There are, as yet, just three powertrains available in the UK. Diesel fans, which will still be most buyers, can choose between the S350d and more powerful S400d model, both with 2.9-litre straight-six engines, while the 3.0-litre S500 is the lone petrol choice. The first and last of these is available with the standard wheelbase, all three with the long wheelbase that will account for 80 per cent of sales. Four-wheel-drive is standard with the two more expensive powertrains.
In future there will be a plug-in hybrid S580e but it looks like UK customers wanting more than six cylinders will need either to wait for the S63 AMG model or go the whole hog and get a Maybach limousine, which will also be available with Mercedes’ venerable 6.0-litre V12 motor. We drove a long wheelbase S500 L in AMG Line specification which in terms of both price and power is the de facto flagship model in the UK at present.
On paper, it seems that there is very little that’s been lost now that the S500 model has six rather than eight cylinders. There’s no shortage of power as its 435PS (320kW) attests, and while its 520Nm (385lb ft) of torque might seem little better than adequate for such a large car, that doesn’t include the additional 250Nm (185lb ft) that can be provided by the 48V mild-hybrid system integrated into its nine speed gearbox. The result is a near two tonne limo which will, with the aid of four-wheel-drive, will sweep you from rest to 62mph in just 4.9 seconds.
In reality this powertrain mainly impressive, but not flawless. The engine is smooth enough, but does its best work at high revs, while the old V8 was happier thundering along in its lower and middle ranges, and that surely is more appropriate for this kind of car. Although the figures suggest little or no loss of performance, it doesn’t feel quite as effortless. You can see it changing gear a lot too, and not only because it has plenty of gears through which to change: there’s also just the slightest sense of a car always searching for the sweet spot, when perhaps something more relaxed should be in order. That said, once on the motorway where most of these cars will spend most of their time, the S-Class is flawlessly refined and restful.
And doubtless part of the reason for this is that oft-imitated but as yet never bettered S-Class ride quality. Air springs are standard as they are with all such cars, but even given all its other attributes, including a super-stiff structure and electronically controlled dampers, there is artistry within the science. Cooks can find the world’s best ingredients but unless they’re put together properly, they’ll still make a mess of the meal. The S-Class makes no such mistakes: its ride is nothing short of exquisite. It is always compliant, but offering ever greater levels of control as you scroll through the various driving modes.
Which is when you also discover the S-Class’s traditional party trick has been carried over in full. Like its predecessors and for a car of its size and weight, it handles superbly. Owners who spend all their time in the back will never get to feel how precise the steering can be or enjoy the improbable confidence it provides when being punted along a decent road.