Test drive: The 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class with 4-wheel-steering runs circles around the competition

For the past half-century, the S-Class has been the flagship of Mercedes-Benz’s fleet and a showcase of the best luxury and technology the brand has to offer. The newest model carries on this tradition except in one very important way, but I’ll get to that.

The 2021 S-Class is available as either the S500 with a 429 hp inline-6-cylinder engine or the S580 with a 496 horsepower electrically-assisted hybrid V8. Both have 9-speed automatic transmissions, standard all-wheel drive and air suspension systems.

Prices start at $110,850 for the S500 and $117,350, so pretty much same as a loaded full-size pickup. (I kid because everything is expensive these days. But, seriously, you can spend six-figures on a truck now.)

The exterior is as subdued as ever, and not all that different from the previous edition’s, but the interior has been given a complete overhaul that includes a new tablet-style digital instrument cluster and 12.8-inch OLED central touchscreen with the latest version of the MBUX infotainment system.

The setup does away with analog controls, and could definitely use volume and tuning knobs, but the interface is well designed and not too daunting to use considering the vast array of features on hand. They range from massaging seats and multicolored ambient lighting to a cabin perfuming sprayer and, if you don’t want to take your eyes off the road, you can ask it to do a lot of things with voice commands at a good response rate. It even has a fingerprint scanner that brings up your personal profile configuration with just a touch.

Even more dazzling is an optional 3D version of the instrument cluster that uses eye tracking technology to create the effect. It sounds gimmicky, but when you have the navigation maps set to full-screen it truly is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, I can’t share the effect with you here.

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Above it, there’s head-up display that mimics a 77-inch screen area hovering over the front of the car with an augmented reality system that can float dynamic arrows in front of you to point the way. It also highlights other vehicles when you’re using the adaptive cruise control and self-steering lane centering system, which change lanes at a flick of the turn signal stalk, but requires to you keep a hand touching the wheel to operate.

An optional 1750-watt, 30-speaker Burmeister 4D audio system priced at (what’s that now?) $6,730 adds resonators to all four of the outboard seats that pump along with the beat of the music, which is pretty neat … the first time you try it. I tested it in an S580 which was also equipped with a $1,300 rear-wheel-steering system that delivers more bang for the buck.

It’s not the first car with the tech, but the action is dramatic. It can turn the rear wheels in the opposite direction of the fronts by up to 10 degrees and shrink the turning radius of the 17-foot vehicle by over six feet. Even in my test car – which was an AMG Line trim with steamroller tires that restrict the steering to 4.5-degrees — the effect took some getting used to and let the car cut through the city like a compact. Urban livery drivers should go on strike to make sure their fleet cars have this, but will prefer the standard 19-inch wheels because the 21s don’t do rough city streets.

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For owners who prefer driving themselves, the S580 is as quick and smooth as a railgun. The hybrid system’s electric motor offers a boost of 184 lb-ft of torque in small bursts, but also enables the fuel-saving start/stop feature, which seamlessly kicks the V8 back into action without any kick at all.

But while the S-Class is very impressive, the one thing keeping it from the cutting-edge is the lack of an all-electric drivetrain. That will be remedied soon.

Later this year, Mercedes-Benz is launching the similarly sized, battery-powered 2022 EQS, which will essentially claim the mantle of flagship from the S-Class.

Until then, you can enjoy running very small circles around the competition in the S580.

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2021 Mercedes-Benz S580

Base price: $117,350

As tested: $138,530

Type: 4-door, 5-passenger all-wheel-drive sedan

Engine: 4.0L V8 w/electric motor assist

Power: 496 hp, 516 lb-ft

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 17 city/25 hwy


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