2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is smarter, safer and more luxurious than ever

The new S-Class has an onslaught of new tech that points the way forward for Mercedes' future cars.

Steven Ewing Former managing editor
Steven Ewing spent his childhood reading car magazines, making his career as an automotive journalist an absolute dream job. After getting his foot in the door at Automobile while he was still a teenager, Ewing found homes on the mastheads at Winding Road magazine, Autoblog and Motor1.com before joining the CNET team in 2018. He has also served on the World Car Awards jury. Ewing grew up ingrained in the car culture of Detroit -- the Motor City -- before eventually moving to Los Angeles. In his free time, Ewing loves to cook, binge trash TV and play the drums.
Steven Ewing
9 min read
2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The S-Class is a big, handsome sedan.

Michael Shaffer/Mercedes-Benz

No car is more important to than the . It's the flagship. The big boy. The car that'll set the bar for the company's next round of products.

Making its debut Wednesday, the 2021 S-Class amplifies Mercedes' full-size luxury package. With its powerful engines, luxurious accommodations, great attention to detail and almost overwhelming amount of onboard tech, the S-Class is even better positioned to be a segment-leading sedan for many years to come. In other words, it's awesome. Let's have a look.

Watch this: 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class: Our first look at new luxury

'The digital S-Class'

That's the phrase Mercedes-Benz design boss Gorden Wagener used to describe the new S-Class during a video presentation. The creative brief was to make a sedan that's clean and elegant, but manages to convey its tech-forward approach through great attention to detail.

I think it works and you can see it in the headlights and taillights. Up front, there's a three-dot LED running light pattern, but when the headlights come on, they're amplified by a flat panel of LEDs under the main bulbs. Move around back and the S-Class' soft surfacing is broken up by triangular taillamps, an intentional, "almost brutal" piece of design, according to Eugen Enns, senior exterior design manager at Mercedes-Benz R&D North America. Inside, you'll see what appear to be simple lines of LED lights, but upon closer inspection, you find what Enns calls the "digital skyline" -- two rows of geometric structures that are lit from the bottom up. When you get the chance to see a new S-Class in person, definitely pay attention to those rear lights.

Dimensionally speaking, the S-Class is a little larger than before. It's 208.2 inches long, 76.9 inches wide and 59.2 inches tall -- increases of 1.3, 2.1 and 0.4 inches, respectively. Interestingly, despite the 1.3-inch increase in length, the wheelbase is actually 2.0 inches longer than before, meaning the front and rear overhangs are shorter, which helps the overall aesthetic.

Wheel sizes range from 19 inches on the base model to optional 21-inch rollers with the AMG Line package. The coolest thing, though? The electronic handles that fully extend from the doors when you unlock the car or simply walk up to it with the key in your pocket. Unlike other pop-out handles, these fully emerge from the doors and offer satisfying engagement. These aren't optional, either -- every S-Class will have them. And they go a long way to improve aerodynamics. The 2021 S-Class has a coefficient of drag of 0.22, which matches the , making it one of the most aerodynamic cars in the world.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Evolves the Flagship

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Great comfort for all passengers

Before I dive into the interior, one quick note: The four-seat arrangement found in some of these photos -- and indeed, in the car I sat in at Mercedes' R&D center in Long Beach, California -- won't be coming to the US. We'll only get the five-passenger configuration, though it's still plenty luxurious with its full-length fold-down armrest that includes a 7-inch tablet (more on this in a minute). A Mercedes-Benz representative told me we will get the proper four-position configuration at some point, just not on the regular S-Class. (Think .)

The overall design is pretty clean. I like the way the dashboard wraps down and out toward the passengers, but then immediately tapers back in toward the firewall. The usual range of open-pore wood, brushed metals, cool pinstripe designs and piano black trim will be available, with a whole bunch of different contrasting leather upholstery with quilted stitching.

Everything inside the S-Class looks and feels fantastic. The air vent controllers have a nice weight to their action and the center console 'floats' just far enough off the dashboard to give it great visual interest. There's a space for your phone or other tchotchkes behind the screen and ample storage in the center console, as well. A few gesture controls are baked into the new S-Class, too, including a new feature where you can wave the sunroof open and closed with your hand. Magic!

