2015 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe First Drive
The Personal Luxury Car
It's an uncommon term today, but there was once a time when the "personal luxury car," as it was called, reigned supreme. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, personal luxury cars were all the rage among the prodigiously wealthy, peaking in popularity in the 1970s. Today, the class has mostly been lumped into the GT car category.
Personal luxury cars were typically coupes, big and brash, with long hoods and short decks. They usually rode on shortened wheelbases and featured big V-8 power, but weren't preoccupied with sportiness. Though some of them adopted sports-car design cues, these cars were focused on luxury. Unlike GT cars, there wasn't much pretense about handling or outright performance. Being your own chauffeur in a car that screams "look at me" without being obnoxious about it was the modus operandi.
This brings us to the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe, the renamed and restyled replacement for the old CL-Class, which was itself effectively an S-Class coupe in all but name. Like those personal luxury cars of old, it rides on a shortened wheelbase and features big V-8 power, but isn't necessarily concerned with sporty driving, though it's certainly more capable in that regard than its 1970s predecessors.
While the old CL-Class fit the mold of the personal luxury car as well, there was something missing: the brashness. While the CL was an elegant car, it was too subtle. In "look at me" places such as Los Angeles, it blended into the background, if you could find one at all. It was mostly a car for basketball stars who couldn't fit in a flashier GT car like an Aston Martin. In a good month, it sold dozens, fighting the SLS supercar for lowest volume.
The S-Class coupe suffers no such anonymity. It, too, is elegant, but the design is stronger and bolder. True to the maxim, it's longer, lower, and wider, and it's all the better for it. This car won't be confused with a run-of-the-mill short-wheelbase S-Class.
The rest of the car offers less distinction, both in concept and execution, from the CL. Once you noticed the CL, you realized it was a top-shelf luxury car lacking no amenity from the flagship S-Class sedan. The S-Class coupe carries on the tradition fully. Every bit of luxury and convenience that can be had in an S-Class sedan is available on the S-Class coupe, so you're effectively only "giving up" two doors and some rear seat legroom.
To be fair, you're not giving up all that much of the latter. I had a 6-foot-6 man sit in the rear seat and, while it wasn't as spacious as sitting up front, he was perfectly comfortable. Meanwhile, in the front seat, I was sitting much closer to the dash than I'm accustomed to, but my knees still had several inches of clearance. The seats themselves are extremely comfortable before you go playing with any of their myriad features.
There's little else to discuss inside the car that hasn't been said about the S-Class sedan. The sharp-eyed among you will notice the more attractive three-spoke steering wheel and the subtle change to the passenger's side of the dashboard, but it's otherwise the same. The only thing to complain about is the addition of a horribly tacky crystal pull on the cover for the storage bin just below the environmental controls. While the tie-in with the Swarovski crystals in the headlight assemblies is understood, this particular piece looks like a bit of children's play jewelry and unbefitting a car of this class. Luckily, you can hide it by leaving the lid open.
Behind the wheel, the S-Class coupe faithfully carries the CL's banner as well. The entry S550, available only with 4Matic all-wheel drive in the American market, drives very similarly to the CL. That is, it's a very large car that feels akin to a road-going luxury yacht. Despite its shortened wheelbase, the front wheels seem a mile away and it feels as though the front of the car is turning slightly before you, back there in the middle, are. This is not a car that shrinks around you as you drive it. It always feels long and wide, requiring a more relaxed demeanor behind the wheel.
That isn't to say it isn't a competent handler. Unlike the personal luxury cars of old, this one will dispatch a corner without protest, though it won't get excited about the task. Grip is unflappable at even unreasonable speeds and the tires refuse to allow the indignity of squealing. I'm sure it's possible to overcome both, but doing so would require driving this car in a way that wouldn't be fun, much less safe, on most roads. Simply put, this car feels out-of-place on narrow, winding roads and is much happier on big, wide-open roads and sweeping curves. It handles the little back roads fine, but doing so is never fun in the way a sports car or GT car might be. The steering is slow and light, and it offers no feedback from the tires. This car is about isolation, not aggression. The body doesn't lean all that much, but with this much mass aboard, you will feel the lateral g.
Better than curves, it handles rough roads with aplomb. Magic Body Control works as well here as in the S-Class sedan, removing as much violence from every road impact and imperfection as possible before it can reach your backside. The S-Class coupe wafts down the road, never jarring the occupants but still keeping body motions well in check.
