The Germans call it the Sonderklasse (for Special Class). Socialists and idealists from the 99 Percent Occupy Wall Street Movement hate it, but Wall Street’s 1 Percent love it.
Depending on which side of the wealth gap you sit on, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class will invoke either resentment or respect. Since the first generation W116 S-Class rolled off Daimler’s Sindelfingen plant in Germany in 1972, the S-Class’ has been a very much coveted car among those who sit in the corridors of power. It's a car for those who believe in Machiavellian philosophy rather than that of St. Francis of Assisi.
Specifications for Mercedes-Benz S400h (W222)
- Engine: 3.5-litre naturally-aspirated V6
- Power (engine): 306 hp at 6,500 rpm
- Torque (engine): 370 Nm between 3,500 – 5,250 rpm
- Electric Motor: 27 hp (350 Nm)
- Transmission: 7-speed torque converter automatic (7G-Tronic)
- Safety: 8 airbags (including two Seatbelt airbags for rear passengers), ABS, ESC, Pre-Safe with Pedestrian Detection, Brake Assist Plus, blind spot monitor, 360 degree view camera, lane keeping assist
- Price: RM598,888 without insurance
- Origin: Locally-assembled at Pekan, Pahang
Seven years ago, an S350L was sold in Malaysia for over RM830,000. Today, the even higher range S400h sells for just under RM600,000. Yes, that is Barisan Nasional’s ‘Turunkan Harga Kereta’ manifesto working. If there ever was a social uprising of the working class against the elites, you know which car is responsible for it.
For the elites, the ‘S’ in S-Class might as well have stood for supreme. Every generation of S-Class, especially the legendary W126 generation model, has often been seen as the benchmark for any limousine.
Living up to that expectation is not going to be easy. This is 2017, where the S-Class no longer had to contend with just the BMW 7 Series. Today, the S-Class has to fend off a proliferation of limousines looking to launch a coup d'état against the monarchy of Mercedes-Benz. Even Daimler’s fellow from Stuttgart, Porsche now offers a Panamera that aims to do everything the S-Class does and then some more. There’s also Bentley’s Flying Spur, Audi’s A8 and Japan’s Lexus LS.
Closer to home, the nature of our tax structure means that only the locally-assembled BMW 740Le poses a credible threat to the S-Class’ dominance, but it’s not a threat to be taken lightly.
The BMW for one, offers a more sophisticated plug-in hybrid powertrain, packed within an ultra-lightweight Carbon Core chassis that allows it’s smaller 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine to out accelerate the S400h’s 3.5-litre naturally-aspirated V6 in the century sprint by 0.1 seconds.
It also offers more amenities and convenience features for the same asking price as the S-Class’ RM598,800, with features not available in the S400h - access to concierge services, an LED-lined panaromic glass roof that replicates the view of starry night, gesture control operated infotainment system, and most importantly – a tablet that allows the boss sitting behind to control all of the 7 Series comfort and convenience functions.
So where does that put the current generation S400h, now already nearing in its fourth year on the market? A new facelifted S-Class model has already been launched in Europe but don’t expect that new model to be here until mid-2018.
The nature of Malaysia’s ‘customised incentive’ for these so-called locally-assembled energy efficient vehicles (EEVs) means that Mercedes-Benz Malaysia will have to spend quite a bit of time negotiating with the government before they can launch the new model at more or less the current S400h’s price.
On paper, one can immediately make a quick comparison and conclude that the BMW, being the newer model on sale, is the better car to buy. Yes, price and value are not the main concerns for the S-Class’ target clientele but millionaires and billionaires don’t stay rich by putting their money in wrong places.
But does that mean that all you titled elites should strike off the S400h? Not so fast. Despite being an older model, the S400h still has a couple of tricks working in its favour.
Yes it might not be as technologically sophisticated as the 740Le but it’s debatable if all those added functions really matter to the S-Class’ clientele. After all, nobody has complained about the lack of gadgets in a Bentley Mulsane or a Rolls-Royce Ghost.
For many, having the tri-pointed star on the bonnet of their limousine as they barrel down the highway is enough to make up for the lack of features.
Between the BMW and the Mercedes-Benz, it is the latter that has a stronger road presence. The 740Le is akin to a passenger carrying cruise missile – technical and sleek, while the S400h has an expression of dominance with a hint of trained assassin.
