2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class First Look: The Luxury-Sedan Benchmark Again Moves the Goalposts

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class First Look: The Luxury-Sedan Benchmark Again Moves the Goalposts

  • 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class offered in S 500 4Matic and S 580 4Matic trims with standard all-wheel drive at launch.
  • 3-D instrumentation, active ambient lighting, haptic feedback—including seat shakers that amplify the effect of audio bass—and more all aim to provide a rich sensory experience.
  • The new Mercedes S-Class goes on sale in the first half of 2021 in the United States at prices yet to be announced.

Certain cars are so important to the auto industry as a whole that they generate their own gravity. These models, when redesigned, can suck all the air out of competing automakers’ boardrooms, design studios, and engineering labs. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is one of those cars. Sedans as a vehicle type may be in general decline, but the S-Class remains the king of the format globally, and an all-new model commands attention even in this SUV-obsessed age.

The new 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class will be a force to be reckoned with when it reaches American shores in both S 500 and S 580 forms sometime “in the first half of 2021.” Riding on an all-new platform and serving, as always, as the standard bearer for the brand’s latest and greatest technology, the S-Class will face its most difficult launch ever amid an onslaught of super-luxury SUVs, the burgeoning luxe-EV segment (including Tesla’s Model S), and its traditional full-size luxury-sedan rivals.

The new platform extends the Benz’s wheelbase by two inches, most of which translates to additional rear seat space. Overall, the S-Class sees its body stretched 1.3 inches in length, while gaining 0.4 inch in height. Benz designers have taken full advantage of the former dimension to draw out the dash-to-axle ratio and visually lengthen the car. The overall height has been cloaked with the “catwalk” line—a crease in the side running just below the door windows from the headlights to the taillights. Typically, this line would be nearer to or run straight through the door handles, but raising it tricks the eye into believing the midpoint of the car is higher, keeping the proportional balance of the door metal and glass intact.

As Always, the S-Class Debuts New-to-Mercedes Tech

Whatever the new dimensions might do for the exterior, they’re intended mostly to enhance the interior by providing more space for occupants and more space for gadgets. As nonluxury brands offer more features typically exclusive to luxury cars at lower price points, Mercedes must walk a finer line than ever with new technology, which both impresses and improves the owner’s experience.

This balance begins with the driver. Mercedes recommends each person who might slide into the left seat create a profile to automatically load preferences for everything from audio levels and frequent navigation destinations to climate settings and seat position. You can activate yours by a fingerprint swipe, facial recognition, voice recognition, or a PIN, and up to seven profiles can be stored, with the car’s owner reserving the right to restrict how much access other profiles have to vehicle settings.

All is handled through the 12.8-inch waterfall-like OLED touchscreen, which dominates both the dashboard and the user experience. Mercedes has reduced the number of buttons, knobs, and the like to the absolute minimum, replacing most with digital versions on this screen. Audio, navigation, climate control, seat massages, vehicle settings, and more are all handled here. With 50 percent more computing power than the current model, the screen is, if nothing else, up to the task. Rapidly tapping the temperature controls, for example, would catch out a slower system, but the Benz’s registers every touch.

Other controls give you options. Below the screen, for example, is a strip of buttons that appear to be (and are) touch-sensitive but can also be physically pressed. Volume control is handled by swiping a touch-sensitive panel—always a risky proposition in a car, as Honda can relate—but pressing on either end of the icon will adjust the audio volume up or down by one increment. Similarly, the steering-wheel controls are all touch-sensitive and recognize swipes, as do the power-seat controls on the doors. The door buttons do require a more deliberate and prolonged touch, and other inputs—the A/C and reading-light buttons, for example—might require similarly deliberate presses to respond. Mercedes representatives explain this mix of touch-sensitive and physically manipulated controls as offering “analog luxury” in places the buyer demands it and technology elsewhere. Sometimes a person just wants the tactile experience of pressing a button or turning a knob, a sentiment we can’t argue with.

