The Michelin-Star Worthy 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Sedan
I’m as fond of food and cooking as I am of cars and driving. And gastronomically-speaking, I’m partial toward simple fare. A few high-quality ingredients and good technique can make for soul-satisfying dishes. Take, for example, a perfectly-cooked omelet seasoned with salt, pepper, and herbs, served with toasted and buttered homemade bread. Serve me that with a cup of coffee for a weekend lunch and I am one happy diner. Five ingredients comprise my favorite pasta dish. It doesn’t take much money or an exhaustive list of ingredients to cook and eat well.
Every once in a while, though, something more involved can prove a treat. To celebrate my son’s high school graduation a few weeks ago, a (generous) family friend treated us to a multi-course feast at Benu, a three-Michelin-star restaurant here in San Francisco. The twelve(!) courses, the wine- and sake pairings, the impeccable service--including from Chef and owner Corey Lee, who finished a dish tableside for us--all made for an unforgettable experience for which my son and I are ever-grateful. Everything at Benu evokes a sense of other-worldly decadence (a server for each guest, the champagne greeting us) while simultaneously drawing the diner’s attention to each dish’s humble elements (the homemade, five-year-old soy sauce, the fermentation pots in the garden, the crepes made with acorn flour and stuffed with truffles and jamòn--all sourced from the same region in Spain). The experience at such a place, however luxurious and expensive, never strays too far from the soil or the sea.
As with food, my vehicular tastes are simple. I am perfectly content with driving a lightweight, no-frills car cooked up with just a few ingredients: excellent handling, an engaging gearbox, and rear-wheel drive. Roll-up windows, a cassette deck, and non-functioning AC? No big deal. But once in awhile, I do appreciate driving or riding in something more well-appointed, such as my girlfriend’s 2021 Acura TLX (which feels like a palace compared with my Miata and FR-S).
And then there’s the all-new 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which makes my modest collection feel Yugo-like in comparison. I had the distinct pleasure of driving the S580 Sedan 4Matic extensively over two days in Southern California, during which time I crawled through LA traffic (of course), cruised the Pacific Coast Highway, and carved (yes, carved) the canyons leading from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and back.
Over those 400-odd miles, my thoughts often turned to food, which isn’t unusual for me; specifically, though, I reminisced over that recent dinner at Benu and how Corey Lee’s restaurant represents a culinary analogue for what I was experiencing in the S580’s cabin. The S-Class is, in short, the vehicular equivalent of that Michelin-star restaurant: it's luxurious, to be sure, but the S580 remains, at its core, a genuine driver’s car.
Most reviews of this vehicle might understandably focus most on the S-Class’s splendid creature comforts and technology while remarking on the ample, smooth power from the S580’s 4-liter V8 bi-turbo engine with EQ Boost. That’s what I intended to focus on myself--that is, until I drove along a twisty section of Highway 150 from the coast through Ojai, at which point I realized this car can actually dance through corners in spite of its massive size and 4,740-pound frame. Especially in Sport-Plus Mode, the sedan hunkers down and dives into turns astonishingly well, and the 9-speed transmission, while not AMG-fast (or so I’d imagine; I’ve yet to drive an AMG model) shifts quickly enough to inspire confidence with the paddles. I didn’t push the car very hard on these drives--it’s still an S-Class sedan, after all--but I did drive it harder than I’d expected to. And I found myself grinning at the sheer incongruity of it all while surrounded by the S580’s optional and awe-inspiring Burmester 4D Surround Sound System (more on that later).
A major factor in the car’s driving dynamics has to be the optional rear-axle steering, which transforms the car from enormous to enormous and maneuverable at slow speeds and at speed. As a result, the S580 drives lighter and smaller than its weight and size would imply. Visibility all-around is excellent and mostly obviates the need to rely on proximity sensors and cameras. And the power. THE POWER. It’s effortless, thanks to 476 horsepower and 516 pounds-feet of torque. There’s even actual steering feel, particularly in Sport and Sport Plus. No, it’s not a sports sedan; but if Mercedes-Benz were to strip the S580 of many of its luxuries, it would still be a brilliant car.
The seats alone, I tell you
Luxuries do abound in this car, of course. The seats alone embody the phrase “lap of luxury” as well as an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. At no point did I feel uncomfortable in the driver’s seat, and, after two days with the S580, I now understand why massage in cars exists. Active bolsters can hug the driver and front-seat passenger around corners, which for the first hundred miles or so felt creepily sentient and almost handsy but which I grew to appreciate by the end of my drive. I also tried out the optional “ENERGIZING Comfort health and wellness system,” which, according to Mercedes-Benz, combines ambient sounds, massage, and seat movements that “boost drivers’ attentiveness and well-being while reducing sleepiness and stress.” At one point during a long stretch of driving, the system recommended I initiate the “energizing coach” function, which played high-energy instrumental music through the 4D sound system (including through resonators in the seats), pulsed colors and images on the touchscreen, and moved the seat around in time to the tune to help me stay attentive. I found the whole sequence amusing and gimmicky, but it's likely at least somewhat energizing during longer drives or while stuck on the 405. All told, the only seat feature I dislike are the soft cushions in front of the headrests, which feel a little obtrusive and look out of place (think partially-deflated suede balloons) in an otherwise beautifully-appointed cabin. I did not spend much time in the backseats, but wow, are they comfortable. Of course they are.
