2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class first drive review

It's so plush it comes with pillows, but the new Mercedes-AMG S 63 4Matic+ still stomps sports cars

Every S-Class is fit for royalty, but the Mercedes-AMG S 63 is a king among kings.
Every S-Class is fit for royalty, but the Mercedes-AMG S 63 is a king among kings.
Every S-Class is fit for royalty, but the Mercedes-AMG S 63 is a king among kings.

Highs

  • Sports car acceleration
  • Comfortable, planted ride
  • Lavish interior
  • Refined semiautonomous features

Lows

  • Exterior styling is mostly unchanged

When Mercedes-Benz builds a new S-Class, the brand isn’t just putting a vehicle together, it’s trying to build the best car in the world. The S-Class has long been the measuring stick by which luxury cars are judged, so each iteration must push the boundaries of comfort, performance, and technology further than its predecessor. The S-Class lineup is vast, including 24 global configurations ranging from short wheelbase diesels to stretched AMG variants, but for our Mercedes-AMG S 63 4Matic+ first drive review, we picked the best of the lot – a spectacular marriage of speed, opulence, and world first features. This is how you make a flagship.

What’s new

The current-gen S-Class has been on sale since 2013, so to give it a proper update, Mercedes swapped in some 6,500 new parts. The engine only counts as one. The result is quite the mouthful, evidenced by a 108-page press release detailing all the changes. Don’t worry though, we did the dirty work for you.

Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

Here are the highlights – the old 5.5-liter V8 has been swapped out for a smaller, 4.0-liter biturbo V8 producing 603 horsepower, representing a 26-hp improvement (visit out our 2018 S-Class overview to see other available engines).

Other tweaks include a new gearbox, improved semi-autonomous driving capabilities, a refreshed front grille, new LED lighting, and a debuting feature called Energizing Comfort Control. It networks no fewer than five vehicle systems together to improve wellness, and it presents the closest thing to a spa on wheels we’ve ever felt.

Trim levels & features

Technically, the S 63 4Matic+ isn’t at the top of the standard S-Class range – that honor goes to the V12-powered S 65 4Matic+ – but the S 63 is without question the one to get. Why? The range-topper’s V12 is heavier, only marginally more powerful than the S 63’s V8, and it mates to a seven-speed automatic instead of the S 63’s nine-speed. Rear-wheel drive only as well. This results in slower acceleration and more carbon emissions for the S 65. Mercedes only offers it for the badge prestige at this point, and in our opinion, the S 63 is the significantly better buy.

U.S. pricing for the lineup hasn’t been released yet, but in Germany, the S 63 4Matic+ will retail for 160,293 euros, or just under $185,000. For that exorbitant money, you get the incredible V8, all-wheel drive, adjustable AMG air suspension, and an impressive suite of tech that takes an already clever car and makes it downright gifted.

Technology overview

If we were reviewing a “normal” vehicle, this section would detail things like USB ports, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and the responsiveness of the touchscreens. These are basics though, and, despite the fact that many autos still fall short here, the S-Class is in a different, well, … group. It has its fundamentals covered and then some; we’re on to the advanced stuff now. Case in point – Intelligent Drive.

An impressive suite of tech takes an already clever car and makes it downright gifted.

For the 2018 model year, the S-Class’ semi-autonomous Intelligent Drive system inches toward full autonomy by adding enhanced radar systems, cameras, and new software. Specifically, the suite leverages navigation and map data to predict road conditions ahead, meaning the car won’t just stay in its lane and keep pace with others, it’ll actively slow ahead of bends of junctions.

Active Lane Changing Assist has been added as well. Want to switch over? Bump the indicator stalk and the car will scan the space and do it for you. The S-Class even includes a feature called Curve, which tilts the vehicle while cornering by up to 2.65 degrees. This mitigates lateral g-forces felt by the passengers, giving the sensation that the S-Class is gliding through the bends effortlessly. Curve works at very high speeds too, so even if you’re flying down the Autobahn, Mercedes doesn’t want pesky things like physics getting in the way of your comfort.

Overall, Intelligent Drive operates splendidly. Even the Active Steering Assist, which has felt too much like ping-pong in the past for our liking, has been ironed out significantly and for the most part keeps the vehicle in the center of the lane well. We’re not quite ready to give up complete control to the vehicle’s computers, but honestly, we’re getting there.

