Mercedes-Benz S-Class VS Audi S4
- S-Class' return to splendour
- Stunning high-tech cabin presentation
- Outstanding ride and handling capabilities
- Price of entry prohibitive for most
- 3D instrumentation can make you woozy
- A tad conservative in design
- Understated looks
- Goes like stink
- Overly heavy steering in Dynamic mode
- Tyre roar on some surfaces
- Can feel a bit computer-driven
It's only in the running for the title of world's best luxury car. No biggie here, then.
Like Rolex and Concorde, S-Class has become a byword for ultimate, and deserved or not, the Mercedes-Benz defines its segment despite the best efforts of the BMW 7 Series, Audi A8, Lexus LS and (sadly now-defunct) Jaguar XJ, as well as pointing the way forward with new technologies that eventually trickle down to more proletarian models.
Replacing the half-million selling W222 unveiled in 2013, the W223 is the latest in a long line since the first W187 Ponton debuted in 1951, and includes the famous ‘Finnies' and Stroke-8 models that followed immediately afterwards, but it is the 1972 W116 that really set the template.
|Engine Type||3.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Peter Anderson road tests and reviews the new Audi S4 sedan and Avant, with specs, fuel consumption and verdict at its Australian launch between Bathurst and Canberra.
Sometimes year a year flashes by and it's almost a shock to realise that Audi's B9 A4 has been with us here in Australia for almost that long. Performance buffs have had to wait for the first quick version of the A4 while the Allroad was rolled out, but here we finally have the first Audi Sport variant in the line-up - the S4.
As with the standard A4, there's a stack of new stuff and a stout standard specification list along with technical packages. There's one big piece of news, too - it's the first S4 to land with a price tag under $100,000.
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Mercedes-Benz set out to restore the S-Class' place amongst the greatest sedans in the world.
In the heavily-optioned, near-$250K-plus S450 as well as the extended S450L at $300K as tested (the sweet spot of the range for now), we reckon the Germans have succeeded, pushing safety, comfort and technology boundaries, in a package that is true to the heritage of the series.
Tax-fuelled sky-high prices will certainly keep the S-Class niche in Australia, but the car is more than good enough to dominate its tiny corner of the upper-large luxury car sphere.
The best new car in the world? We reckon it's highly likely. Mission accomplished, Mercedes.
It's not an exuberant machine and you can tell there's still a ton of room for the inevitable RS4 mean machine to go after the BMW M3/M4 and AMG C63. That means, however, that the S4 is a proper sleeper. Hardly anyone will notice what it is until they're eating your fumes while you whisk yourself away in (mostly) quiet and comfort.
The new S4 is lighter, slightly faster and more technologically advanced than its predecessor, while bringing the A4's charms to the go-faster part of the executive sedan segment. This one will rattle a few cages.
Audi S4 Sedan and Avant Specifications
List price: $99,900 (Sedan) / $102,900 (Avant)
Fuel Consumption: 7.7L/100km (Sedan) / 7.9L/100km (Avant)
CO2: 175g/km (Sedan) / 178g/km (Avant)
Fuel Tank: 58L
ANCAP: 5 stars
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Service Interval: 15,000km or 12 months
Engine size: 2995cc
Fuel Type: PULP
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Spare: space saver
Turning Circle: 11.6m
Length: 4745mm (Sedan) / 4745mm (Avant)
Width: 1842mm (Sedan) / 1842mm (Avant)
Height: 1404mm (Sedan) / 1411mm (Avant)
Most Mercedes models have followed the Russian Doll-style cookie-cutter styling theme, and the heavy family look continues with the W223.
Still, the flush door handles do add a touch of Tesla-esque modernity, while the elegant silhouette and clean lines are in keeping with the luxury aspirations. Larger in every dimension compared to the old W222, the S450 is some 71mm-longer in wheelbase (3106mm) than before while the LWB's has stretched out by 51mm (3216mm), benefiting proportions as well as interior packaging.
