We know the Mercedes S-Class is something special, but does that sense of specialness extend to the entry-level version, the S350 BlueTEC? Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The Mercedes-Benz S350 BlueTEC might be the first step on the S-Class ladder but that doesn't mean it's been short-changed in the talent department. Capable of 155mph, 51.3mpg and offering a hot-stone effect massage, it's still the class benchmark.
Imagine being charged with designing the next Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It absolutely must be recognised by anyone who counts as the best car in the world. No pressure there, then. For as long as most of us care to remember, the S-Class has long been the go-to vehicle if you wanted to neatly encompass where the development of the horseless carriage had evolved to. These days I'm not so sure. For a little while, the S-Class has been rendered somewhat conservative in the things that really matter and the latest car hasn't done a lot to change that. In many of the big decisions that have changed the way we buy cars, the S-Class has been slow off the mark. Only now, some seventeen years after the Toyota Prius popularised hybrid propulsion, has Mercedes introduced a hybrid S-Class. So is the S-Class still the greatest? We take a look at the entry-level car to see how deep greatness is embedded into the S-Class DNA.
The S350 BlueTEC is powered by a relatively conventional piece of metalwork. This is a fairly standard-issue 3.0-litre turbodiesel, albeit one that packs a respectable 258PS. It's largely a carry-over from the previous S-Class and it still does a great job. It's a little vocal on start up and when you give the throttle pedal anything more than a dignified squeeze, so if you're looking for that utterly isolated magic carpet feel, you'd probably prefer a petrol/electric hybrid. Acceleration is crisp, 62mph coming and going in 6.8 seconds on the way to 155mph and there's plenty of instant torque to rely on. The seven-speed gearshift slurs its way between gears beautifully both up and down the box and it's only when you really start to drive the car that the software can occasionally prove a little dull-witted. Although some have complained about the throttle response in Comfort mode, I think it's beautifully judged, allowing you to measure progress without ever jarring the driveline. Ride quality is typically excellent and gets even better if you opt for the long wheelbase car on the smallest wheels possible. Unfortunately, Mercedes' Magic Body Control, which uses a camera to spot bumps and instructs the suspension to anticipate them like a skier sucking up a mogul, isn't offered with this car. It ought to at least be an option.
Design and Build
The styling of this latest S-Class is probably more evolutionary than any previous all-new model, with the pronounced wheelarch bulges and coupe-like roofline carried over from the previous W221 generation. Look a bit closer, however, and you'll see the additional shape in the flanks courtesy of slashing swage lines, there's the more upright front grille and the swept-in tail, much in the style of the CLS four-door coupe. The lighting system deserves more than a passing mention. More than 100 years after the introduction of electric lighting in motor vehicles, Mercedes-Benz is making a complete switch to LED technology - the new S-Class is the first vehicle in the world whose interior and exterior do without a single light bulb. Out of consideration for any road users behind, the intensity of the brake lights is reduced at night or while waiting at traffic lights - which is no bad thing. Some Mercedes models in the recent past have had antisocially bright tail lights. Almost 500 LEDs illuminate the road, the vehicle, the interior and the boot. Depending on equipment, these include headlamps with up to 56 LEDs. Then there are tail lights, each with up to 35 LEDs (plus 4 for the rear fog lamp). And no fewer than 300 LEDs in the interior, including the ambient lighting. Both the standard and long wheelbase models wear their bulk with a light touch and there's plenty of room inside the beautifully-finished cabin. You can even specify the "First Class Rear" where the front console on the transmission tunnel is visually continued to the rear. It's equipped with innovative thermo-cup holders which use Peltier technology to cool or warm drinks over a longer period of time. Like an aircraft seat, the centre console is available with two tables which can be folded in or out using one hand. The twin front screens aren't the prettiest and the optional pair you can have in the back can only be operated by a tedious remote control or a smartphone app.
Market and Model
Prices start at just over £62,000 for the S350 BlueTEC model and the long wheelbase model tacks another £3,000 onto that. This buys you the 'SE Line' specification which is probably the definitive trim to go for. You could spend £5,000 more on the 'AMG Line' trim but trying to make the entry-level diesel S-Class look like an S63 AMG seems to be an exercise in futility. Besides, the SE is hardly bereft of gear. It gets AirMATIC air suspension with Adaptive Damping System, the 7G-Tronic Plus 7-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel gear shift paddles and an LED Intelligent Light System. Eighteen-inch alloys come as standard while the interior features leather upholstery, dark brown eucalyptus wood trim and the excellent COMAND Online infotainment system. There are also Frontbass speakers, using hollow chassis members to punch up the stereo's bass response. The AMG Line variant gets AMG body styling, comprising front apron, rear apron and side skirts, as well as 19" AMG alloy wheels in 5-twin-spoke design with perforated brake discs. The interior features black poplar wood trim with a wood- and leather-trimmed multi-function steering wheel, brushed stainless steel sports pedals and velour floor mats with 'AMG' lettering.
Cost of Ownership
How do you really put a price on owning the best of anything? It's a tough ask. Clearly Mercedes needs to offer the sort of value proposition that stands it favourably against its key rivals, but when it comes to running costs, is this a somewhat moot point? Mercedes thinks not. The excellent efficiency figures point to an almost obsessive quest to reduce consumption and emissions. All of the S-Class body is fabricated from aluminium to cut weight and the chassis is notably stiffer than the previous generation car. Choose an S350 BlueTEC model - as we suspect most British S-Class customers will - and you'll get 51.3 miles from a gallon of diesel, falling to 50.4 if you go for the heftier long wheelbase version. Emissions are rated at 146 and 148g/km respectively.
The longer you spend with the Mercedes S-Class, the more you appreciate the philosophy behind it. As a motoring journalist, I'm always hoping for radical and exciting because that's an easy sell for a story. Deeply ingrained brilliance? A car that's easy to live with? Not so much. The S350 BlueTEC isn't a car that will knock your socks off right away. In fact, I came away from the first drive slightly underwhelmed. After a week, I didn't want to give it back. I've never driven any vehicle that does so much so well for so little. True, most of us can't dredge over £62,000 from down the back of the sofa, but this car can make rivals that cost twice the price seem uncivilised - and that makes it good value in my book. The best car in the world? That's a title that's pretty subjective but somewhat annoyingly, in my opinion Mercedes look to have pulled it off. This S Class dials back the show stoppers in favour of a maturity and comfort in its own skin. If money were no object I'd certainly have an S500 over an S350 BlueTEC, but in the real world, the diesel would definitely get the nod.