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Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

On the other end of the tech spectrum is Mercedes’ Energizing Comfort Control, which is one of the most unnecessarily lavish yet amazing features we’ve ever seen in a car. It features six different programs – Freshness, Warmth, Vitality, Joy, Comfort, and Training – each tailoring the climate settings, music, seat massage and ventilation, interior lighting, and air fragrances together in a unique way. That’s right, this car literally tailors the atmosphere in the cockpit to your desired mood.

Mercedes must have held countless meetings with countless experts before they landed on these particular parameters, and the longer you visualize that, the more hilarious it becomes. It’s a bit of a gimmick, and the seat massage still underwhelms as it always does, but if nothing else, it’s clever.

Oh, and for the record, the touchscreens are very responsive.

Interior fit & finish

The S 63’s interior is simply divine. Big shocker, right?

Even with high expectations, the S 63’s cabin impresses in both its design and its material quality. Nappa leather and soft dinamica microfiber line the majority of the cockpit, with milled metal and open grain black poplar wood highlighting the rest. The lines flow from the seat stitching to the dashboard and back again, but best of all, the interior is streamlined and relatively clutter-free.

Every menu on the car can be accessed through the twin trackpads on the steering wheel, the center console controls, or with Mercedes’ Linguatronic voice commands, meaning there isn’t a sea of buttons to confuse you. The trackpads take some getting used to admittedly, but after a few goes at it, it’s actually a very efficient way to interface with your vehicle.

Out back, there’s ample room to stretch given the S 63’s 10-foot-plus wheelbase, and there are even more gadgets to play with. A rear seat entertainment system turns the S-Class into a mobile office, and for perfectly-engineered naps, drivers can add soft pillows to the rear headrests. They are stupidly comfortable. Rumor has it, if you stay awake back there for more than 10 minutes, Mercedes will give you the car for free.

Drivers will have plenty of visual stimulation to keep them awake, however. The vehicle equips a two-part electrochromatic sunroof that adjusts its opaqueness with the push of a button, and there are a ton of interior ambient light choices to choose from. 64, to be exact.

Driving performance & MPG

All this grandeur adds up to a burly curb weight of 4,400 pounds, but the S 63 does not drive like a 4,400-lb car. It won’t dazzle you with its handling or anything, but it will surprise you with how competently it handles its heft. Sport-tuned AMG air suspension is responsible for that, as its adaptive dampers can noticeably alter the vehicle’s character if the driver so desires.

Want to loaf along in tranquility? Switch the car into Comfort and you’ll feel like you’re floating on air (you are). Want a more dynamic feel? Flip it into Sport and feel the car tighten up, its reflexes heightened and its engine ready for battle. It’s not quite as dynamic as the BMW 7 Series to be fair, but honestly, it’s not trying to be.

In terms of pure acceleration, though, the S 63 is a bonafide beast, which brings us to another favorite feature – Race Start. Yep, this enormous flagship features launch control. When you activate it, the V8 sends a whopping 664 pound-feet of torque through the responsive nine-speed gearbox, shooting the car to 60 mph in just 3.5 seconds. The S-Class’ trademarked smoothness makes it feel less urgent than that, but trust us, it is that fast. We checked the rear view.

The engine itself is a marvel. It makes great power in every rev range, and despite two turbos and significant insulation deadening its noise, the V8 has a great, throaty tone to it. It’s also much more efficient than you may believe, because even with 612 ponies on tap, it returns roughly 20 mpg city, 32 mpg highway, and 26 mpg combined. Mercedes included cylinder deactivation to help with that, and the transition is unnoticeable.

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Andrew Hard/Digital Trends
Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

So yes, the S 63 can (almost) pilot itself, but it drives so well you’ll be clamoring for the controls. It is that good.

Safety

Much of the same technology that makes the S 63 comfortable and convenient also makes it safer. Collision avoidance systems like Active Braking Assist, Crosswind Assist, and Attention Assist all come standard.

If drivers want more assurance, the Driving Assistant Package includes all the semi-autonomous features we mentioned previously. In addition to that, the S 63’s 4Matic+ all-wheel drive system uses a constantly variable torque split, ensuring the car has maximum traction no matter the condition.

Conclusion

With great cars like the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, Lexus LS, and even the Genesis G90 competing in the full-size luxury segment, it takes a truly special vehicle to reign over them. That’s exactly what the 2018 S-Class lineup consists of, and the S 63 4Matic+ is its champion. This car can do anything a luxury buyer would ask of it, and due to some outside the box thinking, it can do things most of us wouldn’t even think to ask of it.

Hold that crown high, Mercedes, it isn’t going anywhere.