First Drive: 2021 Mercedes-Benz S580
Sales for luxury flagships like this may be flagging, but the tech inside is more incredible than ever
Cars like this once ruled the roost. Technological marvels that were the showcase for every gadget an automaker had in its quiver, the likes of BMW’s 7 Series, Audi’s A8 and Mercedes’ S-Class were also the dominant players in the luxury segment, selling in sufficiently scandalous numbers to remind us all that we were the have-nots. They were, without an iota of irony, bankers’ cars, and nothing says “have” more than being a banker.
Well, it seems that bankers have moved on, presumably to the scores of specialty utes that now dominate the luxury segment. Audi sells fewer than 10 A8s a month in Canada, BMW barely more. Only the subject of this test, Mercedes’ evergreen S-Class, sells in any number worth considering, and even then it’s but a fraction of its former glory.
Time has not been kind to the luxury sedan. They do, however, remain — at least if we judge by the recently revitalized S580 — technological marvels, the Mercedes so complex that one begs to wonder if Mercedes’ flagship is responsible for the current automotive microchip shortage all by its own self.
Now, as much as all your techie types want to hear about the fingerprint thing — not to mention the facial scan — I’m an auto-junkie, so I’ll go with this last first. Like a few recently-revised Mercs, the S-Class can steer its rear wheels. My tester, because it had optional 20-inch rims, was limited to having only 4.5 degrees of turning in the rear, as opposed to the 10-degrees possible if there were more room in the wheel wells.
No matter; those 4.5 degrees of simultaneous turning with the fronts really do make the ginormous S-Class — the long-wheelbase S580 stretches 5.28 metres from stem to stern — feel smaller. No, it doesn’t transform the big banker into a swash-buckling AMG’ed A-Class, but, seriously, with rear wheels helping shorten turning radii, from the driver’s seat, the S feels no larger than an E-Class. A transformative technology, rear-wheel steering has no downside other than the complication of something that was once simple. Nonetheless, an upgrade most definitely recommended.
Eagle eyes will note that the house of Mercedes’ top-of-the-line S is now monikered “580” rather than “550.” No, they didn’t jam a larger gas engine in there. Rather, Mercedes’ now-familiar 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 is augmented with the company’s equally-ubiquitous EQS mild-hybrid system, the marque’s marketers obviously thinking its 21 additional horsepower — and, more importantly, the 184 pound-feet of torque it can also add — is worthy of 30 extra points in the badge sweepstakes.
They might have a point. Officially, Mercedes rates the S580 — total horsepower: 496 — good for a 4.4-second sprint to 100 kilometres an hour. It feels quicker. Indeed, all that extra low-end lunge reminds me of the last AMG S65 twin-turbo V12 I drove, the acceleration seemingly relentless. Mercedes Canada also offers a 500 version of the S-Class, the twin-turbo V8 replaced by a 3.0-litre inline-six, but seriously, if you’re going for a top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz sedan, why would you deny yourself the full yacht?
Back to that facial-recognition stuff: this, the seventh iteration of Mercedes’ MBUX infotainment system, will recognize both your face and your fingerprint, not to mention your voice, so that all your settings — and instructions — can be both identified and customized. On top of that, there’s a new 12.8-inch portrait style touchscreen handling MBUX duties. It is supposed to, according to the automaker, replace some 27 physical buttons.
Truth be told, I’d like a couple of them back. While some of the confusing controls that overly complicated previous MBUX audio systems have been made more user-friendly, rendering all the climate control features digitally is probably going to cause problems with the S-Class’ intended clientele. When’s the last time you saw a 24-year-old banker, after all? I suspect, however that ease of use was not Mercedes’ goal here, the primary function of all this digitization to make the cabin feel cleaner and more sophisticated. That it does.