Imagine the pressure of making a new Mercedes-Benz S-Class. This car is supposed to be the peak of Everest for buyers who want a full-fat luxury car, and every successive generation should add more to the pile without forgetting its raison d'être, which means there's a lot riding on every new model. All that hard work has paid off, though, because the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is an absolute banger, once again setting the standard for all other luxury cars.
- Top-tier ride
- Makes you feel like a million bucks
- Sweet augmented-reality HUD
- Confounding sunroof controls
The 2021 Mercedes-Benz S580 is damn near the perfect luxury car, although styling is subjective, and I'll be the first to admit that the latest iteration of Mercedes's design language isn't my favorite. My sole complaint is that the rear end is Eeyore-tier droopy, with a chrome unibrow spanning the width of the trunk, which is my absolute least favorite 21st-century flourish.
The rest of the S580's exterior is all about class. Despite wearing the more aggressive bumpers and side skirts of the $4,300 AMG Line package, my tester is still rather demure. The 21-inch AMG alloy wheels have a pretty trad-luxe look to them, too. This car doesn't need crazy angles or cut lines to make a statement -- it's just a big, fancy sedan, carving its way through traffic with a properly old-school hood ornament leading the charge.
If for some reason I don't feel like a million bucks walking up to the Mercedes S580, I sure feel like it once the doors open -- actually, no, before, thanks to electronic door handles that pop out from the body as I approach. The S-Class has long had the plushest interiors in the auto industry, and that continues with the 2021 model. The black Nappa leather is soft, and not only are the front seats supportive as heck, on the S580 they come standard with an excellent multi-contour massage function. The rear seats are roomier than before, with plenty of headroom and legroom for me to splay out.
The S580's interior design borrows heavily from the Vision EQS concept, with a large swath of wood trim running the width of the dashboard, punctuated by pairs of vents on either side. The 12.8-inch OLED infotainment screen rises up from the center console, leaving enough space behind it for an additional storage tray. The cover beneath the screen moves to reveal two normal-sized cup holders, a wireless charging pad and an extra tray for masks, keys or other pocket detritus. Under the armrest, there's enough space for a small purse, while the door pockets are just big enough to hold some large drink containers. There's no massive binnacle surrounding the 12.3-inch gauge display, which means the dashboard stays nice and low, making for excellent forward visibility.
Plunk down an extra $3,000 and the space in front of the gauges turns into a giant projector for one seriously impressive head-up display. Not only will it deliver the usual information readouts like speed and direction of travel, it can also work with local vehicle-to-infrastructure tech to display the time remaining on a red light. My favorite part, though, is the augmented-reality integration that the S-Class shares with its electric EQS sibling, displaying upcoming turns as arrows that grow closer as the intersection does, as well as highlighting traffic when adaptive cruise control is active. The information is always where it needs to be, too, thanks to eye-tracking cameras built into the gauge display, which can function in a trick 3D Mode for a little extra visual flair. Flipping through the many available layouts and menus is made easy thanks to touchpad-style buttons on the steering wheel.
The big ol' screen in the middle of the S580 runs an updated version of the MBUX infotainment system we've seen in every other Merc, and it works as well as ever in this iteration. It'll run wirelessand , but there are also four USB-C ports in the center console for front-seat occupants to use. The touchscreen collects smudges like no other, but it's responsive, and it's pretty darn impressive, too, especially when it's running a fullscreen map. The bottom part of the display always shows climate controls, with a smattering of physical buttons beneath that for changing driving modes, turning up the volume, engaging the hazard lights or reading my fingerprint to pull up my personal settings (not mandatory).
The only controls that frustrate me are found overhead. This S580 has two sunroofs, one per row, and they are controlled with the most infuriating touch slider known to man. I spent an entire week trying to figure out the logic behind how it works, but no matter what directions my fingers go, it does everything -- opens and closes the front panel, tilts the front panel, engages the front panel's sun shade -- except the one function I actually want it to. I despise it on the EQS, and I despise it here.
What's impossible to despise, though, is the 2021 Mercedes S580's ride. It is, simply put, the best in the segment, with an adaptive air suspension that preternaturally eliminates nearly every inch of bad road underfoot, feeling pillowy smooth almost all the time. The S-Class floats down the road, and combined with thick glass, driver and passengers alike will be all but shut off from the world on the other side. The suspension lowers and stiffens when put into Sport or Sport Plus mode, and while the S580 does a pretty good impression of a full-size sport sedan, I'd recommend waiting for an AMG variant if you really want to give it the ol' what-for. This thing may corner well, but what it really wants to do is luxuriate at all possible opportunities.
The S580's powertrain is nice and smooth. Under the hood is a 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8 producing 496 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, augmented by a 48-volt mild hybrid system that can throw another 21 hp and 184 lb-ft into the mix, usually when leaving a stop or pushing the accelerator into the firewall. The V8 is plenty potent on its own, but with this bit of electrification, the S580 feels like it runs on a never-ending well of motive force. A nine-speed automatic transmission does its thing with near imperceptibility, and optional rear-axle steering (4.5 degrees, $1,300, although 10-degree steering is also available on some variants) means it's pretty darn easy to navigate parking lots and other tight confines. The EPA rates the S580 at 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, and while the city estimate seems spot on, I'm able to squeeze out something closer to 30 mpg on the highway.
If a V6 feels like overkill in the twilight years of the internal combustion engine, the S500 might scratch your itch, instead. This model ditches two cylinders, opting for a turbocharged straight-6 making 429 hp and 384 lb-ft. It, too, has the EQ Boost mild hybrid system, as well as standard all-wheel drive and the same nine-speed automatic. It's a little more efficient, though, coming in at an EPA-estimated 20 mpg city and 29 mpg highway.
There are some very capable driver aids willing to lend a hand. Standard full-speed adaptive cruise control combines efforts with lane-keeping assist to keep the vehicle centered in its lane at the pace of traffic, eliminating the tedium of longer commutes but still requiring hands on the wheel and eyes pointed down the road. While active, though, the driver aids make soft inputs and keep the ride comfortable. For parking, the infotainment screen can show a 360-degree area around the car, which I can twist and spin on the screen to make sure I'm staying in all the lines. Parking sensors combine efforts with the ambient lighting to give me an additional layer of warning in case I get too close to a wall or another car.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class ain't cheap. The S580 starts at $117,350, and a limited number of aesthetic and functional enhancements bump my tester's price up to $131,500 -- and there's still an AMG variant or two that will live above this one, in addition to the big-boy Maybach. The S500 and its straight-6 engine are thankfully a little less expensive, coming in at $110,850. Thank goodness.
Mercedes' closest competitors, the BMW 7 Series and Audi A8, are both high-quality luxury cars in their own right, but it's hard to recommend anything other than the S-Class. The standard bearer remains at the front of the pack, and should stay there for a while.