As you'd expect, the S-Class is super comfortable. You can get the plush seats with pillows on the headrests and rear-seat passengers can even add neck-warmers. The steering wheel and front and rear armrests can be heated, which sounds like a dream on a dreary day when you're toddling about town. There's plenty of rear head- and legroom for even your tallest passengers, plus colorful ambient mood lighting that can jazz the interior up in a whole bunch of ways and even respond to climate or volume inputs with across-the-dash animations. Oh, and the seatbelt buckles light up so you can see them better in the dark, because of course they do.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
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2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The interior is comfortable and elegant.


Faster MBUX with improved features

The S-Class is the first car to get Mercedes' second-generation MBUX infotainment tech and I've already detailed a lot of its new features. Suffice it to say, the S-Class tech game is incredibly strong and is leaps ahead of what competitors like Audi , or offer right now.

The 12.8-inch OLED central touchscreen is the main way you interact with MBUX. Using the Mercedes Me app, you can set up your profile and have all of your preferences loaded into the car right when you get in. The car can then authenticate you via voice, fingerprint, facial recognition or a simple PIN. The new MBUX system can store up to seven profiles at once.

Mercedes is working to improve its voice-recognition functionality and the S-Class shows the first steps of this progress. You can just say "accept call" to answer the phone and more microphones throughout the car will be able to better detect which passenger is speaking. The voice-recognition tech now supports 27 languages and you can ask the virtual assistant about a whole bunch of random facts through what Mercedes amusingly calls the Chit-Chat feature. Want to know what an elephant sounds like? Yep, MBUX can tell you.

The S-Class has toll transponder integration, too, which you can set up through your Mercedes Me profile. Put the physical detector in a slot in the glovebox and it can be read through sensors in the S-Class' windshield, linked to the FasTrak or EZ-Pass or I-Pass or whatever account associated with your profile.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
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2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The MBUX display has 50% faster processing power.


Visually, the icons and graphics are familiar to anyone who might've used the first iteration of MBUX. The real win is how responsive the system is, thanks to 50% faster processing power. Even with a 3D rendering of the car displayed on a birds-eye view, you can drag and move the car around without any lag or delay.

Kicking out the jams is an optional 30-speaker Burmester sound system, with metal, backlit speaker covers on the doors and pillars. This is a 4D surround sound system and you can go through a whole setup sequence to create your individual sound profile. The fourth dimension, as Mercedes says, is that you can feel the intensity of the music through the seats. offers this kind of tech with its upgraded Naim audio, but with the Burmester system, you can adjust the in-seat intensity for each individual passenger. I can't wait to see how this all works with my favorite tunes.

3D gauges and augmented reality overlays

All S-Class models get Mercedes' 12.3-inch digital, reconfigurable gauge cluster with different design themes and crisp, bright graphics. What's new with this implementation, however, is the 3D Technology Package. Yes, the instrument panel uses a driver-facing camera and can morph the gauge cluster into a 3D effect when it's in your field of view, which takes a second to really register at first, but when it does, it's super cool. Admittedly, I can see this kind of thing giving some people a headache after prolonged use, but thankfully, there's a button on the upper left corner of the MBUX display where you can turn the 3D effect on and off.

The 3D gauge cluster is sort of gimmicky, but the big reason to get this package is for the augmented reality head-up display. For starters, the HUD is huge -- Mercedes says it's the equivalent of a 77-inch diagonal display. The AR tech projects arrows and information out into the driver's field of view, so you'll be able to see exactly where you need to turn. The current iteration of MBUX uses these AR overlays on the car's screens to help with navigation instructions -- and the S-Class' two front interior displays will still have this functionality -- but having them project out onto the road ahead of you is next-level stuff.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Look closely -- there's a 3D effect to these gauges.

Michael Shaffer/Mercedes-Benz

Tons of standard safety tech

The driver-facing camera allows for a new bit of safety tech, where the S-Class can actually sense your intention to open the door. Combined with the blind-spot monitoring system, this means earlier warning if a pedestrian, cyclist or another car is approaching, meaning the tech can alert you of a potential accident before it happens.

That's just one of many driver-assistance features found in the new S-Class. All the usual things are here. The full-speed adaptive cruise control can now pause for up to 60 seconds before setting off again, the active steering and lane-change assist systems are enhanced for more seamless operation and the speed limit assist and traffic-sign recognition can automatically adapt the S-Class' speed as you approach faster or slower zones. There's also the usual cross-traffic assist, automatic emergency braking, pre-collision assist and more. The new Pre-Safe Impulse Side tech can even inflate the front seat's side bolster to move the driver or passenger up to 2.7 inches farther away from the door in the event of a crash. The new Active Parking Assist uses a 360-degree camera and allows for automatic perpendicular and parallel parking, as well.

