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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - S-Class - sedan range

Our Opinion

We like
Improved V6's, ballistic AMG V8's, classy styling, improved safety, better fuel economy
Room for improvement
AMG pricing, cabins getting long in the tooth, still out of reach for most buyers

Mercedes-Benz logo23 Feb 2011

By MIKE COSTELLO

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS
February 23 2011

IN THE automotive industry, five years is a lifetime. But in the 125 years of Daimler’s existence, this timeframe is but a drop in the ocean – especially if we are talking about the S-class.

Previous generation versions of the Mercedes flagship used to run for up to a decade – indeed the most popular, 1979’s W126 series, was not replaced for a dozen years. Yet the ‘S’ still felt at the top of its game when the ungainly W140 lobbed in during 1991.

With this sobering perspective, the latest W221 Series II – a re-engineered version of a range unveiled in the latter part of 2005 at the Frankfurt motor show – shouldn’t look or feel old, although many of the Benz’s rivals have upped the ante considerably in that time.

And so it is that despite the arrival of an all-new BMW 7 Series, Porsche Panamera and Audi A8 in 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively, the 2011 S-class can still hold its head high.

For beneath that familiar exterior that seems to have mellowed with time after a somewhat hostile reception from some quarters – but not ours – in early 2006, a quartet of thoroughly modern motors push the Mercedes right up to class contention, masking some of the inevitable wrinkles that come with age and righting one of the previous model’s biggest wrongs.

Let’s begin with the engine that owners have most to gain by experiencing – the comprehensively revamped S350 CDI diesel.

Now dubbed BlueTec, it features significantly more power and torque accompanied by a small drop in consumption and a huge fall in NOX emissions courtesy of a urea-based additive known as AdBlue.

Unfeasibly quiet, smooth and utterly refined, if this diesel does not convince petrol diehards, then nothing will, for it provides strong and stirring performance throughout the legal speed range with virtually no hesitation – and low 8.0L/100km economy to boot. Honestly, that old cliché about not knowing what type of engine is beating ahead of you applies, for all you hear is a muscular distant thrum that could easily be from a petrol V6. We heart BlueTec.

Still, Mercedes is sceptical that even 10 per cent of the ardently conservative S-class clientele will choose the diesel, so what of the S350 V6 BlueEfficiency petrol model that will account for more than half of all volume?

The old 200kW 3.5-litre 90-degree angle V6 always felt too small in this two-tonne limo, sounding somewhat strained – if not exactly coarse – as the tacho inevitably roared up the rev range. It left the driver in little doubt that they purchased the least expensive S-class.

No more. Even in the stupendously spacious longer-wheelbase S350L, and with three full-sized adults on board with luggage, the now-225kW 60-degree angle 3.5-litre V6 is an altogether silkier, sweeter revver with bags of elasticity and a willingness to hustle along when the driver demands it. No longer does the smallest petrol engine feel barely adequate.

But why would you spend $7000-plus on that when the significantly torquier diesel (620Nm versus just 370Nm) is much punchier as well as more parsimonious? With fuel prices set to soar, this is where the smart S-class money is, folks, especially as going for the BlueTec means paying less of that dreaded luxury car tax.

Only the slightly wieldier front end of the S350 V6 petrol (which enjoys an 85kg weight benefit) when thrown through tight corners, gives the BlueEfficiency any obvious advantage, but as this car is amazingly agile and easy to place even on fast winding roads, we don’t believe buyers will care too much.

Unfortunately, we did not have an opportunity to drive the all-new twin-turbo V8 S500 (our favourite version of the previous W221, and a wonderfully complete package), but did have a brief spell in the mad S63 AMG, which also ditches natural aspiration for its eight-cylinder powerplant.

Fitted with steel rather than air suspension, the S63 lacks the cushy pliancy of the regular S-classes, yet this ballistic luxury liner’s turn of speed is something that needs to be seen to be believed.

Coupled with a throaty exhaust and features such as massaging vented seats, the AMG twin-turbo V8 is an amazing feat of luxury/sports sedan engineering. But it is absurdly expensive, so we suggest you buy an S350 BlueTec and a C63 AMG for similar outlay and get the best of both worlds.

So the latest S-class drives like a new car, although we have experienced everything we can see, smell and touch before.

For some people, the cutting-edge tech (the diesel is Australia’s first Euro-6 emissions compliant vehicle, while the official fuel consumption considering the performance on offer is outstanding) will not be enough, though, especially as the austere, sober cabin presentation is now beginning to seem a little fussy, convoluted and old hat compared with the Panamera and (especially) the A8.

But the Benz excels in ride the quality that was missing for so long during the 2000s has been restored and nothing quite says that you have arrived like that discreet ‘S’ on the boot. Mercedes is banking on potential customers realising this.

It should be added that, keeping in mind the company’s 125-year policy of gradual improvement and forward progress, there has never been a better base S-class thanks to the new BlueDirect direct-injection V6 engines. These are the ones we’d choose – especially the diesel.

The fresh engineering goes a long way in smoothing out the W221’s ageing lines

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