2021 Mercedes-Maybach S580 First Test: Improving on a Benchmark

Wilhelm Maybach was a legendary engineer. He was responsible for the ever more powerful engines motivating Gottlieb Daimler’s motor cars culminating in the Daimler-Mercedes engine behind the Mercedes 35 HP, the car that would redefine the company. Before that, his Phoenix engine would set the standard for modern engine design and cement his legacy far beyond the extremely luxurious cars that would bear his name in the prewar years. And yet, it’s this fancier association, Mercedes-Benz would choose to associate with the Maybach subbrand more than 70 year after his death.

A hometown rival to Britain’s Bentley and Rolls-Royce (at the time recently acquired by Benz’s German competition), the Maybach brand struggled as a quasi-independent entity in the early 2000s, only to be successfully resurrected a third time in 2015. Even that car, now more fittingly titled the Mercedes-Maybach S600, didn’t fully embrace the Maybach lineage, the name being a last-minute addition to a completed S-Class variant. Now, though, the Maybach idea is fully formed and has been infused into the bones of the new 2021 Mercedes-Maybach S580.

So successful was the old Mercedes-Maybach despite its eleventh-hour adoption of the Maybach name, the brand has spawned entirely new variants (see the Mercedes-Maybach GLS-Class), as well as this new V-8-powered S580 sedan model. The original brood lives on with the traditional S680 V-12 model coming later.

Powered by the same mild hybrid 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 found in the standard Mercedes-Benz S580, the Mercedes-Maybach S580 makes the same 469 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque. It’s assisted in its output by an electric starter-generator motor in the transmission that provides up to 21 hp and 184 lb-ft at low engine speeds to boost and smooth acceleration. Behind it, the familiar nine-speed automatic sends torque to all four wheels.

One of the most impressive and simultaneously least-obvious technical achievements of the Maybach is in its performance. Despite adding 7.1 inches to the wheelbase, a better-than-first-class rear seat, and a mini-fridge to the standard S-Class, the Maybach gains only 280 pounds and adds only a tenth of a second to its 0-60-mph time. Needing just 4.1 seconds to reach 60 mph, it’s more than half a second quicker than the previous 12-cylinder Maybach S600 and a tenth quicker than the heavier but more powerful 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Ghost. It’s quicker through the quarter mile, too, than the old Maybach, just even with the new Ghost and just a tenth behind the new S-Class.

You have to put your foot down to find out, though. Capability aside, this is not a drivetrain programmed for high-performance driving. So muted is the throttle response, you’d be inclined to believe the Maybach substantially heavier and slower than the standard S-Class, not one step behind. If you want the power, you have to demand it. You’ll get stiff shifts to go with the quickness, a seemingly passive-aggressive side effect.

Switching to the sport driving mode in a standard S-Class noticeably changes the character of the car, but not here. It’s as if the Maybach has been programmed to remind you it’s not meant to be driven in anger, even though it’s built for such if the need arises. Emphasis on need—perhaps, you know, if you’re a dignitary being attacked, an uncouth full-throttle experience is lower on the priority list.

Similarly, the brake pedal is set up for chauffeurs shuffle-steering around Manhattan, not for a reboot of the Transporter movie franchise. So delicate is the initial brake bite, we found it frustrating to drive. The pedal travel is proportional in length to the car itself and decidedly nonlinear; nothing happens at first, but then stopping power ramps up suddenly once slack is taken up from the pedal. It’s clearly designed for limousine stops, but you have to initiate them a block or two in advance because the pedal is so difficult to modulate in these scenarios. If you just need to stop immediately from 60 mph, it’ll take a minimum of 124 feet, 16 feet longer than the somewhat lighter standard S-Class.

Should you need (again, need) to engage in some offensive driving—again, the important-person-ambush scenario—the Maybach will, in fact, dance. Wildly, as it turns out, if you or your driver sideline the computer nannies. The standard rear-wheel steering system makes this massive car unbelievably maneuverable, with a turning circle just 2.1 feet wider than the standard S-Class. As such, you can bend this luxury yacht into a U-turn at any intersection on a four-lane road (or two-lane road with a decent shoulder) in one perfect motion.

