As I pilot the curvaceous white sedan through bend after bend, I'm struck by two thoughts. First is, "Wow, these twisty, two-lane German B-roads are smoother than the Interstates back home in California."
Second is, "There's a reason they call the 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class a 'benchmark' car." There's simply nothing else like it on the road. It's the bar against which all luxury cars are measured. And that bar just got raised.
The 2018 S560 sedan uses Mercedes' M176 engine, a bi-turbo 4.0-liter V8. Its 463 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque are sent through a single-option nine-speed automatic transmission before being transferred either to the rear wheels or Benz's optional 4Matic all-wheel drive system.
The engine's power delivery is impressive and quite linear, nearly all the way up to its 130-mph electronically limited top speed, which I was actually able to hit on one of the autobahn's unlimited-speed sections. What's most impressive about the S560 is just how pedestrian this ridiculous velocity feels; the car is absolutely planted and stable even at triple-digit velocities.
I spent more driving at more normal sub-60 mph speeds on the winding B-roads along the Swiss-German border and into the Black Forest. Here, the S560 feels even more sublime with its V8 purring and growling in concert with a satisfyingly responsive throttle pedal. The S-Class is a big, heavy sedan and it didn't really hide its mass on those narrow back roads, but there's a grace to its handling, steering feel and acceleration that kept a smirk on my face through corner after corner, mile after mile.
It was easy to leave the S-Class' drive mode selector in its most aggressive Dynamic setting for much of the day — it's still a comfortable ride when all firmed up and sharpened — but I also had a very smooth Comfort setting, a fuel-saving Eco setting and a very interesting Curve setting to choose from.
The Curve tilting feature of the optional Magic Body Control suspension is available only on rear-driven S-Class models. When activated, the sedan can actively tilt its suspension up to about 2.65 degrees into the direction of a turn to actively counteract body roll. The result is that the S-Class corners more flatly in this mode and its passengers feel significantly less sway when transitioning through bends. The Curve tilting suspension hugely boosts passenger comfort and I even think it could even help a bit with passengers who get motion sick on twisty roads.
Like driving modes for your senses
Comfort, while we're on the subject, has always been one of the S-Class' strongest suits. The previous generation was packed to the gills with luxury and comfort-enhancing features like massage seats, ambient lighting and fragrance-enhanced air. There are so many features packed into the average S-Class that one can be easily overwhelmed just choosing what massage program or which of the 64 ambient lighting colors to go with.
This 2018 model steps the comfort game up by tying together and automating all of those features into what it calls Energizing Comfort Control modes. These six comfort presets are accessible through the Mercedes-Benz Comand infotainment interface and are designed around mood-enhancing settings for the various cabin systems. Think of them like drive modes for your senses.
Each preset — Freshness, Warmth, Vitality, Joy, Comfort and Training — activates with an ambient lighting color scheme, climate control and fragrance setting, massage program and even audio programming. Not every program uses every system, but all run for about 10 minutes before reverting back to the default settings for all systems.
If I activate Freshness, for example, the ambient lighting on the doors, dashboard and footwells fades between blue and green; the climate controls will switch to blow a gentle breeze across my face; and the massage system and seat ventilation system will give a light and cool touch. Joy, on the other hand, will activate more vibrant red and yellow ambient lighting and a more stimulating massage program, and play music with a fast and upbeat tempo.
Big-picture tech with small annoyances
This generation of Mercedes-Benz's Comand infotainment features a host of improvements and refinements. Overall, I'd characterize it as a fantastic cabin technology suite with a sometimes stupidly confusing control scheme. This is a system that does so much right and somehow still manages to frustrate me with simple things.
Physically, the system consists of a pair of 12.3-inch, high-resolution displays bonded to a single glass panel that stretches across the dashboard. It's an imposing and impressive setup with crisp graphics and vibrant colors. When people settle into the passenger seat, they will say, "Wow."
I love the simplicity of the main Home menu and the fact that I could access and activate most common tasks simply using a thumb pad on the steering wheel. I was able to quickly change my Energizing Comfort mode in the Car menu, choose a song from the Audio menu and then pop back over the map within seconds and without taking my hands off of the steering wheel. Color me impressed. Comand can also be controlled with the combination touch pad and control knob on the center console, but I'm not really a fan of the awkwardly placed controller.
Where Comand really starts to fall apart for me with is the small things. Like how there's no simple skip button that I could find on the steering wheel, so I have to reach down to the skip button on the Comand Controller. But that button doesn't just skip, it brings up a menu that I then have to swipe or scroll through and now the simple act of getting to the next song has become an interface odyssey. It's amazing how a system that makes such short work of complex tasks can get it so wrong on something so simple. Sigh.
Back on the bright side, this generation of Comand features bothconnectivity via USB, both of which seem to integrate nicely and smoothly into the rest of the dashboard interface.
Overall, Comand is much better than ever before. I dig the visuals and have even taken a liking to the simplified interface and control schemes. Nitpicks aside, this is a much more intuitive system that finally feels like it belongs in one of the best luxury cars on the market.
One of the smartest cruise control systems
Mercedes-Benz likes to toss around the term "autonomous" when talking about its Intelligent Drive technology, but in practice it's fairly easy to miss most of the deeply integrated autonomous technology while on a casual spin in the new S-Class.
It doesn't drive itself or steer itself like Cadillac's Super Cruise system, but it does feature a highly advanced Active Steering Assist system that comes into play with the lane keeping, active lane change and evasive steering-assist systems. Using cameras and radar sensors, the steering system can help the driver stay centered in the lane on long, boring freeway stretches. It can help to quickly guide the car around a pedestrian who has walked into the vehicle's path or even smoothly guide the car into the next lane after signaling for a lane change. The driver's hands need to be on the wheel for all of this, which somewhat makes it seem less spectacular, but Mercedes-Benz assures me that these are the next steps on the road to autonomy.
However, the most subtle yet also most impressive bit of driver aid tech that I was able to test on the new S-Class was the new-generation Distronic adaptive cruise control. Now, I've driven plenty of ACC systems before this one, but the S-Class' system packs a few tricks that left me impressed.
Of course, the Active Distance Assist Distronic system can use a radar sensor to detect a car ahead and slow its preset speed to match and maintain a safe following distance. The Distronic adaptive cruise works in heavy traffic and can bring the car all the way to a stop and restart once traffic ahead starts moving again.
It can also use cameras to read speed limit signs and adjust its speed to match. This is particularly useful for slowing down to avoid tickets, but it also speeds up when you pass a sign with higher speed limit, so it also saves a bit of time.
Here's where things get really interesting. Say I'm cruise controlling along a country road at 60 mph in Comfort mode and there's a tight S-turn just over the next hill. This new Distronic system can look at its map, see the turn coming up and automatically slow enough to safely and comfortably make the turn and then reaccelerate when the road straightens out. It's so smooth that I didn't even notice it was happening the first few times.
The system can also slow in anticipation of an upcoming intersection or turn for navigation. So, as I approach that upcoming right-hand turn, the car will slow significantly until I can just turn the wheel, round the bend and continue along on my way without ever touching the pedals. How cool is that?
The 2018 S-Class arrives in the US later this year in S560 trim with rear-drive and 4Matic all-wheel drive configurations. There will also be the lower-priced (and less powerful) but presumably more fuel-efficient S450 and S450 4Matic models with their 3.0-liter V6 engines making 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Just how much less expensive or more efficient remains to be seen. North American pricing and fuel efficiency estimates for the 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class have not yet been announced.
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