With the market shifting so rapidly to SUVs, it almost seems like an anachronism that the S-Class, rather than the GLS-Class, is still Mercedes’ flagship—but it is, and the all-new-for-2021 model, in S500 and S580 guise, once again takes the lead, showing us the future of Mercedes-Benz design and technology. Outside and in—especially in—there’s a lot to see. And hear. And smell.
A Kinder, Gentler Look for the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
Let’s start on the outside, where the S-Class’s familiar shape takes on a new look. The sleek profile is familiar, and does a good job hiding the fact that the new car is somewhat taller (and longer and wider with a stretched wheelbase) than the outgoing S-Class. The biggest change is the nearly wholesale elimination of creases in the metal: The S-Class now relies on surfacing and the way the light reflects off its gentle curves. Flush door handles motor outward when it’s time to open the door and give the S-Class the look of a concept car. We’re torn on the new look—we like simple, elegant designs, but the new S might be a little too simple. From some angles, it looks like an over-inflated E-Class.
The grille is bigger and more prominent, and it now juts farther forward. The headlights have adopted the new “eyebrow” look of the E-Class, and while they’re intricate bits of artwork on their own, their flattened look gives the new S-Class a family resemblance… to an Audi. Out back, the new S-Class trades trademark vertical taillights for horizontal units, which allow more space for animation in the LEDs. The hard edges and sharp angles of the taillight lenses are meant to contrast with the relaxed curves of the sheetmetal, but the design looks like something we’d expect to find on an Infiniti rather than a Mercedes.
2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Gets a New Screen Setup
What the exterior does best is prepare you for the interior, a radical departure both for the S-Class and compared to other Mercedes models. You know how other new Benzes have been adopting that super-wide-screen dashboard look? Yeah, well, you can forget that. The centerpiece of the S-Class’s cabin is a big center screen, designed and oriented in such a way as to bridge the gap between landscape and portrait screens. It’s a beautiful design that flows smoothly into the center console—Mercedes calls it a waterfall design, and we can think of no better description. The angle is echoed in the door panels, and the screen floats above its background, as do nearly all surfaces that contain some sort of user control (even the steering wheel controls, which gives the steering wheel the appearance of wearing some sort of a Bat-shield).
Climate controls are virtual, set into the lower edge of the screen, with the number of physical buttons reduced as far as possible. Meanwhile, the instrument screen is now a stand-alone panel behind the steering wheel. But to call it merely a panel would be selling it short, because it has a nifty (and optional) 3-D effect that manifests itself when the driver looks at the dashboard, reverting to 2-D when the driver looks away. (Yep, the S-Class is watching you—the 3-D package includes a camera which can also be used for facial recognition and to detect a distracted driver.)
S-Class Brings Driving Assistance to the Big Screen
So why would the driver want to look away? Because of the giant head-up display, which uses augmented reality—animated arrows that show you exactly where to turn and real-time information about the distance from cars ahead, overlaid directly on the real-world objects—among other nifty animations. It’s Top Gun crossed with PlayStation, and we can’t wait to try it in the real world. (This system is exclusive to the 3-D package, by the way; a smaller HUD is standard.)
And that’s only the beginning of the S-Class technology story, which is really more of a technology novella. Highlights: Individual profiles with customized lighting, dash display, climate and stereo preferences; to access your profile a driver “logs in” using facial recognition, voice recognition, a fingerprint sensor or a PIN. If the car senses you’re drowsy, it’ll run an environment program to wake you up, using lighting and scents from the built-in perfumer. The “4-D” Burmester audio system has bass vibrators in the seats and can aim navigation alerts at specific seats. Information can be shared between the front screen and those at the back, and rear-seaters can search the mapping system and send destinations to the front seat.
More Computing Power for the 2021 Mercedes S-Class
All of this requires a lot of digital wizardry, and Mercedes is boasting a 50 percent increase in computing power for the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Interface) compared with the system found in other cars. The best show-off app for the new computer’s number-crunching speed is the parking camera: Instead of the usual bird’s-eye view, the S-Class shows a chase-cam view, as if the car were being followed by its own personal drone. Swipe the screen and you can fly your view around the car, with quick, smooth animation. (If you see the new S-Class dawdling in a parking spot with the driver staring intently at the center screen, well, now you know why—no doubt they’re playing with the parking cam.)
Getting into parking spots will be even easier thanks to a new four-wheel steering system available for AMG Line and Executive Line models. The AMG system is tuned for performance, with a 4.5-degree maximum steering angle on the rear axle, but the Executive Line cars—those are the ones with the high-end rear-seat entertainment system and massaging rear seats—have a 10-degree steering system that reduces the turning circle to that of the A-Class.
And speaking of cool suspension tricks, here’s another one: If your S-Class has the E-Active Body Control suspension, it will automatically raise the suspension by up to three inches if the car is about to get T-boned, the idea being to put the side sill (which is stronger than the doors) in the path of the incoming car. Oh, you prefer your collisions to be the frontal kind? Then you’ll be pleased to know that the S-Class option list includes rear-seat frontal airbags embedded in the backrest of the front seats.
There’s more we’re leaving out, and we have the book-sized press release from Mercedes to prove it, but you get the idea.
Standard EQ-Boost and 4Matic All-Wheel Drive for the 2021 S-Class
What about powertrains? Why yes, the S-Class has those as well. The S500 is powered by Mercedes’ 3.0 liter turbocharged inline six-cylinder, which delivers 429 horsepower and 284 pound-feet, while the S580 gets the twin-turbo 4.0 liter V-8 with 496 horsepower and 516 pound-feet. Both engines feature the EQ Boost “mild hybrid” system, a nine-speed automatic transmission, 4Matic all-wheel-drive, and a 48-volt electrical system to power all this high-tech goodness.
Pricing has not been announced (we imagine it’ll be north of the current S-Class’ $95,000-or-so starting price), nor has a firm launch date; we only know that the S-Class will arrive in American Mercedes-Benz dealerships some time in the first half of 2021. That’s a relief, because we’ll need at least that long to read up on all the new features. And the S500 and S580 are just the base cars—we’re sure more news will be coming in relation to AMGs, coupes and cabrios, and perhaps Maybach variants. What we’ve seen so far is impressive, and we can’t wait for this technology to begin trickling down into lesser Mercedes-Benz models.
2021 Mercedes-Benz S580 Specifications
|ON SALE||First half of 2021|
|ENGINE||4.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8/496 hp @ 5,500 rpm (est), 516 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|L x W x H||208.2 x 76.9 x 59.2 in|
|WEIGHT||3,800 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||4.8 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|