- Published: Thursday, 16 January 2014 00:00
SINGAPORE - When it comes to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it's a bit of an understatement to describe its buyers as conservative. They're like the more monied (or more spendy, on the face of it) versions of Toyota Corolla Altis owners.
Now before Mercedes-Benz sends me hate mail, let me defend that statement: Both cars are widely acknowledged by their buyers as being the best cars in their class, in the broadest, most popular sense. Both cars have upstart competitors that do offer something different, but try telling that to these guys. I personally know an S-Class owner who has a W221 S-Class, and whose previous two machines were also S-Class.
The 'classic' incarnation of the Singaporean S-Class would be the S 300 L. Certain markets have always had the aged 3.0-litre V6 engine, it being a great of example of owner thinking - we don't really want to go fast, as long as the thing is big, smooth and has a three-pointed star on the front.
But times have changed and at launch of the W222, you can't get an S 300 petrol anymore. In fact you can't even get a S 350 with Mercedes-Benz's excellent 3.5-litre, 306bhp V6 either, because they haven't even been made yet - you'll have to wait until later in 2014 for one. Right now, the only petrol W222s you can get now are the S 500 or S 63 AMG.
The mainstream 'petrol' model for now S 400 Hybrid we tested last issue, which goes very well indeed but doesn't quite deliver the 6.5L/100km mileage it quotes, while the base version of the S-Class is the S 350 Bluetec you see here.
In 2012 we did a back-to-back drive of the E 350 in both petrol and diesel versions, the latter armed with the same 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 seen here, and it blew its gasoline brother out of the water in every aspect, from usability to enjoyment and economy. It's very much the same case here, although the S 400 Hybrid does score extra points for its electric mode, it's a minor victory.
At idle, the Bluetec is almost entirely silent. It's a remarkably easy car to drive, and once you hop behind the wheel, the 5.2-metre long car feels much smaller than it really does.
That's thanks to improvements in structural rigidity while reducing weight - the entire bodyshell is made of aluminium now, and Mercedes claims the S-Class has the best torsional stiffness (40.5kNm per degree) in its class. If you've no idea what that means, it doesn't matter either. What does matter is how entirely biddable the chassis remains, even without the advanced 'Magic Body Control' ride system which uses cameras to predict bumps. The standard air suspension with adaptive dampers already delivers an eerily smooth ride that's unperturbed by anything on the road.
The diesel engine proves a perfect partner to this superb chassis. It makes maximum torque of 620Nm in what seems like a narrow band - 1600 to 2400rpm - which is almost just after tickover for a gasoline engine. But the seven-speed gearbox, which is the optimised and updated '7G-Tronic Plus' model, is well-judged and smart enough that the car never feels lacking for grunt. Hit the gas and there's a slight pause, then the rush of torque kicks in smoothly, accompanied by a pleasing V6 purr.
The result is the sort of car that can be easily driven at any speed, any where. Raise the ride height and set it in comfort for uneven roads or carparks, lower it and set it in sport for fast highway blasts. Even in high-speed corners, it remains composed and accessibly fast. The guy behind the wheel will be smiling quietly to himself, in this instance, but neither will his boss be able to tell he's going rather quickly indeed.
As with the S 400, the cabin is a sumptuous blend of elegance and technology - Mercedes tried to infuse the grandness of its 1930s limos, and that's visible in the swooping, sensuous surfaces and rich wood veneer. Paired with the two massive 30.8cm displays, it makes the cabin look like something out of a futuristic steampunk airship.
There's huge amounts of leg and headroom and the build quality is naturally top-notch, although you'll have to pay a bit more for extras such as massage/air-conditioned seats and rear seat entertainment.
But the important thing is the diesel S-Class more than lives up to the name and proves once again that diesel is far from a second-rate choice. It's got more gumption and offers a pleasing drive that's relentlessly stable and smooth. Even with a photoshoot and lots of idling, the car averaged 9.0L/100km, which is astounding for a car of this size and weight.
And it does all that with half a litre less displacement than the S 400 or future S 350 gasoline. In this sense, it's a true successor to the most popular S-Class of yore.
What Mercedes should do is call it an S 300 Bluetec, because the car's so good, it really deserves to be the most mainstream S-Class out there.
NEED TO KNOW
Engine 2,987cc, 24V, turbodiesel V6
Power 258bhp at 36000rpm
Torque 620Nm at 1600-2400rpm
Gearbox 7-speed automatic
Top Speed 250km/h
0-100kmh 6.8 seconds
Fuel efficiency 5.6L/100km
Price $447,888 with COE
Also Consider: Audi A8 L 3.0 TDI, BMW 740Li, Porsche Panamera Diesel
Photos by Derryn Wong