Luxury automakers are all about more is more, stuffing flagship vehicles with big power, high-end tech features and plenty of gimmicky options. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is no different, with the latest generation being the most extravagant and advanced yet. But I'll let you in on a secret: The base S500 is where it's at.
The S500 shares its turbocharged, mild-hybrid 3.0-liter in-line six with a number of other Mercedes products. In the S500 it puts out 429 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque, with the 48-volt integrated starter/generator system adding an extra boost of 21 hp and 184 lb.-ft. That's 67 hp and 132 lb.-ft. less than the V8-powered S580, but the S500 feels plenty quick, hitting 60 mph in 4.8 seconds (only 0.4-second slower than the S580). The in-line six is ultra smooth and sounds great, and the nine-speed automatic is smooth. The S500 is efficient, too; I have no trouble matching the EPA's 30-mpg highway rating and I'm doing a few mpg better than the 21-mpg city figure. Like the S580, Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel drive is standard.
The 4,600-plus-pound S500 has precise, satisfying steering and surefooted handling characteristics, though there's a good amount of body roll as well. (Luxurious body roll.) An air suspension with adaptive dampers is standard, and it provides a superb ride despite this S500's 21-inch wheels (a $1,950 option) that wear Pirelli P Zero summer tires. You can get Mercedes' road-scanning E-Active Body Control system for $6,500, and while it's mega impressive, it's honestly not necessary. My test car is fitted with 4.5-degree rear-wheel steering, a $1,300 option that's hugely helpful for maneuvering this 17-foot-long sedan around the city. Sadly, the S500 isn't available with the even crazier 10-degree setup that's offered on the S580 and EQS, but the 4.5-degree steering is still a boon.
The only styling differences between the S500 and S580 are the badges. This S500's combination of the $4,300 AMG Line styling package, Emerald Green metallic paint and silver multispoke wheels is fantastic, and I appreciate that it's got all of the standard chrome trim instead of the gloss black parts that the $400 Night package would bring. This S500 isn't a huge design revolution compared to the old S-Class, or the electric EQS, but even with the AMG Line's larger intakes, this sedan is beautiful and classy. The pop-out door handles and intricate LED taillights are my favorite design touches.
My S500 has lovely Sienna Brown Nappa leather with diamond-patterned stitching on the seats and door panels, a $2,290 option that looks excellent paired with the $1,300 Flowing Lines piano-black trim. The S-Class is bank-vault quiet as well, thanks to double-pane glass and lots of sound deadening. Its tech-forward interior is off-putting for some, but I'm a big fan. Sure, the touchscreen and shiny surfaces will get covered in fingerprints, but just keep a cleaning cloth in the glovebox. Most metal touchpoints in the S-Class have knurled finishes, like the seat controls and steering wheel stalks, and nothing feels cheap. Mercedes' animated multicolor ambient lighting remains the most impressive in the biz, too, especially in the super colorful nightclub-like modes.
The standard Burmester 3D surround-sound system in my test car is fantastic, but the S500 is available with Mercedes' $6,730 30-speaker Burmester 4D setup that includes subwoofers integrated into the seats. Another must-have option in my eyes -- literally -- is the $3,000 3D Technology Package that gives you facial recognition tech, a cool 3D gauge cluster and an incredible augmented-reality head-up display, which is one of my favorite pieces of tech available in any car today. It makes Mercedes' MBUX navigation system even better, and it has mind-blowing graphics for the driver-assist functions like projecting illuminated underlines for cars in your line of sight.
There is one aspect of the S500 that can seriously fall short of the S580, and that's the backseat. Rear-seat passengers do have tons of head- and legroom and powered sunshades, and an optional $3,800 Warmth & Comfort package adds heating and ventilation to the rear seats. But exclusive to the S580 is the Executive Line trim level, which gives backseat riders an almost Maybach-like experience. That package adds four-zone climate control, reclining and massaging rear seats with a powered footrest for the right seat, a tablet in the fold-down center armrest, more ambient lighting, a wireless charging pad and additional airbags.
Including a $1,050 destination charge, the S500 starts at $111,100, and my well spec'd example comes in at $127,330. The S580 is just $7,650 more than an S500 to start, but a fully loaded version easily crests $150,000. Unless you desperately want a V8 engine or would be regularly chauffeuring fancy people around in your S-Class (or being chauffeured yourself), save your money and buy the lovely S500 instead.