Mercedes-Benz S-Class VS Audi S8
- Fantastic V8 engine
- Brilliant interior
- Jekyll/Hyde chassis
- Very heavy
- Service costs
- Technical extravaganza
- Elegant looks
- Punchy V8
- Tricky to find a space big enough
- Short warranty
Ever since the middle of the 1990s, I've been captivated by the Mercedes-Benz S Class. It used to be known as Sonderklasse - special class - and teenage me certainly thought it was. The one that caught my attention was the W140. A huge, two-tonne beast when that sort of mass was rare, it was loaded with amazingness and owned the road.
Part of its unique appeal was that that it was properly ugly. When it hove into view it was like a battleship entering Sydney Harbour. And it used almost as much fuel, with the V12 on board.
Over the years, genuine style has invaded the S-Class and today I found myself, for the first time, in an unusually pretty pair of S Classes - the S560 and S63 Coupes. And, astonishingly, it's the first time I've ever driven an S-Class. So with all that baggage I've built up over the years, they had a lot to live up to.
|Engine Type||4.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Big sedans are not in vogue at the moment and huge luxury sedans were on the way down before the humble Commodore and Falcon departed the upper end of the sales charts. The Germans, who have always done a spectacular job of these flagship sedans, cheerfully persist with these cars.
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Both of these vast vehicles are phenomenally comfortable - this is the kind of car that Mercedes does so well, and has done for decades. The S Class is rarely a disappointment but it's difficult to believe that such a big, heavy GT car can also dance the way the S63 does.
The S560 is far more weighted to being a GT - supremely comfortable with that active suspension, a growly, refined V8 and a cabin full of gadgets and comfort. The S63 is altogether more aggressive, to look at and to drive. Lopping the roof off both of them adds weight but, like any cruiser, also puts you out in the sun, the breeze and into your surroundings. Plus, in the case of the S63, you get more exhaust noise.
They're two very different cars and not just because of the engine. After all these years admiring it from afar, the S63 has delivered on my teenage expectations - fast, smooth and utterly mad.
Is the S Class still the car that springs to mind when you think ultimate luxury? Or has another brand taken its place? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
The S8's existence is a source of joy for me because it's not a huge SUV. Yes, it's a huge sedan but it's a reminder that the technological flagship is alive and well, at least in Germany. And the important thing about these cars is the way the toys filter down through the rest of the range. That used to take years but we're seeing this cool stuff a lot more quickly, right down to the A1.
The S8 punches, and punches hard in this rarefied part of an already shrunken section of the market - the twin-turbo V8 matches its German rivals, it's lighter and it's as well-stacked as any of the three. What it doesn't do, however, is shout about itself the way the other two do. It's the incognito choice.
The S Class Coupe is obviously related to the sedan but manages a svelte appearance. Slimmer hipped and with a more Coke-bottle shape, the Coupe - if you squint a bit - has a bit of the classic old pagoda about it. Obviously you can't do pillars that slim anymore, but the glass roof takes away some of the visual weight inside and out.
The cabriolet's roof is nicely integrated and looks good when it's up, which isn't always the case.
They all look long, though. It's obvious to see why the cars all run on 20-inch wheels - anything smaller would look hilarious.
The cabin is a fairly sensible re-imagining of the E-Class. The big twin-screen layout of the dash and multimedia system seems a bit more at home here. The chintzy Burmester speakers in the doors let down an otherwise classy cabin, which steers clear of otiose vulgarity in looks and materials.
The sheetmetal is obviously very restrained given it's an Audi first, and secondly, it's just not done to go wild in this part of the market.
It's an A6 that's joined a gym, but didn't join that weird gym with men that can't run after you when you insult them (don't ask how I know this). Rolling on 21-inch wheels as standard, you can go up to massive 22s if you so choose.
The A8 created a subtle redirection of Audi's passenger car look, with the updated A4 and A6 both picking up on the horizontal bar between the rear lights and the huge grille framed by family lights with signature DRL patterns. The S8 builds on that with subtle S cues but nothing even vaguely shouty.
