new AMG Speedshift nine-speed MCT (Multi-Clutch Technology) transmission and revised 4Matic all-wheel drive featuring a fully variable front-to-rear torque split.

As with all “full” AMG products, the S 63’s engine is hand-built by a single technician, and a plaque atop the masterwork bears their signature.

We snagged a white Mercedes-AMG S 63 4Matic for a morning blast through the hills into Germany, and this four-door does everything you’d expect of Benz’s latest hi-po flagship. In Comfort mode it cocoons occupants in a smooth riding world of fine leather, exquisite workmanship, Burmester 3D surround sound and an undeniable sense of privilege and well-being. The seats are superb, the continuous widescreen display a paragon of clarity, and the multiple massage functions (one heated for faux “hot stone” experience) truly remarkable. As are the 64 available hues, and three zones, of ambient lighting.

Ah, but select Sport or Sport+ and the AMG beast within wakens. The standard air suspension firms up, steering quickens, throttle response sharpens, and the nine-speed box with its AMG-exclusive multi-plate wet-clutch setup keeps the V8 in the kill zone while banging off lighting shifts. And this S bellows like a true AMG when the sport exhaust flaps open.

Dispensing with slower traffic on these winding roads was like swatting flies, and yes, the big beast does handle with surprising agility.

But now we must get to the “non-driving” part. After all, the S-Class is the recognized pioneer of self-driving functions, and for 2018 it expands on its Intelligent Drive autonomous capability. We’re still at Level 2, however. Level 5 – the fully autonomous driving big time – is still a ways off.

Previously, in sphincter-clenching autonomous S-Class land, we could uneasily remove our hands from the wheel (and feet from the pedals) for a few moments while the radar and camera-fed Distronic adaptive cruise control with Active Steer Assist would dutifully follow the car in front and manage a few gentle curves in the road. To be fair, this system worked a treat in stop-and-go traffic.

For 2018 there is a new element to Intelligent Drive that folds in GPS map data and road sign recognition. Now your S-Class knows the posted speed limits and the topography ahead, so when cruising a country road with Distronic activated (controls are now on the steering wheel), the car will slow for corners and observe posted speed limits. The Active Steer Assist is much better too, able to negotiate more acute bends without pogoing between the lines like a drunken sod. As always, your hands must hover over the wheel, giving it a nudge every 15 seconds or so to let King S know you haven’t retired to the back to catch up on your emails.

If you do fall asleep, suffer a medical emergency, or indeed jump in the back for 40 winks, the S-Class with gradually come to a stop in its lane, activate the flashers and unlock the doors. As long as Distronic is engaged.

Other than for the fascinating novelty factor of letting this S drive itself for brief stretches, dipping a toe in the semi-autonomous world is hardly a relaxing pursuit. It’s bit like walking a tightrope. Benz’s comprehensive and excellent collision-mitigation/prevention safety nets are the true benefits here for S-Class occupants.

Safety is good, as are cool autonomous parlour tricks, but what new frontiers of luxurious splendour has Benz cooked up for its flagship luxo-barge? After all, BMW has silly gesture control (twirl your finger, turn up the volume) and the upcoming Audi A8 offers foot massages for rear-seat passengers.

Say hello to optional Energizing Comfort Control that pairs select front- and rear-seat functions (massage, heating, and ventilation) with ambient lighting, climate control, cabin fragrance/ionizing, and music/video; creating six different ten-minute programs for “enhanced alertness and well-being during a journey.” Choose from Well Being (for comfort), Joy (for soothing), Warmth (for relaxation), Vitality (for energy), Refresh (for vitalization) and Training (instead of music, the lady from the dash runs through a gamut of exercises – shoulder rolls, butt clenches, etc.).

For instance, when Refresh is selected “green-blue lighting and a cool refreshing breeze whisk you away to the coast”. Now, far from me to rain on Benz’s parade here, but I am capable of selecting my own cabin temperature and massage functions, and every fragrance I’ve experienced in a Merc cabin smells like a Febreeze reject to me. Additionally, the canned music that comes with each Energizing Comfort Control program will bring back warm memories of your favourite elevator rides. The Berlin Philharmonic it is not.

That said, the system can be programmed to troll your own categorized music that might be stored in the Merc’s hard drive for an appropriate soundtrack.

Frivolity aside, a day in the saddle of Benz’s 2018 S-Class confirms its status as the Grand Poo-Bah of luxury Euro sedans. Incredibly opulent, obsessively built, impossibly protective and infinitely customizable, it’s a natural evolution of the nameplate. The interiors of these testers showcased beautiful colour combos of fine leathers and woods.

Yes, the AMG version is faster, but the real S experience belongs to the 2018 S 560. The ride is that much creamier, the cabin that much quieter and the transmission that much smoother, and isn’t that what we buy an S-Class for?

King of the Hill 7/18/2017 6:00:00 PM