Should you get out on one of those wide-open roads, you'll find plenty to like. The twin-turbo V-8 under the hood produces no shortage of torque and is more than willing to get you down the road and around slower traffic without ever spilling your drink. Acceleration is smooth and purposeful, not brutal or violent. The new nine-speed automatic shifts more smoothly than the old seven-speed. The brakes operate in much the same manner, confident but never blunt. The flaps in the exhaust open to allow a mellow rumble into the cabin and out into the world, but it's never particularly loud. Were the cabin any less silent, you might not even notice it. Mercedes engineers claim the interior suffers zero wind noise, and I'm willing to believe it.
If performance is a bit higher on your personal priority list, you'll be pleased with the enhancements of the S63 AMG Coupe. The standard AMG formula is applied here, increasing power and tightening up handling. Under the hood is a larger twin-turbo V-8 that certainly feels more powerful, but still never feels like a blunt instrument. It never throws you back in the seat, because that simply wouldn't be elegant. Rather, it's a bit like driving a Bentley or Rolls-Royce, wherein you never feel as though you're accelerating especially hard, but arrive at a corner or stop light traveling much faster than you expected thanks to your isolation from the outside world. You will get a bit more rumble in the cabin as the exhaust uncorks, as you would expect from an AMG, but it's still never particularly loud.
Likewise, the AMG model handles curves better. It still drives like a big car on a small road, but quicker, more responsive steering makes handling a tight curve much less of a chore. I'd frankly prefer it that all S-Class coupes had this steering, because it makes the car easier to drive in all situations. It still doesn't drive like a sports car, but it's much closer to a GT car than the standard coupe.
As you might expect, ride quality diminishes in the AMG car. Comfort mode on the adjustable suspension is roughly akin to Sport mode on the non-AMG S-Class coupe, noticeably firmer but still never jarring. Sport mode on the AMG car takes it a step further, with a noticeably firm ride, but still never violent.
Then there's the matter of Active Curve Tilting Function. You may have heard about this novel feature that tilts the car into a corner, similarly to the way a motorcycle leans into a corner. Mercedes-Benz has been toying with the idea for some time now and it's finally come to fruition on the S-Class coupe. Unfortunately for the American market, the function is available only on rear-wheel drive cars, and both the S550 Coupe and S63 AMG Coupe will come with standard all-wheel drive. The only way you'll be able to get Active Curve Tilting in America is to order the S65 AMG Coupe, which will only be available in rear-wheel drive (once it debuts, that is).
Should you, though? I had the opportunity to drive a European-spec, rear-wheel drive S500 (S550) with the feature and I'm left conflicted. The system uses hydraulic rams at the top of the shock absorber and spring assembly to raise or lower either side of the car about 40mm, for plus-or-minus 3 degrees of tilt. Mercedes-Benz is adamant that this is not a performance function and will not improve cornering, but rather is designed to reduce lateral g on the passengers. In the car, it feels a bit like riding a roller coaster, where the track banks and the car leans into the turn, but you still feel the g forces pulling you toward the outside of the car. You can think of it alternatively like driving a speed boat, where the boat leans over every time you turn. It's an odd feeling in a car, but it does reduce the lateral g you feel. I do wonder whether it'll be anything more than a novelty for wealthier buyers to show off to their golf partners.
But then, aren't personal luxury cars novelties in their own right? They serve a market of want, not need. While this particular segment may have faded out, the desires that fueled it most certainly haven't. What's more, many of today's wealthy grew up in a world where a personal luxury car was the pinnacle of opulent motoring. The S-Class coupe is poised to give them that experience the same way modern musclecars give their customers the feeling of riding in dad's old musclecar again, and in both cases, those customers will be getting objectively better cars. The S-Class coupe may exist in a class of one for now, but it'll be hard for any pretenders to dethrone it.
|2015 Mercedes-Benz S550, S63 AMG Coupes|
|Base price||$115,000-$160,000 (est)|
|Engines||4.7L/449-hp/516-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC V-8; 5.5L/577-hp/664-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC V-8|
|Curb weight||4600-4700 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||197.9 x 74.8 x 55.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.9-4.5 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||16-17/25-27 (MT est)|
|Energy Consumpion, City/HWY||198-211 / 125-135 kW-hrs/100 miles (MT est)|
|CO2 emissions||0.95-1.02 lb/mile (MT est)|
|On Sale in U.S.||Fall 2014|