The interior acreage - or 'cabin', if you will - is very comfortable, but you already knew that. The multi-screen layout was first seen in the A8 and has now found its way into A7, Q8 and Q7 and is, as ever, brilliant to look at and use.
The MMI updates that have found their way into other cars are present and correct. Like the exterior, it's very restrained but not to the point of sparse minimalism, despite the lack of switches and buttons.
I really don't like the steering wheel, though, and I can't put my finger on why. It certainly isn't especially sporty-looking but I wonder if the standard flat-bottomed S wheel just looked stupid.
The materials are beautiful and everything fits together perfectly.
Well look, if you end up in the back of the S Coupe, it's not a riot of space. Obviously it has back seats (the SL doesn't even squeeze a jump seat into its considerable length) but they're for occasional, if luxurious, use.
The boot is a reasonably decent 400 litres, obviously the cabriolet loses a few litres with the roof folded. Front and rear passengers will both enjoy a pair of cupholders and the whopping long doors will each hold a bottle.
The cabin is clearly built with rear seat passengers in mind, with rear leg and headroom configured for those continent-crossing drives.
The S8 has plenty of comfort for two rear seat passengers and a few amusing options to while away the hours in traffic or on the autobahn.
That doesn't mean the front seat passengers are in purgatory, with huge but supportive seats adjustable in all conceivable directions.
Front and rear rows score a pair of cupholders and bottle holders while the boot is a handy, if not awe-inspiring, 505 litres.
Price and features
One thing hasn't changed in nearly 20 years - the S isn't cheap. Available in coupe and cabriolet, the S560 starts at $314,900 for the former and $336,900 for the latter. Step up to the S63 pair and you'll pay from $370,500 for the coupe and $399,900 for the cab. If you're super keen for something spectacular, the twin-turbo V12-powered S65 is available for between $508,900 and $520,500, and features Swarovski crystals in the headlights, for some reason.
As you can imagine, there's quite a bit to cover, so for both cars I'll stick to the edited highlights. The S560s roll on 20-inch alloys, has a 590-watt 13 speaker sound system, digital TV, auto parking, active cruise control, panoramic glass roof, Nappa leather, active seats and power-closing doors.
It also comes standard with a heating pack that not only heats the seats but the steering wheel and centre console. In the cabriolet you also get the 'Airscarf' neck heater.
Both cars also feature's Mercedes' Magic Body Control with curve function. More of that wacky feature later.
The S63 AMG is a step up in power, price and spec. One notable change from the S560 is the loss of 'Magic Body Control', which is replaced with mere air suspension. The 20-inch alloys are 10-spoke forged units, the brakes higher performance composites with red calipers, while an AMG sports exhaust brings the noise.
Naturally, both are swathed in high-quality leather and feature dual-zone climate control, heated and cooled electric seats that adjust in every direction, deep carpets, keyless entry and start, fully digital dashboards and just about every gadget to which you can point your imagination.
Entertainment and sat nav are via Mercedes' 'Comand' system, which is displayed on a massive 12.3-inch slab of glass at the top of the dashboard. The 13-speaker Burmester-branded system is predictably impressive and with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, you only have to use the basic software for the radio or various car controls.
For $260,000 there is a lot to get through, as there is on the less sporty A8. Start with huge 21-inch alloys, 17-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo, panoramic sunroof, matrix LED headlights with laser lights, soft-close doors, acoustic glazing, leather trim, S front seats, extra leather over the A8, Alcantara headlining, carbon inlays, four-zone climate control, heated and cooled front seats, 'Virtual Cockpit' with S mode, and a tyre repair kit.
You also get active suspension, a sport version of the 'quattro' all-wheel drive system (with a sport differential), and a walloping great twin-turbo V8 to get you moving.
A massive touchscreen on the centre stack (familiar in Q8, A7 and Q7) hosts Audi's 'MMI plus' system, which is very good and does away with the console-mounted rotary controller. It also has wireless Apple CarPlay to go with the console-bin wireless charging pad. Android Auto is still USB. 'Audi Connect plus', now in full-featured glory, is also along for the ride.