What three-dimensional controls there are can be complemented by three-dimensional imagery. A “floating” 12.3-inch instrument cluster screen ahead of the driver is capable of producing 3-D images guaranteed to induce audible “wows” in the dealership. Activated by a virtual button in the top left corner of the central touchscreen, 3-D mode offers convincing visual depth to any instrument screen you’ve selected. It’s like looking at a hologram, or digital dioramas in the dash with perceived distance created between the foreground and background. An eye-tracking camera only activates the effect when you’re looking at the screen so it’s not a distraction in your peripheral vision. Look away and back quickly enough, and you can beat the computer and enjoy the morph from 2-D to 3-D (just maybe not while driving, please).

Higher on the dashboard, the head-up display projected on the windshield has been enlarged to produce a field of vision analogous to watching a 77-inch TV, per Mercedes. In addition to the usual information, Mercedes has relocated its augmented-reality feature here, as well. Currently relegated to in-dash screens in other models, directional arrows, destination markers, and more are now projected directly onto the S-Class’s glass in front of the driver. You will, however, need to use the embedded navigation system to take advantage of the trick; your smartphone apps won’t cut it.

You Can Chat With Your 2021 Mercedes S-Class, Too

Should you load the Mercedes Me app on your phone, it will play very nicely indeed with the onboard computer. Given permission, Me will access your contacts, for example, allowing you to call people and set their addresses as destinations entirely through voice commands. The system supports wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is good because all six onboard USB ports are the new USB-C standard, so you’ll need to replace your old cables or use the wireless charging pad.

Should you choose to talk to the car, you’ll notice the ambient lighting can get pretty wild. Mercedes uses the lighting, which is animated and capable of producing 64 colors, as a visual aid wherever possible. Turn the heat up on the passenger’s side, for example, and red hashes will move across the passenger’s side of the dash. A car in your passenger-side blind spot will cause LEDs to glow yellow on the passenger door, particularly around the high-mounted door speakers, which twirl out of their recesses when the car starts.

Sensory tickles are everywhere. In addition to the audio and visual feedback loops within the Benz, there are tactile ones, as well. Every bit of haptic feedback, from an artificial “click” on a screen to the way the vents snap when moved to center has been deliberately designed to feel good. Meanwhile, the 1,750-watt 4D Burmester premium audio system includes shakers attached to the seat frames time themselves to the beat of the music to make it feel as though the bass is so powerful it’s vibrating the whole car—all without blowing out your eardrums. An intuitive “sound profile” setup tool adjusts low frequencies, high frequencies, and the seat shakers with an audio loop that adds more instruments as you progress until you have a complete personalized profile. When they’re not shaking, the seats offer 10 different massage programs and incorporate near-ear speakers that personalize the audio, such as reserving navigation instructions only for the driver.

If you’re the type to ride in the back, you’ll have even more to play with. All standard S 500 and S 580 models sold in the U.S. will have a rear bench with seating for five, but it’s expected you’ll pull down the center armrest and use the integrated but detachable tablet to control the audio, rear climate, navigation, and to browse the internet. Back out of the infotainment app, and you can use it like any other tablet, linking Google profiles and the like to work over the cloud. The Maybach edition of the S-Class, coming later, will feature a fixed center rear console and only four seats.

Regardless, the tablet also controls the optional 11.6-inch screens on the front seatbacks, which are part of the Executive Line package exclusive to the S 580. Now upgraded with local tuners and more computing power, the screens can be used entirely independently for watching or listening, and content can be shared between them and the front seats (to a point). There will also be gesture controls enabled in the future, in case your commute isn’t frustrating enough already. The Executive Line package also brings power-adjustable massaging rear seats, quad-zone climate control, 10-degree rear-wheel steering, rear-passenger front airbags and seatbelt airbags, and a pile of other cosseting goodies.

Look Past the Tech, and There’s a Car Underneath

What, then, of actually driving the Mercedes? To start, every S-Class will ride on an air-sprung suspension, with Mercedes’ E-Active Body Control hydraulic suspension becoming optional in the 2022 model year. Standard rear-wheel steering will make the enlarged sedan far more maneuverable; by turning the rear wheels up to the aforementioned 10 degrees, the Executive Line–equipped S-Class will turn tighter than a compact A-Class. The AMG Line models with wider rear tires are limited to four degrees of rear steer, somewhat blunting the improvement.

