Aspiration—the human emotion, not the breathing variety—is a funny thing. People’s hopes and yearnings, goals and ambitions, can change over a lifetime, and it’s likely that one generation will value things differently than those that precede or follow it.
Five-sixty, for instance. That number represented an object of automotive desire for many of us in the late 1980s, when this writer was a neophyte in the car-magazine game. If hearing that the numeral 560 has returned to the decklid of a Mercedes-Benz S-class sedan for 2018 triggers some warm tingle of recognition, know that you’re remembering a whole different world and a previous century’s notions of luxury.
The digits on the 2018 S560 4Matic, the car tested here, have reappeared less out of nostalgic regard than to mark an engine change with the model’s mid-cycle update. The new twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 supplants a similarly boosted but less powerful 4.7-liter used in the S550. Still, the reappearance of the 560 badge gives us occasion to consider how the luxury-car market has changed over 30-some years.
A mid-cycle update also brought us the original 560SEL, which in those simpler days denoted that its then-new M117 V-8 displaced 5547 cubic centimeters, which almost rounds to 5.6 liters. The E in SEL declared that it was fuel injected electronically; that the engine had only two valves per cylinder seems quaint now. This engine was offered in the sedan from 1986 until 1991 and also was available in the SEC coupe and the SL roadster. In America, it came only in the extended-wheelbase chassis—the L in SEL—and was the top model of the W126-class S-class, which had been in production since 1979. In that slower-paced era, Mercedes actually boasted that the W126 had been under development for a full decade before it started its 12-year production run. A little math says that means the designers in Stuttgart laid down their first lines of graphite on vellum when Richard Nixon had barely warmed the seat in the Oval Office. That the 560SEL’s seats were warmed, too, was considered a big deal. Also a big deal: headlight wipers!
In retrospect, its standard ABS and, later, optional traction control telegraphed that the W126 was a pioneer of the radical transformation that led toward today’s semi-autonomous driving aids. So rudimentary were those systems, though, that the W126 still stands out as the apex analog car—you’d search its interior in vain for anything resembling a screen, a driving-mode dial, or ambient mood lighting. In contrast with today’s car, you’d find more metal and less plastic, wood trim in shapes that resemble furnishings more than they do abstract sculpture, and no dials or buttons with pictograms so obscure that you’d need to look them up in the printed owner’s manual. Remember those?
What is Luxury?
A 2015 exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design asked the question in its title: “What is Luxury?” It didn’t provide a clear answer except to say that luxury is evolving in this millennium. The objects displayed demonstrated traditional luxury attributes: quality materials, exceptional craftsmanship, artistic design, relative rarity. Tradition also still applies, the curators made clear in an accompanying online quiz, with regard to spending big bucks on an object not because of its inherent values but only because it confers prestige or status on the owner. That has never been luxury. It’s still vulgarity.
“Luxury,” though, has changed in that the word is increasingly applied to devices or services that save the owner time. The lifestyles that lead one to the door of a Mercedes dealership, for instance, are increasingly crammed with must-do-right-nows. So what people now consider luxurious are less the comforts and conveniences that have become so abundant as to be redefined as necessities—24/7 entertainment, climate-controlled dwellings, overnight delivery—and more so any device or service that frees up their time to enjoy the rest.
The new S560 4Matic wastes no time putting its 463 horsepower to use. It leaps to 60 mph from a dead stop in 4.2 seconds on the way to covering a quarter-mile in 12.8 seconds at 111 mph. Compared with its 2017 S550 4Matic predecessor that we tested, that’s 0.2 second quicker to 60 mph and 0.1 second and 1 mph faster in the quarter-mile. Fifty pounds lighter than last year’s car, the S560 also returned 19 mpg overall during our test, a huge 4 mpg improvement over the S550. In cornering at 0.90 g and coming to a stop from 70 mph in only 161 feet, the big sedan reveals sports-car-like moves that the engineers of its 1980s ancestor never imagined could be reconciled with the smooth and comfortable ride delivered by the adaptive dampers and air springs. The S560 might be quicker and nimbler still if it shed the weight of the optional 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, but these numbers already suggest you’re looking at a land yacht that would have no trouble chasing down a Mazda Miata on the Tail of the Dragon.
