There are few cars that have to bear an equal weight of expectation than the one that hangs over each new iteration of Mercedes-Benz’s S-Class. Fresh versions of the quintessential large German saloon have to be more luxurious, more cosseting and play host to even more cutting-edge technology than their predecessors. Thankfully, after having tested various versions of the new S, it’s clear the latest model still possesses, and indeed improves upon, the tenets of what made it the perennial yardstick for the grand-saloon segment throughout its history.
This is the sole locally available hybrid version, the S400. International markets boast an ultra-efficient S300 Hybrid, but that hasn’t been earmarked for South Africa.
Under the vast expanse of bonnet rests a 3,5-litre, naturally aspirated V6 petrol that is supplemented by a 20 kW/250 N.m electric drivetrain. The outputs aren’t exactly class-leading, and as a result the responsiveness isn’t quite there.
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 V6 is on song. The car changes modes seamlessly, with only the occasional faint vibration alerting occupants to the fact that the V6 has come onboard.
But, ultimately it’s a somewhat disappointing showing considering the excellence of the older BMW ActiveHybrid7’s powertrain and when measured against the S-Class’s otherwise near-flawless execution.
Most notable of the aforementioned is the cabin. As ever, the ambience is strongly dependent on the individual specification (the test car was finished in black leather with “metallised” ash-wood accents), but the material quality, fit and finish rivals that of Bentley. With its ornate air ventilation outlets replete with control knobs that ascend and descend, the facia is a particular highlight. S-classes cushion occupants better than their rivals, and this version is no different. Shod with conservatively sized 19-inch wheels, the S400 Hybrid rode beautifully under all conditions.
But, despite its substantial frame and limousine bearing, the S isn’t a complete pudding to drive. The steering, although well damped, is direct and the car noses accurately into the bends. Body control is, as expected, suitably composed and gives way to noticeable lean only when taking a decidedly ungentlemanly approach to the bends.
Our experience with the second-lowest rung on the model ladder was a mixed affair. The S-Class is undoubtedly brilliant, but the drivetrain isn’t quite as good. We’d opt for the S350 BlueTEC time and again or, if you’re dead set on a hybrid grand saloon, accept the obvious age-related shortcomings of the BMW 7 Series and choose the ActiveHybrid7.