The verdict: There’s a powerhouse luxury sedan under there somewhere, but the latest S-Class redesign has cloaked it below enough layers of technology and irritating interfaces to confound even the young.
Versus the competition: The S580 nails some of the basics, but it struggles more than competitors to make its luxury-compulsory features accessible to users, and its backseat and trunk space feel curiously more in line with its tight turning circle than its considerable external size.
The key fob feels heavy and needlessly large. As you approach the stately Mercedes-Benz S580 sedan, the door handles — which spend most of their time retreated, flush with the door skins for the sake of aerodynamics — motor outward and present themselves. If it’s dark outside, Mercedes’ familiar three-pointed star projects crisply on the ground beside it. You tug the door open and take a seat, enveloped in the embrace and aroma of rich, quilted leather. With anticipation, you step on the brake pedal, press the Start/Stop button and say … WTF?!
Mark down 2021 as the year Mercedes-Benz went too far. I understand the compulsion to innovate in an attempt to top oneself and make a flagship sedan — arguably a flagship model — a technological groundbreaker. In the past, we’ve praised Mercedes for doing so skillfully, even naming a previous generation of the S-Class our Luxury Car of the Year — more than once. But this redesign is so complicated, so cloaked in touch-sensitive controls and interface complexity, even reviewers in their 30s, much less their 50s, consider it a technological misfire. How is an older driver, the sedan’s most likely buyer, going to deal with this?
Related: 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class: It’s What’s Inside That Counts
Truly, we sympathize. What we see here is a furtherance of the core intentions that kept previous S-Class generations in the lead. But this redesigned S-Class reminds me of countless other products — from apps to movie sequels — whose producers got so caught up trying to outdo their earlier successes that they lost touch with the end user: the customer. If the hero fought off 10 attackers with nothing but a spork in the first movie sequel, in the third installment, she’ll have to fend off 100 attackers with a bow and arrow while riding a motorcycle. And because the studio has already invested in the latest CGI technology, the film must employ it, meaning the attackers will have to be space aliens. Also, let’s make the motorcycle electric because everyone’s into electric right now. What’s overlooked in all of this, of course, is what alien invaders and electric two-wheelers have to do with the plot — or how the viewer will receive it.
If you think it sounds overwhelming to fight 100 aliens with a bow and arrow while riding a motorcycle, you’re on your way to understanding what it’s like to operate a new S-Class. I’ll dig into that momentarily, but first I’ll give this devil its due, because beneath the clutter the S-Class is a great car, and some of its innovations are indeed worthwhile.
Without question, the S580 we tested was a serenely quiet and comfortable car with mostly excellent ride quality. That said, a couple of our editors said harsh impacts from larger bumps found their way into the cabin’s otherwise floaty demeanor (and I use “floaty” as a positive in this era when practically every new vehicle rides firmly). It’s possible this characteristic was tied to our car’s 20-inch Hankook all-season tires, but it’s unlikely the 19-inch wheels would make a huge difference. Twenty-one-inch wheels are also available.