There are few cars that have to bear the weight of expectation that hangs over every new iteration of Mercedes’ S-Class. Each one has to be more luxurious, more cosseting and play host to even more cutting-edge technology than the last.

It was with this last point in mind that I plonked myself behind the wheel of the S400 Hybrid. Does the new S-Class still possess, and indeed improve upon, the tenets of what makes it the perennial yardstick for the grand saloon segment or, with the host of innovative features on offer, is Benz blinding us with science?

Outside and in
Aesthetically, Gorden Wagener’s team has created an exterior that’s more impressive than overtly expressive, and the rear is particularly striking, especially the LED clusters in those stacked tail light clusters.

Yes, in meeting it’s Maybach-replacing proviso it’s understandably imposing but given the daring tack on which Mercedes’ design is currently headed, it’s good to see that things have been toned down a touch in keeping with the S-‘s halo-model bearing.

Inside there’s a real sense of occasion. As ever, the ambience is strongly dependent on the individual specification, but the material quality, fit and finish is Bentley-rivalling in its execution. The swooping facia with its ornate air ventilation outlets, replete with control knobs that ascend and descend from the facia, was a personal highlight.

Ergonomically, the new Comand APS interface avails a number of interior features, from different LED lighting colours to massaging seats and fragrance dispensing, but curiously, Benz has dispensed with the parking brake pedal but left the electronic toggle to the right and the bottom of the steering column when their is plenty of space for it in the centre console control binnacle. Also missed was an auxiliary 12V socket to charge a smartphone (I had to use the cigarette lighter socket with the ashtray extended out of the dashboard, not ideal).

Two TFT screens measuring 12,3 inches each are located in the instrument binnacle with one catering for the infotainment and the other instrumentation, but while they possessed very clear resolution, the old-school dial graphics did seem a bit out of place.

It’s certainly spacious and there seems to be a furlong of stitched leather and brushed aluminium panelling between the driver and those fortunate enough to be sprawled out in the back.

On the road
The previous S- was renowned for it’s ability to shield its occupants from both the clamour of the outside world and the caprices of our variable road surfaces. The new car has lost none of this talent.

That said, the availability of Merc’s Magic Ride Control system (an adaptive air suspension set-up that scans the road surface and adjusts the dampers within a gnat’s heartbeat) is only available from the S500 upwards. While the car I tested rode with aplomb, I’d be loath to label it class leading until I’ve experienced higher-spec models with those underpinnings.

Similarly, I would’ve liked to sample a more powerful motor than the 3,5-litre petrol/electric hybrid I drove. Despite its 225+20 kW and 370 + 250 N.m outputs, the responsiveness you’d hope for isn’t quite there. As a result, the occasionally strained engine note means you’re fully aware that the powerplant has to work hard under even modest acceleration. Even so, there’s plenty of accessible performance once the powerplant is on song and the progress is silky smooth.

Despite its substantial frame and limousine bearing, the previous S- wasn’t a complete pudding to drive and, much like the ride, things haven’t changed in this department either.

The steering, although on the well damped side, is direct and the car noses accurately into the bends. Body control is, as expected, suitably composed an only gives way to noticeable lean when taking a decidedly ungentlemanly approach to the bends.

Summary

Given the previous car’s imperious hold over the grand saloon segment, it’s fair to say that the new S- didn’t have to make a quantum leap in order to remain at the top of the pile.

My experience with second-lowest rung on the model ladder was a mixed affair. You get the impression that while the new car is very good indeed, it’s pretty much on par with it’s predecessor in most departments – this is a trifle unnerving when this particular model weighs in at more than R1,2 million.

Even so, it’s a deeply impressive car and about as cosseting and beautifully crafted as you’d ever wish an executive express to be… I’d just like to sample a couple of higher-end models to see whether all of that technology, not to mention that gem of a 4,7-litre twin-turbo V8 engine in the S500, takes it from impressive to game-changing, possibly genre-defining.

Specifications*
Model:
Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid
Engine: 3,5-litre, V6 petrol + electric
Power: 225+20 kW (elec.) at 6 500 r/min
Torque: 370 N.m + 250 N.m (elec.) at 3 500-5 500 (r/min)
0-100 km/h: 6,8 seconds
Fuel consumption: 6,3 l/100 km
CO2: 147 g/km
Top speed: 250 km/h
Price: R1 252 201
Maintenance plan: 6 year/100 000 km
Service intervals: as per on-board indicator
*All manufacturer-claimed figures