First Drive: 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Wows With Advanced Technology

This redesigned flagship luxury sedan has impressive handling capabilities and infuriating controls

2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class front driving
Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

After almost 50 years, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class may very well be looking at the sunset of its existence. With the automaker investing in electric vehicle platforms and introducing another large luxury sedan, the all-electric EQS, later this year, the era of S-Class sedans powered by a six-, eight-, or even 12-cylinder engine will eventually go the way of the dodo.

Of course, that future isn’t here quite yet. The redesigned 2021 S580 that we rented from Mercedes-Benz is an incredibly impressive sedan from a model line that still has many years of life ahead of it.

The S-Class sits near the top of Mercedes-Benz’s sedan lineup, surpassed only by the S-Class Maybach (a rare uber-flagship that starts at $184,900 and competes against vehicles from Aston Martin, Bentley, and Rolls-Royce). But with a starting price of $109,800, the “regular” S-Class certainly isn’t cheap. Its competitors include the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, Genesis G90, Lexus LS, Maserati Quattroporte, and Porsche Panamera.

For now, the S-Class is available in two versions. The S500 comes with a 429-hp, 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder engine, and the S580 is powered by a 496-hp, 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8. Both sedans use a nine-speed automatic transmission and have standard all-wheel drive. If history is a guide, then it's likely that, down the road, a high-performance AMG version (or two) of the S-Class will be unveiled.

More on Luxury Sedans

This will be our only look at the S-Class, because the high cost and limited appeal of the gas-powered S-Class makes it almost impossible to justify purchasing one for testing.

We may, however, purchase our own EQS to test when it goes on sale. This is mainly because it has superseded the S-Class as a testbed for Mercedes-Benz’s latest tech, much of which routinely trickles down to less-expensive models. Buying an EQS would give us, and you, a preview of coming features. Therefore, we don't have a detailed list in the “What We’ll Keep Our Eye On” section at the bottom of this first drive review.

If you’re a Consumer Reports member, our first drive assessment of the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is available to you here. If you haven’t signed up yet, click below and become a member to access this full article and all of our exclusive ratings and reviews for each vehicle we buy and test. Joining also gives you full access to exclusive ratings for the other products our experts evaluate in several categories, including electronics and home appliances.

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What we rented: 2021 Mercedes-Benz S580 Sedan 4MATIC
Powertrain: 496-hp, 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine; nine-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
MSRP: $116,300
Options: $3,110 Sienna Brown/Black Exclusive Nappa Leather; $1,300 Piano Lacquer Flowing Lines; $1,300 Rear Axle Steering; $950 20-in. Y-Multispoke Wheels; $6,730 Burmester High-End 4D Surround Sound System; $3,800 Warmth and Comfort Package (heated steering wheel, power outboard rear seats, heated/ventilated outboard rear seats; heated front/rear center armrests and door armrests); $3,500 Rear Seat Package (4-zone climate control; electrically adjustable right-rear footrest and passenger seat forward movement, rear seat belt bags, easy-adjust headrest, MBUX rear table, wireless charging); $3,150 Executive Rear Seat Package (multicontour outboard rear seats with massage, executive right-rear seat with recline and power calf rest, rear neck and shoulder heating, rear passenger front facing airbag); $3,400 Rear Seat Entertainment Package (MBUX entertainment system, 2 wireless headsets); $3,000 3D Technology Package (MBUX augmented reality head-up display, 3D instrument cluster)
Destination fee: $1,050
Total cost: $147,590

CR’s Take

As expected, the S-Class underscores a key benefit of being affluent: access to ultra-luxury cars that are truly extraordinary. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has long defined automotive excellence, shining bright in our road tests and, for both the 2007 and 2014 models, having the distinction of being the most comfortable riding car we’ve tested. This new S-Class continues the steady march of ongoing improvements and setting the state of the art.

Part of the appeal of the S-Class has been the impressive combination of being far more enjoyable to drive than its massive size and weight would allow you to reasonably expect, while coddling the driver and passengers in premium comfort.

Historic weaknesses have included infuriating controls. This is among the challenges in a vehicle with so many features. The original MBUX infotainment control system carried some promise, allowing spoken commands to substitute for multiple button pushes and screen taps. But the results are a bit mixed with the current cars we’ve tested, which require a notable learning curve. Perhaps the next-generation system will make this easier.

Another downside of all that complexity has been reliability. The more features a car has, the more there is to go wrong. And with an S-Class, that can mean expensive repairs out of warranty. This is something that we will certainly be watching in our member surveys.

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