The Best Car I Drove in 2021
(Bloomberg) -- Recently I met some friends for a festive round of drinks at the bar of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Devoted collectors with the means to buy the very best supercars in history and the most exciting new cars today, they asked me to name the best car I drove all year.
I didn’t hesitate: It was the 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz introduced more battery powered concepts, cars, and SUVs than ever. Hennessey and Rolls-Royce announced plans for opulent EV stunners; even 112-year-old Bugatti is going electric. Motown’s OEMs said they were going all in on an all-electric future, while Wall Street poured billions of dollars into EV startups, including Rivian, which had made hardly any vehicles before it went public.
But after driving at least 50 new coupes, motorcycles, SUVs, trucks, wagons, and supercars this year—which included electric vehicles from the BMW i4 and iX to the Cake electric motorcycle and a Ferrari hybrid—I can tell you that here’s the thing: Electric vehicles aren’t perfect yet. Some lack the quality craftsmanship that decades of European artistry have refined; others are being sold in haphazard ways that detract from their true benefits. Many have technological glitches in their windows and mapping systems. All lack the kind of charging network that would make many consumers finally confident enough to own one as their daily driver.
Which brings me to the S-Class. The $143,240 model I drove for a week around Los Angeles and to the mountain town of Big Bear, Calif., in June was nearly perfect.
As I wrote in my review, this is a specimen Mercedes-Benz can’t afford to get wrong, ever. The line officially stretches back to 1949, when Mercedes’s chairman denoted a new family of cars called “S,” for “Super” or “Special.” By 1956 the company had launched the 220S, and the designation has been used ever since to denote its cars most loaded with the accoutrements of luxury.
Mercedes has sold more than 4 million S-Class sedans worldwide. In China, Mercedes’s biggest market, the average age of an S-Class owner is 40; for 10% of them, it’s the first car they’ve ever owned, according to Mercedes.
For Bloomberg’s review, I drove the S 580, which is the higher-end version of the S-Class. It includes options like the $6,730 Burmester surround sound system and striking $1,950 21-inch wheels. (The entry level S-Class starts at $109,800.)
I loved the surge of the 496-horsepower V8 engine and the insulated but engaging feel of how it drove. The handling, brakes, and acceleration felt polished and mirror-smooth. This big and tall sedan (17 feet long, 4,775 pounds) manages to get from zero to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, with a top speed of 130 mph. A 21-extra-horsepower “EQ” power boost kicks in for added, exceptional thrust.
The nine gears pulled me seamlessly up the horseshoe turns of Highway 18; the all-new augmented-reality head-up display gave video, navigation, and other road info by projecting images directly into my field of vision on the windshield. I wrote in my review that it was so dialed in I felt like the aids were inside my own eyeballs, not generated in a separate machine.
But it wasn’t the driving that sealed the deal for me. It was just being in the cabin, which felt like an escape from the chaotic world outside. Mercedes reduced the cabin noise of the S-Class to blissful levels; using a decibel-reader app on my phone, I clocked it at just over 60 decibels on the highway. (The same app reports more than 90 decibels in some of the classic cars I drive.)
Meanwhile, I chose from “Energizing Comfort” wellness systems to adjust 64 different shades of lighting, sound, temperature, and even scent in the car. For instance, “Vitality” mode helps boost attentiveness and energy; “Warmth” mode is meant to soothe. Bamboo Mood and Cotton Mood are the fragrances introduced this year with the new S-Class; they include notes of fresh water and amber, and musk and jasmine.
I ran the massaging seats the entire time I was inside the car. They were that good. Most car massagers don’t apply enough pressure to appease my athletic tastes when it comes to rubdowns, but these were effective. They offer 10 different programs with two levels of intensity that last up to 18 minutes. Suede pillows on the headrests eased the strain on my upper back and neck. Other options include heated armrests, a heated Nappa leather steering wheel, and exquisitely clear Burmester “4D” surround sound.
All told, the extensive creature comforts, safety technology, and quality of materials and fabrication in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class put it ahead of competitors like the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, and Porsche Panamera. It’s all the trappings of wealth in a stately package that feels just festive enough for any occasion.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.