Design-wise, the S580’s exterior exudes elegance and competence. Overall, Mercedes-Benz tailored and rounded out most of the previous generation’s more dramatic lines and flatter planes. Instead of angling a sharp line from over the front wheel-arches to under the door handles, for example, the new iteration tucks a simple, uninterrupted crease from headlights’ edge through to the rear quarter-panels just under the side windows. To some, these design choices might soften the car too much, but to me, the simplified lines outline the car’s beautiful shape. From every angle, the S-Class looks understated--but also timeless. And there are actual colors available for this model other than silver and black. The car I drove was finished in stunning Rubellite Red Metallic, and there was another S580 at the press event clad in an equally-beautiful metallic green.
The interior, meanwhile, isn’t understated. It’s boldly luxurious and mostly beautiful. Just sitting in the parked car feels like an event. Controls are easy to understand and are mostly accessible to all cabin occupants. The steering wheel is splendid. What I don’t understand is the optional Piano Lacquer Flowing Lines trim ($1,300) in the car I drove, which, in my opinion, looks like fancy piano black striated with tuxedo pin-striping. Thankfully, there are other trim options available.
Augmented reality : augmented driving
I’m not very familiar with the greater Los Angeles area, and the prescribed scenic-yet-circuitous press route saw me drive roads entirely new to me. I would have managed with the Tesla-sized infotainment screen to follow directions, but I quickly grew to appreciate the S580’s best tech feature: Augmented Reality. I’ve driven cars with heads-up displays (HUDs) before, but this new system makes following turn-by-turn directions and monitoring speed and other essential information as easy as looking down the road.
The dynamic graphics, such as arrows which grow larger as one approaches a turn, accurately superimpose over landmarks and road features. Arrows and highlights are simple to understand and are easy to read day or night, yet they’re not distracting at all. Mercedes-Benz’s Augmented Reality system is an excellent example of seamless, driving-centric UI, and it’s the auto technology I’m most excited about. Sure, the voice-recognition system, Hey Mercedes, is a cool feature (which apparently has 50% more processing power than the last version), but augmented reality, designed well, can help drivers get the information they need while staying focused on the road. With Augmented Reality, Mercedes-Benz is showing the rest of the industry how such tech paired with HUD-systems can make driving safer, more convenient, and less distracting than tablet-based or even in-dash systems (such as Cadillac’s). I couldn't capture the HUD system well with my camera phone, but the Mercedes-Benz website features videos demonstrating the feature.
I did test some other tech features, including adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist; the S-Class managed admirably with these aids. Since I prefer to drive cars instead of the other way around, though, I spent more of my time testing out the different driving modes, which do noticeably change the dynamics of the car. Comfort—which, let’s face it, is the mode in which people will spend the most time—gave me the impression the S580 somehow smooths out the bumps and potholes and rough pavement ahead. In a sense, that’s what the car does: the sedan scans the road with its front camera and then adjusts the suspension proactively to account for railroad tracks and other jostle-inducing terrain. Even in Comfort Mode, though, the S580’s ride is more composed than soft—sumptuous, for sure, but not floaty or numb. And here’s the thing I appreciate most about the S-Class: the S580 delivers a special, luxurious experience for drivers and passengers that never feels disconnected from the road.
The optional stereo only costs $3.85 per watt
Speaking of sumptuous luxury, the example I drove was equipped with the Burmester High-End 4D Surround Sound System. Lucky me. I’ve written before on this site about the frustrating limits of sound systems in most cars; suffice to say this Burmester system doesn’t have such limits--or any limits at all, really. After listening to Vijay Iyer’s latest jazz album Uneasy while gliding along a particularly beautiful oceanside stretch of Highway 1, I concluded this car stereo rivals my pretty good home setup in terms of soundstage, detail, and punch. I listened to a variety of music over the miles (Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata Op. 19, Laura Marling’s The Lockdown Sessions, Madlib’s Sound Ancestors among them), and the system’s 30 speakers (30 speakers!), two “resonators” in each seat, and 1,750 watts of available power brought whatever I played to vivid life. Ridiculous as this may read, if you’re in the market for an S-Class, this--get ready for it--$6,730 upgrade is worth every penny (and yes, that’s just for the sound system). But hey, that comes down to only $3.85 per watt. What a bargain!
With the stereo off, the cabin is serenely quiet, thanks to the engineers' efforts to reduce road noise. I do wish I could hear that glorious V8 engine a little more clearly, though.
I don’t always drive luxury sedans, but when I do, I prefer the S-Class
I am not the most interesting man in the world (I have never parallel-parked a train, for one). But, like the man whose game face alone has won several trophies, I can truly savor and admire something in which I seldom indulge. In this case, I had the privilege and pleasure of sampling something worlds apart from the little two-seaters I own but still familiar as a fantastic driver’s car. I cannot afford the S580, which starts at $116,300 (the example I drove options out at $143,240), and if I could, I’d probably opt for something more performance-oriented and less luxurious. Nevertheless, the S-Class is a masterpiece of automobile engineering and design, and for those in the market for a premium luxury experience and who don’t want to spend as much or more money on yet another SUV, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class may well be the best available option. By the EveryDay Driver rating system, the S580, without hesitation, earns four wheels and tires from me--the gas-tronomic equivalent, if you will, of three well-deserved Michelin stars.
Hey Mercedes: Chef's kiss.
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.