Another technical highlight is the active noise cancelling which is meant to reduce the noise in the cabin the same way noise cancelling headphones do.
There's a clever rear seat remote control, which is a little detachable tablet to allow those who are being chauffered to faff around with various settings.
Our car had the $13,900 'Sensory Package', which adds a 1820-watt B&O 3D sound system with 23 speakers, electrically adjustable outer rear seats along with heating, cooling and massage function, and full leather.
Engine & trans
All four coupes and cabriolets ship with Daimler's formidable 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8. The S560 scores 345kW/700Nm to drive the rear wheels through Benz's own nine-speed automatic. With all of that available, the S560 will crack the ton in 4.6 seconds and make a wonderful racket on the way.
Moving on to the S63, the same engine delivers a massive 450kW/900Nm. The run from 0-100km/h is dispatched in just 3.5 seconds and if I thought the S560 made a good noise, the S63 with its standard sports exhaust makes a better one. Again, Mercedes' nine-speeder is along for the ride.
That's a lot, even for this big bruiser. Obviously, being an Audi S-car, it has quattro all-wheel drive, which is fed by an eight-speed ZF automatic. Which is in everything now. Well, just about.
That huge torque figure is available between 2000rpm and 4500rpm while peak power arrives at 6000rpm. The 0-100km/h sprint is despatched in - gulp - 3.8 seconds.
As it's riding on the MLB platform, the mild hybrid system is a 48-volt set-up. A lithium-ion battery in the boot takes charge from the belt alternator/starter, which means the S8 can coast at higher speeds with the engine off and also cut out at 22km/h and under in traffic.
The system can also add up to 60Nm of torque in the right conditions for up to six seconds, and if it happened for me, I didn't notice it.
The lower-powered 560 drinks 98RON at the rate of 8.5L/100km for the coupe and 9.9L/100km for the heavier cabriolet.
The S63 ups the ante with 9.9L/100km for the coupe and an identical 9.9L/100km for the cab.
Our launch program contained some...er...spirited driving, which would explain the mid to high-teens fuel figures.
The 10.5L/100km official figure is, shall we say, optimistic. The launch drive was mostly highway so there's no real information to be gleaned from that, so we'll have to wait for real world fuel figures.
I'd say 12-13L/100km is achievable if you don't like having fun, in which case, the lesser A8 is probably for you.
Audi says the MHEV system saves 0.8L/100km with an early cut-out for the stop-start and the ability to coast on the highway for over half a minute at a time.
Let's start with the S560. That smooth V8 rumble is all you'll ever hear if you just slot into drive and go for a leisurely spin. The nine-speed automatic continues to be a revelation to me - in the GLC63 it's good and here, once again, it's excellent, finding the right gear for the occasion and riding the fat torque curve. Other nine-speed autos are not very good at all.
The test route for the S560 played to the strengths of the car. It had some lovely winding roads, which brought the trick suspension into focus - the Magic Body Control with curve function is hilarious. While the active suspension works hard at all times to ensure the ride is smooth and drama free, the Curve mode (no, really) actually leans the car into corners.
Those of you who remember the video game Wipeout 2097 will be big fans of Curve mode. As you approach a corner, you turn the wheel and then the car leans into the bend. This isn't active damping reading the road, it's the outside suspension lifting the car and the inside lowering it, so the car feels like it's gliding, like a hovercar. It's wild but oddly calming. Mercedes reckons it's great for those who get car sick. As I didn't have my wife on hand to test this theory - she chucks at the first sign of a corner - I couldn't verify this claim. That will have to wait.
The S63 AMG is a completely different proposition. The air suspension is more than up to the job of helping smother the effects of the car's considerable weight, meaning that no matter what you're up to, the car feels reasonably light on its feet. It never feels small, though, commanding the respect of the driver and plenty of space from other road users.
