S-Class—this series name has long denoted the flagship models from Mercedes-Benz. Some of the best cars to ever wear the 3-pointed star have been a part of the S-Class line-up, but there have arguably been some less successful generations as well. Let’s take a quick look at the S-Class range through the years and make our picks for the good, the bad and the ugly.
Where to begin? Mercedes used the “S” designation to denote Sonderklasse (special class) on flagship models in the 1950s through the early 1970s, including notable cars like the W108 300SEL. But the official use of S-Class started with the unveiling of the W116 series in 1972, and has continued since. So those cars will be the S-Class models for us to pick from. In the interest of simplicity, let’s also limit this QOTD to the sedans, as those have been the common thread though all the generations.
W116 S-Class: 1972 – 1980 (U.S. models arrived for 1973)
The generation that formally launched the S-Class name, and firmly cemented Mercedes-Benz leadership. Often credited with being the “best sedan in the world” when new, these cars embodied Mercedes dedication to engineering innovation and excellence, as well as superior materials and build quality.
W126 S-Class: 1980 – 1991 (U.S. models arrived for 1981)
Needing to respond to global demands for increased efficiency while retaining the ultra upper-crust snob appeal, this generation brought sleekly elegant, aerodynamic designs and a broad array of engines to demonstrate the pinnacle of the luxury car art for the 1980s.
W140 S-Class: 1991 – 1999 (U.S. models arrived for 1992)
The “grosser” S-Class: too big and too expensive, the ultimate example of Mercedes-Benz over-engineering. Still the “best” in many ways, but unable to define the future of luxury sedans as effectively as previous S-Class generations.
W220 S-Class: 1999 – 2006 (U.S. models arrived for 2000)
The polar opposite of the W140, this generation was lighter, nimbler, less expensive, tech filled and targeted as a “younger, hipper” big Benz. The long-term was not kind to these cars, however, as they didn’t maintain Mercedes quality standards in many key areas.
W221 S-Class: 2006-2014 (U.S. models arrived for 2007)
This generation added in styling gimmicks like flared wheel arches and Mercedes-Benz’s version of BMW’s “Bangle Butt” 7 Series raised deck lid, along with a move back to higher quality materials and a more substantial feel. Technological proliferation continued unabated, with ever more advanced and complicated features.
W222 S-Class: 2014 to the present day
Demonstrating renewed vigor in Mercedes-Benz mastery of the conventional ultra-luxury large sedan, loaded with luxury features, technology, craftsmanship and “street cred.” But with the Tesla Model S setting the pace for innovation in the super premium luxury segment, the Benz becomes the best of the “old school” approach.
So now let’s make our choices! Here is my list, from most favorite to least favorite S-Class.
The Top Three
- The W126 just nailed it for me. Modern, arrogant, brilliant—it defined Mercedes-Benz as the maker of the world’s best sedans. I was an impressionable young teen when these arrived, and I thought they were amazing—pretty good showing for a big 4-door sedan!
- The W116 also set the pace for Mercedes excellence, and made significant sales inroads in key global markets. Established Stuttgart’s definition of the modern luxury sedan as the one to beat.
- The W222 felt like Mercedes rediscovered the magic that had made previous S-Class generations so successful: great presence, cutting edge technology and great build quality along with an absolutely sumptuous interior. Truly a state-of-the-art luxobarge.
I would be thrilled to own any of these S-Class models, and feel they are truly best of breed. Now on the rest on my list, which I will add I have no interest in ever owning.
The Bottom Three
- The W221 represented a return to a bit more traditional substance after the lightweight W220. But those fender flairs looked like they were from a PT Cruiser, and this generation felt gimmicky rather than timeless.
- The W140 was a car I wish I could like more than I do. On the one hand, it was so solid, commanding and over-the-top, with the ultimate expression of the traditional Mercedes interior. But the size, and the looks…. No thanks.
- Every list has to have last place, and the W220 takes mine among S-Class models. Time has not been kind to this car, and what was seen as fresh when new turned out to be below the quality standards that the brand had historically offered. It just doesn’t live up to the lofty standards set by other generations of Mercedes-Benz’s flagship sedans.
So those are my picks, what are yours?