Three is the new five.
For much of its existence, Mercedes-Benz's model nomenclature directly corresponded to a given vehicle's engine displacement in liters, multiplied by a factor of 100. But that's no longer solely the case, as this numerical correlation has begun to fall victim to the proliferation of smaller-displacement engines with greater specific outputs. Witness the 2022 Mercedes S500. For the first time, an S-class with a 500 on its decklid is powered not by a large V-8, but by a tidy 3.0-liter inline-six.
What the latest S500's engine lacks in size it makes up for in muscle. Boosted by an electric supercharger and exhaust-fed turbocharger, this six chuffs out 429 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque, with a 48-volt hybrid system contributing another 21 horses and 184 pound-feet in brief stints. Both air and electricity conspire to deliver lag-free acceleration regardless of speed. Though it may be down 67 ponies to the twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 found in the S580 model we recently tested, the 500 still scoots. We hustled our test car to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 13.0 seconds at 108 mph—times that make this lesser model only about a half-second slower than the S580 in both measures.
The quality of sound coming from under the S500's hood could be more refined, though it's unlikely you'll hear much of it. Firewall insulation now extends to the sides of the A-pillars and beneath the floorboards, reducing the engine's granular peal at wide-open throttle to a 71-decibel murmur. A similar silent treatment is applied to exposed areas of the bodyshell, sections of which are filled with acoustic foam to absorb road-vibration frequencies. Foam-filled tires also contribute to less overall racket. The result is a seriously hushed environment. At our California test facility, we recorded a mere 61 decibels of noise in the cabin at a steady 70 mph, three fewer decibels than we noted in the S580 on our noisier Michigan tarmac.
Despite its sonic isolation, this big sedan offers a fair amount of driving engagement for something weighing 4775 pounds and riding on a long 126.6-inch wheelbase. Push it hard, and the S500 navigates corners with almost unflappable agility, thanks in part to a rear-axle steering option that can turn the rear wheels up to 4.5 degrees. We found the air-spring suspension and adaptive dampers to be supple and composed in their Comfort setting. For more spirited outings, Sport and Sport Plus modes tighten up and lower the suspension with increasing levels of intensity. Wearing optional 21-inch Pirelli P Zero PZ4 summer tires, our example posted a solid 0.92 g of skidpad grip and a 160-foot stop from 70 mph.
We were less impressed by the performance of Mercedes's adaptive cruise control. Whether crawling along in near-gridlock or cruising at highway speeds, the system demonstrates ponderously slow reflexes. When a gap in traffic appears, it first dithers for an excruciatingly long beat, then leaps forward like a panicked squirrel—only to jam on the brakes hard as it hurtles toward the lead car. We've noticed this unnerving ping-pong effect before in the new S-class, and it might not bother us as much if Mercedes hadn't been the first to introduce this technology back in 1998.
Technology fares much better inside. Although the handsome 12.8-inch OLED central touchscreen display has the visual impact of an open laptop computer resting atop the center console, its menus are well organized and the operating system is quick to respond to inputs. Wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay take full advantage of the screen's abundant real estate. The "Hey, Mercedes" command also now has proximity awareness, meaning rear-seat passengers can make their own requests of the cloud-based voice assistant.
For the most part, the S500's interior exudes an air of modern sophistication befitting a car that costs $112,150 to start. The vents have an industrial quality to them, which contrasts beautifully with our test car's $1300 pinstriped piano lacquer wood trim splayed across its dashboard and doors. We were enamored with the $2290 brown nappa leather upholstery, which is as sumptuous to the eyes as it is soothing to the backside. Front-seat passengers can choose from one of 10 different massage programs, while rear-seat occupants will enjoy a full 43.8 inches of legroom. Ambient lighting has taken a questionable step forward, with several multicolored themes that can transform the interior environment from country club to nightclub. There is a practical upside to this exhibitionism, though: If the car senses approaching danger from an adjoining lane, the LEDs in the corresponding front door will flash red in warning.
Ultimately, it's this sense of anticipation that's one of the S500's defining traits. Door handles extend outward in greeting as you approach the car, softly glowing to provide a welcoming beacon. Reach over to an empty passenger seat in the dark and a spotlight illuminates the direct area, extinguishing itself immediately as you pull back. The optional 3D Technology package includes a pair of cameras that tracks eye movements and facial expressions and can even automatically determine the height of the side mirror positions. While the 3-D effect of the 12.3-inch instrument cluster might amount to little more than a visual gimmick, we enjoyed how immersive the navigation map appeared on the screen.
In Germany, more modest luxury-car owners have a history of debadging smaller-displacement models to avoid attention from judgmental eyes. With the latest S500, that won't be necessary. Although the number on its trunk no longer corresponds to what's under the hood, this six-cylinder Mercedes gives up little in the way of performance and provides all the essential hallmarks of the S-class experience.
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