AMG-branded wheels look sporty but – in the S450 at least – they're perhaps a tad too gangster. A set of flush alloys would give it a more-modern and techier appearance, in our opinion.
Overall, however, the S-Class ‘7' possesses the prerequisite richness of design. It isn't as bold and mould-breaking as models like the W116 were back in their day, but the styling is still a success.
By the way, the latest S-Class is the first Mercedes to employ the MRA2 longitudinal platform, which is rich in lightweight steels (50 per cent aluminium), is correspondingly stronger than before but also 60kg lighter.
With a drag co-efficiency rating as low as 0.22Cd on some overseas grades, the W223 is one of the most aerodynamic production vehicles in history.
Audi tells us that S4 owners don't like to shout about their purchase, which is just as well, because the S4 looks like a very mildly gussied up A4. That means the same sharp looks as the A4 but lower, 23mm to be exact. The standard 19s make it look lower still but all the standard A4 cues are there. This has been covered at length already, but just to be sure, every inch of the car is new, it just looks a lot like the old one.
Get up closer, though, and you'll see the serrated shape of the headlight, the clamshell bonnet and shutlines tighter than Scott Morrison on Budget night when it comes to funding hospitals. Audi says the body kit is aggressive but I think it's safe to say that the drug of choice at Audi's styling bureau is chamomile tea - it's fairly restrained, with just a few details (including a slightly daggy V6T badge on the front guards) to mark it out.
Inside is standard A4, too, with plenty of leather (both real and man-made), with some extra zing in the form of carbon and aluminium bits.
It's as roomy and comfortable as the standard car and looks just as good. It's a fine interior, the best in its class.
For the beginning of our day with the S-Class, we were chauffeured from home to a mansion in Kew, a blue-chip Melbourne suburb. Our heavily-optioned S450L featured most of the aforementioned extras – including the Business Class Package and Rear Entertainment Package – and the experience was predictably, sumptuously memorable.
Reclining individual rear seats with easy-reach tablets, armrests offering access to all multimedia and available climatised and massaging cushions and backrests... we're no longer in our normal ride, Toto.
Yet, all these trinkets and gizmos are mere add-ons, that can turn a stretched Caprice into a flash hen's night carriage if enough money and glitz is thrown at it.
No, the new S-Class must impress in an altogether less tangible and more philosophical manner, involving all the senses, and not just what we see, hear and touch. It must appeal beyond the superficial. Otherwise, it is not a large Mercedes-Benz luxury sedan in the classic manner.
This is a Herculean task for the Stuttgart designers and engineers. By and large, though, the Three-Pointed Star has succeeded in achieving something special.
In its perception of peerless quality and engineering, the W223 is striving to move forward and look back simultaneously to the glory days of the seminal W126 (1980-1991). This is through meshing traditional virtues like solidity and quality materials while dazzling its passengers with technology that is still friendly enough to want to enhance your experience.
You can sink into the soft lounge seats, watch the world pass by silently outside and never be aware of the road underneath or the engine ahead. Double glazing, exquisite and aromatic fabrics and materials and lush tactile surfaces work their magic inside the car, while an airtight and aero body, solid platform, air suspension and a muted yet muscular powertrain all do their thing underneath. The atmosphere is special and rarefied. That's what an S-Class needs to be and that's what is happening in our $299,000 (as tested) S450L.
The same more-or-less applies up front, as the same trim, leather, wood and technology surrounds the driver and passenger. The spectre of the car that is surely The Car of the Last Decade – Tesla's Model S – is evident in the portrait touchscreen and sparse, almost wallflower dashboard design and layout. No big imposing architectures here.
Yet, while the American upstart actually takes stuff away, the S-Class packs the cabin with subtle features that – like when the planes stopped flying last year and the birdsong subsequently returned – only become obvious once the cabin's design simplicity clears all the white noise for you to be in a better frame of mind to enjoy them.