And boy, do you need some space if you kick the S63 into Sport mode. In true AMG style, the electronic reins relax and the big luxury coupe cheerfully kicks off. The tail will wriggle under an unsympathetic right foot, that signature V8 roar, crackle and hiss filling your ears. The S63 is always the harder-feeling car, but it delivers with a more sporting drive than the S560.
Being the generous soul I am, I volunteered to return the S63 to its home for the evening rather than consign it to the back of a truck. On the back roads I took to reach the highway, it was rock solid - fast, predictable and a lot of fun. Once I found the boring straight bits, it turned into a supremely comfortable cruiser, ticking along in ninth at the legal limit (and being Melbourne, it was very much the legal limit), dispatching overtaking with barely a flex of a toe.
The active cruise took the stress of keeping away from the State Revenue Office's clutches while being quiet and utterly pleasant.
Driving any of the cars in this segment is a rare treat, whether it's the 'entry level' diesel or this top of the heap sports sedan. My day with the S8 was filled with the usual surprise and delight that only these tech-packed cars can deliver.
Heading out of the Sydney CBD in 'Comfort' mode, the car scans the road ahead and adjusts the active suspension accordingly. You already know it has active suspension because when you pull the door handle, the car lifts by 50mm to make it a bit easier to get in.
The suspension's party trick is flat-topped speed bumps - drive at one, brake a little and sense the way the body feels like it stays exactly where it is in the air but the suspension almost completely flattens the speed hump.
It's uncanny and almost unnatural, with just the tiniest change in altitude and no noise from the suspension.
It also manages the terrible narrow lanes of CBD thoroughfares with ease, the lane keep system letting you know if you're straying.
On to the motorway and you get a feel for its crushing performance. You won't hear much, though - the stereo's noise-cancelling system shuts out almost all tyre noise and consistent wind noise is largely banished, too.
I'm going to admit I gasped when I found some corners. Active suspension bodes well for the tricky stuff, as does the all-wheel steering. Both are exceptionally clever systems for making the car feel a lot smaller in town and in car parks but they're also really good if you want some fun.
But the way the rear-wheel steer adds agility to such a big car is hilarious and clever. While you can't quite chuck it around - and really, you're not buying an A8-sized car for that kind of nonsense - brisk progress is far from intimidating.
Now, obviously, a Ford Fiesta would drive away from the S8 in the really tight stuff but it would take some time to properly shake it. The colossal torque from the V8 hurls even this two-tonne-plus limo out of the corners in a most satisfactory manner.
It's surprisingly agile for a machine more than five metres long and two metres wide. If your passengers are corner enthusiasts, you'll all be having fun in near silence. It's oddly engaging to be moving at pace in such a hushed cabin.
The S-Class coupe comes loaded with eight airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, forward and reverse AEB with pedestrian detection, reversing camera, crosswind assist (I know, right?), traffic-sign recognition and reverse cross traffic alert.
The S-Class Coupe does not have an ANCAP or EuroNCAP rating.
The S8's considerable safety equipment list includes nine airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, forward AEB (up to 250km/h), reverse cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, various collision mitigation and protection systems, exit warning, lane keep assist, active cruise control and on, and on, and on.
The rear seat's centre airbag is terribly clever, popping up between passengers to stop you knocking heads. Another clever trick is the way the car detects a side impact is about to happen, boosting the height of the side about to cop it to try and get the sills to take more of the impact, rather than the door.
Given the relatively niche status of the A8, let alone the S8, there is no ANCAP crash test or safety rating. One imagines given the ton of safety gear a five star rating is all but assured. Even the US IIHS gave the A8 a miss.
Mercedes offers a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with roadside assist for the duration.
The company also offers both service plans (where you pay up-front as part of the vehicle purchase) and capped-price servicing on the coupes. Servicing over three years is in the order $2500.
Audi continues to fail to match Mercedes move to a five year warranty, sticking with three year/unlimited kilometre cover. BMW is still doing it too, so maybe Ingolstadt and Munich are playing chicken.
You can get a five-year service plan for the S8, coming out at $3990 for the duration.