What makes me happiest about everything I just mentioned is that it comes standard on every single S-Class. That's right, you no longer have to pay extra to get all of Mercedes' most advanced systems.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
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2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

We won't get this seating arrangement in the US -- yet.

Michael Shaffer/Mercedes-Benz

One optional extra is the rear seat airbag and the S-Class marks the first implementation of this on a passenger car. The airbags deploy out of the backs of the front seats into "a wing-shaped structure," according to Mercedes and then "a large, tent-like airbag deploys between the two wings." Compared to front airbags, these come out with substantially lower force, meaning there's less of a risk of collateral damage.

Sometime next year, the S-Class will also get a feature that can raise each side of the car by about three inches in the event of a side impact crash, which reduces the impact load on the door structures.

The Executive Line

The rear seat airbag is only available on the Executive Line package, which itself is only offered on the more powerful (and more expensive) S580 4Matic. The Executive Line also adds a pair of 11.6-inch HD touchscreens mounted to the backs of the front seats, which offer their own MBUX interfaces. Passengers can control various multimedia and vehicle functions and can even search for destinations and send them up to the front screen. Heck, even the weird Energizing Comfort system -- which alters the music and mood lighting to wake you up if you feel tired -- has a special program for rear passengers.

In the fold-down armrest, Executive Line cars include a 7-inch tablet. It can either mirror what's on the right or left MBUX displays, or can work separately as a standard Android tablet. A pair of wireless headsets are included, too.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The AMG Line can be had with 21-inch wheels.


Two EQ-Boost engines with standard all-wheel drive

The aforementioned S580 4Matic is the range-topping S-Class, powered by a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 engine. On its own, the V8 makes 496 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, but has Mercedes' 48-volt EQ-Boost mild-hybrid system onboard, which can add 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of supplemental oomph. Power runs to all four wheels through a nine-speed automatic transmission.

The base car is the S500 4Matic -- that's right, all S-Class models have all-wheel drive -- which uses a 3.0-liter turbo I6 engine with EQ-Boost. This powertrain puts out a still-healthy 429 hp and 384 lb-ft, with the same mild-hybrid boost, and is also paired with a nine-speed automatic.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2021 Mercedes-Benz S5002021 Mercedes-Benz S580
Engine 3.0-liter turbo I64.0-liter twin-turbo V8
Power 429 hp496 hp
Torque 384 lb-ft516 lb-ft
EQ-Boost power 21 hp21 hp
EQ-Boost torque 184 lb-ft184 lb-ft
Transmission 9-speed auto9-speed auto
Top speed 130 mph (limited)130 mph (limited)
Driveline All-wheel driveAll-wheel drive
Length 208.2 in208.2 in
Width 76.9 in76.9 in
Height 59.2 in59.2 in
Wheelbase 126.6 in126.6 in

For the first time on a Mercedes-Benz, the S-Class can be had with rear-axle steering -- two levels of it, in fact. Luxury Line and AMG Line cars are available with 4.5-degree rear steering, while the Executive Line can be had with a 10-degree option, the latter of which gives the big S-Class a turning circle of less than 36 feet. That's a tighter turning circle than Mercedes' subcompact sedan.

Hotter AMG variants are definitely in the works and the S-Class should sprout a plug-in hybrid option at some point, too. Additionally, while the aforementioned hands-on driver-assistance systems are the only ones available for now, Mercedes-Benz says the S-Class is prepped and ready to accommodate more advanced, Level 3 capabilities in the future.

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
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2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The new S-Class should start around $100,000.


On sale in the first half of 2021

As you can see, there's a lot to take in here. But it wouldn't be the launch of a new S-Class if there weren't a million things to talk about. The only thing left to learn is how much it'll cost, but considering the current S450 4Matic comes in just a skosh under $100,000, I can't imagine you'll be able to find a 2021 S550 with a five-figure price tag.

Look for the first round of new S-Classes to hit Mercedes-Benz dealers in the first half of 2021.

Read more about the 2021 S-Class