Take the haptic interface, for example, as it is perhaps the best we've experienced; the sense of well-being garnered from the cumulative effects of profound seat comfort (the massaging function was never switched off), cocooning micro climate environmental control, orchestral levels of audio entertainment and the theatre of light and vision performed by the two available screens; it is an automotive experience like no other. And the eye-tracking 3D-effect navigation set within the electronic instrumentation. No need for cinematic glasses to get the effect. The driving position itself, by the way, is also first class.
Room to stretch and grow for sure, and in every direction. But room for improvement? You betcha.
Your tester had a headache after a little while staring at that woozy 3D map. The central vents – four at the front, two in the rear – look and feel cheap, leaving us mentally redesigning them; they are frightfully out of place here; the carryover column-stalk auto lever should have been binned in 2005. And, even though the digital instruments have a number of options, none are elegant enough for the S-Class. That's an especially subjective criticism, clearly, but one that – in the context of classic Mercedes luxury sedan contenders – is justified given how timeless the Bruno Sacco era of Daimler design was. Look him up, kids.
Still, after a couple of hours behind the wheel, with our senses reset to calm, it is obvious that the S-Class cabin is a unique and wonderful place – as it should be at a cool quarter-of-a-million dollars.
PS At 550 litres (20L more than before), the boot is massive and luxurious enough to sleep in.
The S4 has four bottle holders, cupholders front and rear for a total of four and various slots and spots for phones and keys in the front while the rear is a little less accommodating of bits and pieces.
The sedan's boot is the same as the rest of the A4s (and mid-size Germans) at 480 litres while the Avant bumps that up to a 505 litre minimum and a 1510 litre maximum when you drop the seatbacks.
Price and features
Right now, only two S-Class models are available – the S450 from $240,700 plus on-road costs and the 110mm extended-wheelbase S450L (LWB) for another $24,900 on top. Most buyers overwhelmingly opt for the latter.
Despite what the numbers may suggest, both are powered by a 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder turbo petrol engine, delivering 270kW of power and 500Nm of torque to all four wheels via a nine-speed torque-converter automatic. Greater choices are coming later, including an all-electric version known as the EQS.
Almost every conceivable safety item is standard on the S-Class, including world-first rear-seat airbags located behind the front seats in the LWB model, taking the surround-airbag count to 10.
You'll also find route-based Speed Adaptation (adhering to the posted speed limits), Evasive Steering Assist (a sophisticated form of crash mitigation), adaptive cruise control with active stop/go, Active Lane Change Assist that automatically moves the car into the lane you indicate to), Mercedes' PreSafe crash-preparation tech that primes all the safety systems for impact, electronic stability program that encapsulates all the active driver-assist tech, Active Emergency Stop Assist, Autonomous Emergency Braking front and rear (including for cyclists and pedestrians), Traffic Sign Assist, Parking Package with Active Parking Assist and 360-degree camera and tyre pressure monitors.
On the equipment front there is the latest iteration of Mercedes' MBUX multimedia system with (another) world-first 3D display, complementing an OLED central display, powered closing doors, leather upholstery, air suspension, leather upholstery, velour floor mats, a multi-beam LED headlight system with adaptive high beams, heated and folding exterior mirrors, heat and noise-insulating acoustic glass for front side windows, dark privacy glass for rear windows, sunroof, roller sunblinds for rear windows, metallic paint and 20-inch AMG alloy wheels on runflat tyres.
Want cutting-edge multimedia? There's MBUX II's augmented reality for navigation and fingerprint scanner, as well as a more natural-speech Mercedes-Me Connect voice activation with global search.
Plus, predictive navigation with live traffic, parked vehicle locator, vehicle tracking, emergency call, maintenance management and tele-diagnostics, digital radio, Burmester 3D surround-sound system with 15 speakers and 710W amplifier, remote door locking/unlocking, geofencing, speed-fencing, valet parking, head-up display, Smart Phone integration with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, wireless charging, ambient lighting, two-zone climate control, poplar wood trim, electric adjustment for front seats, steering column with memory function, climatised front seats, keyless entry/go with flush-fitting door handles offering hands-free access (including for the electric boot),
Besides the ‘forward facing' airbag for the rear-seat occupants, the S450L also scores electrically adjustable rear seats with memory and automatic rear climate control.