Motivation in the S 500 will come from Mercedes’ increasingly ubiquitous turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six with 48-volt mild-hybrid accentuation, which places an electric motor between the engine and transmission to facilitate both engine-off coasting and performance enhancement. All told, the system makes 429 horsepower and 384 lb-ft. In the S 580, an optional twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 with the same mild-hybrid system produces 496 horsepower and 516 lb-ft. In the future, a full plug-in-hybrid model will pair a 362-hp version of the inline-six with a more powerful electric motor to make roughly the same power as the V-8, plus give up to 60 miles of all-electric driving range. Whatever the power source, output travels through a nine-speed automatic to all four wheels on U.S.-market cars, which feature 4Matic as standard at launch.

…Just Kidding, There’s More Tech Yet

A laundry list of the latest passive and active driver aids will be onboard to help you drive. Most notably, the adaptive cruise control has been upgraded with the Tesla-style, driver-initiated automated lane changes added to lesser Benzes in the past few years (including the E-Class); the system will continue to help steer the car and center it in the lane. Making sure you’re ready to retake control from the computer are, well, more computers, including the eye-tracking camera and sensors embedded under the leather of the steering wheel. The latter are said to be far more accurate than the old method of determining driver attention, which simply monitored the torque a driver exerted on the steering wheel. Mercedes has also embedded a permanent toll transponder in the glovebox, which syncs to an app that will handle toll billing anywhere in the U.S., allowing owners to use any toll road they want at any time.

The SAE Level 2 semi-automated driving system can also turn one of its cameras into an integrated dash cam in the event of a collision. When the car is parked, that camera also works with all the cameras around the car used for the 360-degree parking viewer to become a virtual sentry force, recording video if a low-impact collision (say, in a parking lot) is detected, and then sending you a notice. Of course, features like these are subject to state and local regulations, which is why the system automatically changes its settings when you drive across a state line or similar border so you’ll never run afoul of local laws. It’s just one of the features enabled by the car’s 5G data modem and over-the-air update capability, which also includes V2X technology that allows the car to communicate with other vehicles and infrastructure.
















































































Although the occasional shopping-cart strike is unfortunately inevitable, hopefully it won’t do much damage to the carefully sculpted sheetmetal. Some may deride its design as merely evolutionary, but even so, it’s more sophisticated than it seems at first blush. The automatically deploying and recessing door handles and deliberately incongruous triangular taillights will get all the attention, but the lovingly crafted curves and traditional Mercedes-Benz design cues are more successfully applied here than on the smaller E-Class. The way the hood line seems to flow right through the windshield and continue down the dash is a particularly nice touch. Even still, the “same sausage, different lengths” German practice of car-lineup design appears mostly intact, and the S-Class largely resembles other modern Benzes, only writ large.

With the U.S. introduction anywhere from four to 10 months away, pricing remains some way off, but you can expect it to climb somewhat above the current car’s $95,245 launchpad. It will be a similarly lengthy wait before we can get behind the wheel, but you can read initial impressions from our ride in a late-stage prototype here. While a full review will make the ultimate case, based on our first ride and its features and specs, the new S-Class appears to be once again entrenching itself as the king of the sedan hill.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S 500/S 580 4Matic
PRICE$96,000-$110,000 (est)
LAYOUTFront-engine, RWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE3.0L/429-hp/384-lb-ft turbo DOHC 24-valve I-6 plus 21-hp/184-lb-ft electric motor, 429 hp/384 lb-ft comb; 4.0L/496-hp/516-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8 plus 21-hp/184-lb-ft electric motor, 496 hp/516 lb-ft comb
TRANSMISSION9-speed auto
CURB WEIGHT4,700-4,900 lb (MT est)
WHEELBASE126.6 in
L x W x H208.2 x 76.9 x 59.2 in
0-60 MPH4.0-4.6 sec (MT est)
EPA FUEL ECONNot yet tested
ON SALESpring 2021
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