For someone with the intention of launching a hostile corporate takeover, the guy stepping out of the S400h has already won the first step of intimidation, nevermind if he has to adjust his seats and window blinds via conventional buttons on the door rather than his BMW counterpart’s Samsung tablet.
Inside, the Mercedes-Benz is the one that is showing its age when compared to the BMW. Objectively, it is the BMW that offers a superior mix of expensive materials, with dashboard and seats wrapped in Nappa leather rather than regular leather in the S400h. The 740Le also has better positioned ambient lights, including soft lighting emitting from the centre B-pillar.
Against this crowd, Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND infotainment user interface is the weakest. It’s the least user-friendly among the German premium Big-3 brands. A BMW i-Drive’s setup is a lot more intuitive to use – push the knob left to go back and right for details. In the Mercedes-Benz, one has to alternate between using the rotary knob and a ‘Back’ button, while navigating between menus positioned on top as well as below the screen. Then again, this is something that will bother the chauffeur more than the owner.
The Mercedes-Benz also lacks telematics services, access to concierge services and vehicle App connectivity functions that the BMW has.
At a glance, the S400h doesn’t feel quite as expensive to sit inside as the 740Le, which is quite a sacrilegious thing to say for an S-Class, but it is what it is.
Having said that, what the S400h lacks in first impression, it makes up for it with its regal character and a superior execution of the finer details, even if it had to make do with materials that are one grade lower than the BMW.
The Mercedes-Benz gives you the impression that this is a limousine that is born and raised in a royal household. It doesn’t try to be luxurious because luxury is the only thing it knows. It’s a language of luxury that feels very genuine, very native, steeped in pedigree.
In the BMW, one gets the sense that it’s a car that while is more sophisticated, it’s the result of its makers sending the 740Le to a very expensive private tutor to teach it the finer manners of luxury living, before upgrading itself with a Masters in Engineering from MIT. However it can’t hide the fact that it is always secretly looking up to the S400h, no matter how accomplished it has become.
The S400h’s seat might not have Nappa leather, but the way it is sculpted and the fluffy soft pillow on the headrest comforts your tired neck and back in a slightly better way is a clear testament of Mercedes-Benz’s longer experience in building a better limousine, with or without fancy features.
Push a button on the door panel (it lacks a removable tablet like in the BMW) and the front passenger seat tilts forward, while the back seat reclines and extends itself outwards akin to a business class seat in an airplane.
The S400h’s ambient lighting also appears to work better than in the 740Le. The manner in which the LED light bounces off the cream leather surface somehow feels a tad more refined than in the BMW.
Sitting inside the S400h, you are removed from all the noises of the outside world, thanks to double-glazed windows. Even noises from the kapchai motorbikes next to you don’t get inside.
As for ride comfort, that’s a given. It’s an S-Class with Airmatic suspension fitted as standard. You can’t expect us to say anything other than adding superlatives to our description of comfort. Is the 740Le better? It’s too close to say but the old stereotype of Mercedes-Benz offering superior comfort, at the expense of poorer handling, while a BMW offering just the opposite, is no longer true. These days, a BMW, any BMW, rides just as well and in some cases, they are far more comfortable than a Mercedes-Benz while still retaining a superior handling.
As for handling, the S400h is very far off from the agile 740Le, but it’s a lot better than previous generation models. But who buys an S-Class and then complains about handling?
The hybrid drivetrain works very well, much better than the W212 generation E300 Bluetec diesel-electric hybrid, which jerks quite a bit in stop-go traffic. If you have to know, the S400h returned an average fuel consumption of 13.8-litre/100 km during our 140 km plus drive in the car, done mostly in urban traffic. That’s pretty impressive considering that a mid-size 4WD SUV will consume more or less the same amount of fuel under similar driving conditions.
In short, much has changed in the rivalry between the S-Class and 7 Series, but at the same time, much has also remained. The gap in ride comfort between the two has narrowed significantly, but the status quo remains – with connoisseurs still overwhelmingly voting for the S-Class.
The S400h is starting to show its age when parked next to the 740Le but the lack of gadgets has rarely been an issue for the S-Class. The way the classic car market appreciates S-Class models of any generation at a higher premium over any of its rivals is a strong testament of the evergreen appeal of an S-Class.