Put it on a mountain road, and although the weight and length make themselves known, the Maybach handles like a heavy S-Class—which is a superb-handling luxury sedan. Unlike the S-Class, the Maybach again lets you know such driving is not its intended purpose. Our instrumented testing bears this out, averaging 0.84 maximum lateral g on the skidpad to the S-Class’ 0.91 and a figure-eight lap time of 26.2 seconds at 0.70 average g to the S-Class’ 25.4 seconds at 0.74 average g. This result is due in no small part to the Maybach’s predilection toward dramatic oversteer with the computers off and the need for long braking distances.

If we haven’t made the point clear enough, the Maybach has no interest in being driven hard but rather the opposite, so much so you shouldn’t even drive it in the default Comfort mode. Rather, you should immediately switch it to Maybach mode, confusingly represented in the instrument cluster not as the Maybach logo (like a Bentley does in its namesake mode) but by the Comfort mode icon with a little picture of a diamond shoehorned into the corner like an afterthought, or an attack of inexplicable nostalgia for ’90s hotel marketing material design.

Maybach mode fixes the car’s one true problem: the ride quality. In so-called Comfort mode, it just doesn’t ride like a Rolls. Rather, its default ride is like that of the decidedly and unapologetically more sporty Bentley Flying Spur, too stiff for a car that moves like a softer Rolls-Royce Ghost. Cast your aspersions, regrettably, at those delicious five-spoke Monoblock wheels. Heavy wheels ruin fine ride quality, forcing all the smallest bumps past the dampers by sheer inertia.

Switch to Maybach mode, then, and feel your aspersions melt away. This is how the Maybach is meant to drive. Whatever recalibrations take place in the air springs and electronically controlled dampers are more than sufficient to wash away the road rash that makes it into the cabin in other modes. Why this isn’t the default driving mode is beyond us, because it delivers the road feel that a $200,000 luxury sedan should, the kind of ride quality that’ll make Rolls-Royce engineers sit up and take notice.

So, too, will they notice the opulence of the rear seat. Determined to make itself a credible rival, the Maybach continues to hone its chauffeured passenger experience. A measly $6,000 option, the two-place rear seat has all the hallmarks of a vehicle of this type with a clearly modern aesthetic. From the mini tablet that controls everything but the actual driving of the car to the power-operated doors, heated and cooled cupholders, built-in massager, fold-out tray tables, and “4-D” stereo that shakes the seat to deepen the bass impact, the Maybach is a tech-as-luxury tour de force.

Notably, the minifridge and solid silver champagne flutes are an extra $1,100 and $3,200, respectively, and honestly, if you didn’t expect that, you can kick tires elsewhere. You’re clearly not an ultra-luxury car shopper. Nickel-and-diming is the name of the game when the customer has enough disposable income to buy a car that costs as much as a house. To these clients, $4,300 might as well be $4.30.

The drinkware is a screaming deal compared to the thankfully optional two-tone paint with also-optional pinstripes. We’ll admit the silver-over-black motif here is the least offensive variation of this new brand-exclusive design, and if you want the world to know you have money, spending $14,500 to make the top half of your car a different color is certainly an unmissable way to do it. We think Mercedes-Maybach would do better offering you the for-cost option of replacing the three-pointed star hood ornament with the crossed M Maybach logo found on the C-pillars.

This leads us to the same question we had about the last Maybach, namely, what makes it a Maybach? The front half of the cabin being identical to a standard S-Class makes it easy to forget anything special is going on in the rear seat, and the bits of exterior ornamentation are only slightly less subtle than they were previously. If anything, the two-tone paint will sell simply because it’s more obvious than the new grille and wheel designs.

But that’s the clever trick of it all. Mercedes went from selling a few dozen Maybachs in the first go around 20 years ago to selling 60,000 of the second-attempt cars in the past five years, and that car was far less distinctively a Maybach. This new one builds on that car in all the right ways while offering just a bit more ostentation to let people know you picked this over a Bentley for a reason. This is more than just a bigger S-Class, and now your onlookers won’t need to be in the know to know. And this is before they add the now Maybach-exclusive V-12 engine.

This is Maybach coming into its own. This is Wilhelm’s Phoenix, rising for the third time and finally spreading its wings. The people at Rolls-Royce like to pretend they aren’t threatened by any car that doesn’t cost what theirs do, because they don’t believe any other car does what theirs do. They’d do well to pay attention this time, because people won’t be buying the Maybach just because it’s cheaper, but because the people behind Maybach are finally starting to understand how to do what Rolls-Royce does, but in a refreshingly modern way.

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