Key options – and the list is massive – include an $8700 Rear Entertainment Package, that brings rear-multimedia access, rear tablets with wireless headsets and rear-seat wireless smart phone charging, an AMG Line pack with a body kit, different alloys and larger front brakes ($6500), Business Class Package that includes aircraft-style reclining rear seating and tray tables ($14,500), Nappa leather ($5000), augmented-reality HUD ($2900), 21-inch wheels ($2000) and four-wheel steering ($2700). There's also a $14,500 Energising Package with contoured seating, heated-everything and massaging seats.
Please keep in mind our test cars featured many such extras. Tick all the boxes and you can add nearly $100,000 to the price of your S-Class.
So, is the S450 good value? Given some of the breakthrough safety and luxury features it offers, it is unique. Too bad the Federal Government's Luxury Car Tax makes them so much more expensive than they need to be.
The S4 is available in two versions - sedan and Avant wagon. The sedan opens the bidding at $99,900 and the Avant closes it at $102,900. Both come with identical specifications and are available with much the same options. For a bit of pricing perspective, the first S4 was an Audi 100-based five-cylinder turbo that landed with a price tag of $132,000. In 1993.
The S4 has arrived with 19-inch alloys, adaptive dampers, around-view camera, reversing camera, up-spec sat nav, adaptive cruise control, auto parking, auto headlights and wipers, high beam assist, keyless entry and start, electric tailgate (Avant only), heated folding electric mirrors, LED headlights, dynamic scrolling rear indicators, electric heated sports front seats, leather and Alcantara trim, three-zone climate control and interior LED lighting.
A ten speaker stereo is powered by Audi's MMI rotary dial system and the same 8.3-inch screen as the rest of the A4 range, which also means you get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as two USB ports in the centre console to go with the Bluetooth. There's also a DAB+ digital radio.
Audi's Virtual Cockpit is standard and has an additional S mode which switches the dial view for a big tacho and a huge digital speed readout.
Being an Audi, you can get a collection of options in packs. The S Performance Package ($5900) adds an excellent pair of massaging S sport front seats with diamond stitching and Nappa leather, red brake calipers, more (synthetic) leather and carbon inlays in the interior.
The Technik Package adds the excellent matrix LED headlights, the 19-speaker B&O 3D sound system and a heads-up display.
Other options include variable ratio Dynamic Steering ($2210), quattro sport differential ($2950), premium paint (ahem, $1846), panoramic sunroof (Avant only, $2990), sunroof ($2470, sedan only), heated rear seats ($750) and the rear seat entertainment system ($2600-$4680 for one or two screens respectively, but you can't have it with the S Performance pack)
Engine & trans
Where are the V8s?
Right now, the only W223 you can buy is powered by an all-new 2999cc 3.0-litre in-line direct-injection six-cylinder turbo petrol engine dubbed the M256, complete with double overhead cams, an electric compressor intercooler and assistance from a 48-volt mild hybrid system and integrated starter-generator, adding 16kW and 250Nm to the 270kW of power at 6100rpm and 500Nm of torque from 1600-4500rpm.
Top speed is limited to 250km/h, while the 0-100km/h sprint-time takes just 5.1 seconds in both models. Impressive for a two-tonne-plus luxury limo.
Audi says the turbocharged V6 is brand new from the ground up. Developing 260kW (15kW up) and a nice round 500Nm (up 60Nm), the new engine is 14kg lighter than the supercharged unit it replaces, and more efficient.
Efficiency gains come from clever things like a "hot side inside" turbo placement (inside the V, meaning shorter exhaust paths to better turbo pressure), lift-off coasting and start-stop.
Power reaches the road via an Audi Sport tweaked quattro system which can send 85 percent of power in either direction and is rear-biased with a standard 60/40 rear/front torque split. The seemingly ubiquitous and always excellent eight-speed ZF transmission handles the job of getting the power from the engine to the road.
