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Car Review

2012 Mercedes-Benz S-Class: First Drive

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author photo by Nick Jaynes December 2011

A Flagship For The World

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class debuted in 1972 and stands as the flagship vehicle for Mercedes. It also stands as the best-selling luxury flagship sedan in the world. As the largest car for one of the foremost automakers on the planet, the S-Class is privy to the latest and greatest technology that the Mercedes technical wizards dream up.

The 2012 S-Class, in the United States, is available in several iterations, most changes falling within the drivetrain. In fact, there are seven drivetrain options: S350 BlueTEC diesel with 4Matic all-wheel drive, S400 Hybrid, S550, S550 4Matic, S600, S63 AMG, and S65 AMG. The options range anywhere from a base price of $93,425 all the way up to a very steep $211,775.

The current version of the S-Class hit American shores in 2006. New to the US S-Class lineup for 2012 is the S350 BlueTEC 4MATIC, which is an all-wheel-drive, diesel-powered 3.0-liter V6, fitted with a turbo charger.


For 2012, Mercedes-Benz announced they were doing away with their highest-end luxury sedan line: Maybach, which shared underpinnings with the S-Class. Thusly, the S-Class now stands at the top of the range. Delightfully for buyers, the 2012 S-Class more closely resembles the Maybach line than ever before.

The S-Class body has always been rather rotund, leaning perhaps more toward the bulbous side than some of its more chiseled Mercedes underlings. The 2012, however, is a bit more angular, even if only slightly so. The faint bodylines are distinctly Germanic but are easy on the eye.

The S-Class buyer wishes to have the finest without shouting about it. Passers by who recognize it immediately appreciate the S-Class, as its confidence is palpable. Other German luxury flagships lean more toward the boastful, chrome-encrusted exterior. But if you didn't have your eye out, you might miss the S-Class entirely. This makes it the ultimate under-the-radar luxury sedan.

Even the technology has been cleverly disguised. Hidden within the front grille is a radar sensor, which operates the adaptive cruise control. We'll get to that, however, in a bit.


Close your eyes and imagine for a moment what the interior of a $100,000 sedan might look like. Got it? Chances are you're way off the S-Class mark. If you were expecting jaw-dropping luxury and technology that invoked a feeling of being 20 years in the future, you may want to look at the Audi A8L instead.

The S-Class interior is, admittedly, one of the finest in the world and certainly the nicest in the Mercedes sedan line. But it's not what most people would deem a one-hundred-grand interior. The interior, like the exterior, is subtle.

The seats are wrapped in lovely perforated leather fitted with fully electronically adjustments. The air bladders under the leather allow for full customization of the feel and comfort of the front two seats. The seat dynamics are electronically controllable as well, and massagers are standard for the driver and front-seat passenger.

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When turned all the way up to "2," the dynamic seat side bolsters will inflate and deflate in conjunction with the curves of the road, actively holding both the driver and passenger's bodies through the corners.

And the navigation and entertainment screen is a piece of German magic that, from the driver's perspective, appears as a satellite navigation map and, for the passenger, display a DVD movie-both on the same screen.


Most newsworthy of the 2012 S-Class line is the S350 4MATIC. It is the first diesel-powered S-Class in the US market since 1996. The benefit of a Mercedes diesel is three fold: excellent fuel economy, lower environmental impact than gasoline engines, and long-term durability. These attributes might come as a surprise, so we'll break them down.

Diesel engines are naturally more efficient than their gasoline-powered cousins. Mercedes engine and fuel management systems enhance that further. Featuring direct injection, electronic fuel injectors, four valves per cylinder, and a variable nozzle turbo charger, the S350 is capable of an EPA estimated 21 MPG in the city and 31 in the highway.

As for having a lower environmental impact, Mercedes' BlueTEC system injects-of all things-urea into the catalytic converters in conjunction with a diesel particulate filter to significantly diminish diesel exhaust emissions, effectively eliminating most inherent diesel detractions.

While it might only make 240-horsepower, the 3-liter V6 diesel engine generates 455-footpounds of torque. Like most of you, we don't know exactly what torque is. We do know, however, its abundance in the S350 makes a rocket ship of this German land yacht.

Step up from there to one of the gasoline-powered AMG models and you're looking at a luxury sedan with as much or more horsepower than a Lamborghini Gallardo. But if you are interested in the AMGs, be forewarned that the engine and exhaust release such a menacing growl that your 'under-the-radar' status will be tossed to the wind.

Driving Impressions

The S-Class is a supersized vehicle, but it doesn't feel as massive as it actually is. This is due to several key designs.

First: handling. Holding up the S-Class body is an air suspension system, which irons out any and all bumps in the road. Unlike American luxury sedans, the resulting suspension feel isn't floaty and disconnected. Instead, you feel tied to the road but without the bumps and bruises that come with less-than-perfect asphalt. With a push of a button, however, you can set the air suspension to ‘sport' and stiffen up the ride. It is noticeably more firm but not overly so. Though we like a more sporting suspension in most vehicles, we vastly preferred the standard ‘comfort' setting in the S-Class.

Turning radius is oftentimes one of the challenges of large cars, but the S-Class absolutely and delightfully enjoys the opposite. You'd need to look back several decades to the ‘70s before you found another car that can turn as sharply and smoothly as this big Benz. The S-Class is huge but can turn into tightly angled parking spaces with no effort at all.

Secondly: power. A 240-horsepower diesel doesn't sound like much for such a large car, but what makes the whole difference is the 455-footpounds of torque. Put your foot to the floor and a wave of power generated from all four wheels moves the planet backwards, and the S-Class forward. The power-especially from a smaller diesel motor-is incredible. It's manageable, smooth, and intoxicating.

Look to the top at the S65 AMG with a whopping 621 horsepower and the acceleration is even more fun.

Lastly: adaptive cruise control. Now found on more than just the highest end vehicles, it is nonetheless impressive. Set a speed and the system uses radar the monitor traffic in front and around your vehicle. If the flow of traffic slows, the system slows your car, keeping a pre-set safe distance. It will slow your vehicle to a stop, if need be and back up to the set cruise speed, as the flow of traffic accelerates. At first, using it is a nerve-wracking, nail-biting experience. Once you ease into it, you won't want to drive on the highway without it.

When first behind the wheel of the S-Class you're acutely aware of the size and scope of the vehicle but its quickly forgotten. Turn on the seat heater (or coolers), turn up the Harman Kardon stereo, set the adaptive cruise control and melt into the lap of luxury.

Not Perfect, But Still the Best

Mercedes boasts that many consider the S-Class the finest vehicle in the world. We can see why. While the S-Class is pretty enough to meet at the altar, and drives like a dream, it doesn't do anything that other luxury sedans can't do - it just does most of them better.

What other $90,000+ European flagships are there? The Audi A8 and the BMW 7 Series.

The Audi A8 has a more luxurious, better-looking interior than the S-Class but due to the heft of the A8's V8 engine, doesn't handle as well. The BMW 7 Series feels younger, lighter, and more like a large sports sedan than a luxury tourer. Admittedly, the 7 Series is a little flashier than the S-Class, which is fine for some, but we prefer the looks of something more subdued.

When it's all said and done, the S-Class enchants and provides an unmatched driving experience, at least at the 100-grand mark. There are other cars with similar features and performance for considerably less money, but the respect you'll feel and receive behind the wheel of the S-Class is worth every penny if you're looking for a ride worth of international diplomats and royalty.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2012 Mercedes-Benz S-Class: First Drive - Autotrader