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2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class first drive review: The best in the biz

The new S-Class exceeds my expectations of what a full-size luxury sedan should be.

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The new S-Class doesn't look much different, but there's a technological revolution brewing inside.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Let's not bury the lede: The 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is an amazing machine, a technological marvel. Like its predecessors, the sedan has a conservative exterior design, but this luxury flagship boasts bold new technologies inside -- like 3D gauges and an augmented reality HUD -- and major improvements to already-refined performance.

Next-generation MBUX

As Mercedes' flagship, the S-Class packs the best cabin tech the brand has to offer to date. Settle into the Nappa leather driver's seat and you're greeted by the newest-generation of the Mercedes-Benz User Experience. The capacitive OLED display features haptic feedback that returns a subtle and satisfying click for each input, and it's vibrant with bright, crisp colors. The screen somehow feels bigger than its 12.8-inch diagonal length implies, perhaps due to the squarish aspect ratio. Even the standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay interfaces feel bolder.

If I have one nitpick about this generation of MBUX, it's that the physical shortcut keys for navigation, media and vehicle modes are gone: I have to return to the home screen every time I need to go, say, from the map to the radio. Meanwhile, the handful of capacitive buttons that line the display's lower edge are inconsistent in operation. For example, you slide to adjust the volume but tap to change dynamic drive modes, despite the control surfaces looking identical. 

Beneath the screen, you'll also find a fingerprint scanner that allows users to quickly activate their user profiles, enabling settings and preferences to be stored for multiple drivers. Facial recognition, a PIN or a combination of authentication methods can also be used to secure profiles.

My favorite cabin tech feature is the optional 3D Technology Package that upgrades the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster display. The system uses the stereoscopic driver monitoring cameras to detect the driver's head, adjusting the display in a way that sends different info to each eye for a 3D effect. It can be pretty dramatic for some screens (like the map), but it's subtle when viewing gauges. I think it looks amazing, but some of my colleagues have complained that it was distracting. Thankfully, the 3D effect can be disabled with a single button press.

Biturbo V8

The base S500 spec -- if you can call anything about the S-Class "basic" -- is powered by a 3.0-liter turbo I6 good for a total of 429 horsepower and 438 pound-feet of torque. The S580 steps up to twin-turbocharged V8 power, with 496 hp and 516 lb-ft from 4.0 liters of displacement. Both trims feature Mercedes-Benz's EQ-Boost 48-volt mild-hybrid system and splits torque between all four wheels via a standard nine-speed automatic transmission and 4Matic all-wheel drive.

The new S-Class is slightly larger than before -- 1.3 inches longer overall, at 208.2 inches, with a wheelbase that grows by 2.0 inches to 126.2. Normally, that means a more planted and stable ride at the expense of a larger turning circle. But Benz managed to have its cake and eat it too by mating the long wheelbase with optional rear-wheel steering. So the S-Class is able to add up to 4.5 degrees of countersteer to the rear axle at low speeds, greatly increasing maneuverability around town -- and especially in tight parking lots. An Executive Line package steps up to 10 degrees of rear axle freedom for a turning circle that rivals the compact A-Class sedan. Above 35 mph, the rear-steer switches to the same direction as the fronts, boosting stability during lane-change maneuvers.

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Despite the massive 21-inch wheel option, ride quality doesn't suffer thanks to a well-tuned Airmatic suspension

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The rough edges have been smoothed away from every aspect of the new S-Class' core driving experience, from the supple Airmatic suspension that absolutely deletes potholes to the V8's velvety power delivery and perfectly weighted steering. Even ignition is instantaneous. There's no coughing or cranking when you press the start button: One moment the engine is not running, the next it's quietly humming thanks to the EQ-Boost electric starter.

Drivers have access to five drive modes --  Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus and a user-customizable Individual setting. The S580's throttle and steering responses get more dynamic as you choose sportier settings, but the ride never turns harsh, even after nearly 300 miles over two days of testing. Of course, myriad creature comforts help quite a bit.

Energizing Comfort

Mercedes' Energizing Comfort themes return with new enhancements for this latest generation of S-Class. These presets combine ambient lighting themes, climate controls, fragrance settings, massage seat modes and music and sound into mood-based themes like "Vitality" or "Refresh." Mercedes says Energizing Comfort can boost driver alertness and will even automatically suggest you try one of the modes if you've been driving a particularly long stint. Yes, it's super gimmicky, but these modes are amazing showcases of S-Class cabin's amenities.

The available Burmester 4D premium audio system has 1,750 watts of amplification, two resonators and 30 speakers -- including individually adjustable subwoofers in each seat back so you can physically feel the music through your torso. The optional massage seats are upgraded with more zones and more distinct modes of articulation, from deep point pressure to more broad waves of vibration. 

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The new MBUX infotainment is an impressive kit.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

My favorite MB cabin tech, ambient accent lighting, also gets an overhaul that is bright enough to enjoy even during the day -- though it's a shame I didn't get to see it truly shine at night in person. The lighting even ties in with some of the safety features, illuminating the dashboard red during emergency braking assist stop or flashing the door before you open it into traffic.

Driver-assistance tech

The S-Class has the latest generation of Mercedes' Distronic adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability for heavy traffic, as well as the Active Steering Assist lane-centering aid. On the highway, lane-change assist can steer the sedan into adjacent lanes after automatically checking your blind spot for you.

Of course, you'll have to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times. Though Mercedes claims that the S-Class is loaded up with enough sensors and cameras to be ready for up to Level 3 automated driving, the automaker is still seeking certification for these systems in the European Union. Personally, I wouldn't hold my breath for Stateside adoption of Level 3 anytime in the near future, what with Level 2 technologies like GM's Super Cruise only just gaining a foothold on this side of the pond.

Perhaps the coolest driver aid system is the optional augmented reality heads-up display. Part of the aforementioned 3D Technology Package, this massive, full-color, transparent AR HUD is projected onto the windshield -- giving the appearance of a 77-inch display floating just ahead of the hood. This allows the HUD to overlay driver aid information onto the road. For example, the car ahead is highlighted while using adaptive cruise control while green lines overlay the lane markers and road edge, flashing red when you drift out of the lane. The AR-HUD can also project navigation information with big floating blue arrows that indicate your next turn or destination as you approach.

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The rough edges have been smoothed away from every aspect of the new S-Class' core driving experience.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The point of most driver-assistance tech is to prevent collisions, but a few new S-Class features come into play should one be unavoidable. If radar sensors detect an imminent side impact, the Pre-Safe Impulse Side system rapidly inflates the seat's side bolster to lean the driver or front passenger away from the door and window glass by about 2.75 inches. Meanwhile, the optional E-Active Body Control suspension can instantly raise the ride height by 3.1 inches to better absorb and redirect an impact with the more rigid body structure below the door. The sedan also debuts optional rear passenger airbags, a first for the brand. These large airbags deploy from the backs of the front seats, inflating wings that surround and support passengers' heads during front or side collisions.

Pricing and availability

The 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class arrives at dealerships this summer with the base S500 starting at $110,850 including a $1,050 destination charge. The V8-powered S580 bumps that entry point to $117,350. As tested, this example stickers at $142,640 including options like upholstery and trim upgrades, rear-wheel steering, the 3D tech package and more.

The S-Class continues to bring the full onslaught of what Mercedes-Benz has to offer, boasting technology, comfort and truly unique features that are not just the best from the brand, but also among the best in the business. But no car -- even one this good -- is perfect; while the cabin tech makes huge steps forward, it also takes a few functional steps back with fewer and more frustrating physical controls.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.