The standard self-locking centre diff can be flung and replaced with a trick quattro sport unit ($2950) with electro-mechanical control of the rear axle's torque split.
The sedan will rocket to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds, the slightly heavier Avant two tenths behind it.
With the aid of the mild-hybrid system, the S450 returned a combined average of an impressive 8.2 litres per 100km, which translates to 187 grams of carbon dioxide emissions per kilometre. 95 RON premium unleaded (or higher) is recommended. In the urban run it consumes 11.3L/100km (11.5 for S450L), and just 6.4L/100km (6.5 for S450L) in the extra-urban result.
At 76 litres, the fuel tank will allow a combined average range of about 927km between refills.
Audi claims 7.7L/100km from the sedan and 7.8L/100km for the Avant. On a stinking hot day in central NSW and the ACT and with the accelerator spending a lot of time carpet-bound, the S4 still returned around 12L/100km. More time being driven less enthusiastically should see a marked improvement.
In former times, as the Germans say, a ‘450' on the boot indicated V8 power. In the W116 S-Class era it was one of the world's most evocative badges when ‘SEL' was also attached.
As mentioned earlier, though, it's the M256 3.0-litre turbo-petrol with a 48-volt ‘mild hybrid' electrical system that's doing the driving, to all four wheels. The real V8 W223 will probably surface later this year or in early 2022 with the S580L flagship. Bring it on.
This is not to say that S450 isn't good enough. With that electrified assistance, the blown straight six is smooth and swift off the line and rapid as the auto seamlessly steps up through all nine gears. Because it's so hushed and refined, it doesn't feel 5.1s to 100 clicks quick, but watching the speedo says otherwise – acceleration is assertive and strong right up way past the legal speed limit.
All that's missing is the burbling soundtrack of a classic Benz bent-eight. Oh well. Outstanding economy is a price we're literally willing to pay in lieu.
Even more impressive is the S450's ability to hustle along mountain roads like an overgrown sports sedan.
Now, for Australia, all S-Classes are fitted standard with an adaptive ‘Airmatic' air-suspension set-up, including air springs and self-levelling tech. In Comfort up to 60km/h, the ride height can be raised by 30mm, or lowered by 10mm under the standard 130mm baseline in Sport at any velocity, while in Sport+ it falls another 17mm.
With that in mind, yes, the standard air suspension performs a magnificent job smothering out most surface imperfections around town. Yet its real other party trick is to tighten up the chassis when corners get interesting and Sport mode is selected. Aided by progressively weighted and reassuringly responsive steering, the Mercedes tips into turns with precision and poise, slicing through with virtually no discernible body lean or understeer.
Now, we're not talking a leisurely drive on rural highways here, but Healesville's famous Chum Creek Road, where even a Porsche Cayman would feel like it's had a strenuous dynamic workout. The S-Class can be hurried along with confidence and finesse, displaying outstanding handling and roadholding for a 5.2-metre long limo. And the fact that the ride quality only suffers marginally when the red horns are out is all the more remarkable.
Back in the cut-and-thrust of inner-city peak-hour traffic, the Benz in Comfort mode continued to reveal its driver-orientated yet passenger-focused twin-personalities, zipping in and out of gaps while remaining comfy and composed inside.
Only when parking in tight spots are you truly aware that the W223 is longer than a Mazda CX-9. The optional four-wheel-steering system is claimed to slash the turning circle to A-Class hatchback levels. 10.9 metres is the claim.
The 2021 S-Class never ceases to amaze and delight.
The S4 is terrific fun. It's that simple. The new engine is an absolute belter, with all 500Nm of torque available at just 1370rpm. Lag is almost indistinguishable as the turbo spools up and rockets you along to 100kmh in under five seconds, that huge half-ton of torque sweeping you down the road.
With dynamic mode switched on, the car muscles up with firmer suspension and a slightly growlier exhaust. The steering really weights up, too, which takes a little getting used to after the lighter, friendlier setting in Comfort mode - thankfully you can set up an individual mode to dial the assistance back in while everything else is set up for go-fast.