That’s not the way most S-class buyers think of time-saving, though. Our subject vehicle was also equipped with a $2250 package of driver assists that brings the latest version of the company’s semi-autonomous driving features. Including adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist that allow more relaxed highway driving, these systems let the driver devote more precious moments of time to other pursuits. In theory. We’re amazed by the technology if not particularly enamored of it in practice.
These systems still demand that the driver pay attention to the road and traffic, for reasons amply revealed when we sought to ease a long drive home after a tiring day of helping a family member move. It was twilight, with a light rain falling, so it seemed wise to engage all the safety systems in light of the driver’s fatigue. In these challenging circumstances, though, the car seemed nearly as uncertain about the lane demarcations as were our own tired and aging human eyes. If we removed our hands from the steering wheel, the car ping-ponged between lane lines and tried to follow the paint into I-75 exit lanes we had no intention of taking. As with the Mercedes in our comparison test two years ago, letting the car drive worked best in traffic jams. One new change is the controls are now on the steering-wheel spoke thanks to the elimination this year, at long last, of the traditional Benz cruise-control stalk. Which was, come to think of it, just about the last interior element that the driver of a W126 S-class would have found familiar in previous model years of the current-generation car.
Although not exactly time-saving, the 21st-century S560 is also amply endowed with new twists on the more self-indulgent traditional luxuries, including a $2600 Warmth and Comfort package that actually heats the leather on the center and door armrests as well as the seats. As part of a $5000 Premium package, the seats themselves also offered a “hot stone” massage function, but we’ve seen video of these being dissected on YouTube revealing that they do not, in fact, contain any stones whatsoever. More than $30,000 of the as-tested price was optional equipment, including $2260 for a night-vision system and $6400 for a Burmester “high end” audio system. There’s a stock Burmester audio system, but this one is $6400 more “high end.”
A second may still be a second, but it certainly feels as if time has been accelerating for the past 30 years. If you were a thirtysomething when a V-8 W126 was the ultimate Benz—remember kids, this was before there were Maybach and AMG sub-brands to render a mere Benz subordinate—the 560 was aspirational less in the here-and-now but in the “one day, if I keep my nose clean and achieve most of my career ambitions” sense. It was an old person’s car that made becoming old seem like a worthy goal. The 560 was a thing you’d save up for over a lifetime, buy as you neared retirement, and maybe pass on to your grandchildren.
Built for this multitasking, immediate-gratification era, the new S560 4Matic is no old-man’s car. The interior plastics are high-grade stuff, but plastic is not known for long-term durability, nor are electronic screens or the software driving them. Hence, the 2018 model doesn’t convey the impression that it’s meant to last for generations so much as it’s designed to be leased for a couple of years then re-sold as a certified pre-owned car to earn the dealer a second hit on the profit margins. Leasing makes the ability to drive such a thing more a matter of immediate cashflow than a measure of accumulated net worth. Like a smartphone, it’s not a thing to save up for and buy later, but one to acquire as current achievement allows. It’s still an object of aspiration, but turbocharged to keep up with modern market realities. And to save its owner time, whether on the freeway on-ramp or by letting the car do more of the driving.
None of this commentary should be construed as a moral judgment that the old way was better. It was different. Things change, and if the S560 that exists as one nears retirement is not the sort of car to which one aspired decades ago, it’s one hell of a car in its own right. If we really preferred the old one, W126 sedans in splendid condition are readily available, and routinely list for much less than the price of a new Volkswagen Golf. That they’re often included in estate sales suggests that the younger generations who inherit grandpa’s big cruiser don’t want to keep it any more than they do grandma’s fine china and silver service for 12. Things that need storage and maintenance do not save one’s time.