The key to the fun is the rear-biased quattro system - while it's never going to match the purity of BMW's rear-wheel drive 340i, what you lose in steering feel and ultimate adjustability, you gain in off-the-line and mid-corner grip its German rivals could only dream of.
Going fast in an S4 is easy, leaving you to concentrate a little more on your line and gear selection, listening to the distant bark of the engine and the occasional turbo whistle. All of this is purely down to driving taste, of course but the point is, the S4 offers something a little different to the other two.
For most of the time the S4 defies its 1700kg-plus weight but there is the occasional hesitancy when changing direction through a challenging set of bends, as though the front tyres (245s all around, if you're interested) want to scrub and the quattro system makes a quick adjustment to stop it happening. You don't feel that's what's happening, of course - Audi Sport is better than that - but it's part and parcel of all-wheel drive. It takes a lot to find understeer and for most people, that just won't ever happen.
Further confidence comes from the terrific brakes - 350mm up front and 330mm at the rear, the big forward rotors are gripped by six-pot fixed calipers. Performance is epic and in hard, fast driving they stood up to a fair amount of punishment without fading.
The ride is excellent in all modes, which is quite an achievement given the fat rubber and big wheels, although big bumps at speed make a huge metallic thunk without actually upsetting progress. The eight-speed ZF is brilliant as always and unless you're really motoring, you don't even need its sport mode, which brings impressively fast and positive shifts.
The best thing is, if you don't look in the rear vision mirror, you can't really tell if you're driving sedan or Avant. That might be because it's quite absorbing on a launch drive, but I couldn't split the driving experience between the two.
The only black marks I could easily identify on the S4 is tyre noise on some surfaces and perhaps the steering could be a little more lively like its competitors.
The W223 S-Class has not been crash-tested yet by ANCAP or European affiliate EuroNCAP, so does not have a star rating. However, Mercedes-Benz claims it has striven to create one of the safety vehicles on the planet. Who are we to argue?
Almost every conceivable safety item is standard on the S-Class, including world-first rear-seat airbags located behind the front seats in the LWB model, taking the surround-airbag count to 10.
You'll also find route-based Speed Adaptation (adhering to the posted speed limits), Evasive Steering Assist (a sophisticated form of crash mitigation), adaptive cruise control with active stop/go, Active Lane Change Assist that automatically moves the car into the lane you indicate to), Mercedes' PreSafe crash-preparation tech that primes all the safety systems for impact, electronic stability program that encapsulates all the active driver-assist tech, Active Emergency Stop Assist, Autonomous Emergency Braking front and rear (including for cyclists and pedestrians, at speeds from 7km/h to over 200km/h), Traffic Sign Assist, Parking Package with Active Parking Assist and 360-degree camera and tyre pressure monitors.
The Active Lane Keeping Assist works in a speed range of between 60km/h and 250km/h while Active Steer Assist helps the driver follow the lane at speeds of up to 210km/h.
The S4 also retains the exit warning feature that tells you if you're about to door an approaching bicyclist or another car. What Audi calls "pre-sense rear" is a system to warn drivers behind you they're approaching too fast and are quite likely to hit you. Turn assist is also available, stopping you (at low speeds) from turning across approaching traffic.
The A4 scored five ANCAP safety stars, the highest available.
Unlike many luxury brands that persist with a sub-par three-year warranty, Mercedes-Benz offers a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty.
Intervals are every year or 25,000km, with a capped price service plan starting at $800 for the first year, $1200 for the second year and $1400 for the third year, totalling $3400. Alternatively, there is a Service Plan starting at $2700 for the first three years (saving $700 from the normal capped-price service plan), $3600 for four years and $5400 for five years.
Audi offers a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty on the S4 with service intervals of 12 months or 15,000km whichever comes first. Roadside assist is part of the package, lasting for the first three years of the car's life.
You can pre-purchase three years/45,000km of servicing for $1620 under Audi's Genuine Care Service Plan. Full details are available on Audi's website, but it basically covers a scheduled oil changes and inspections and not a lot else.