Mercedes-Benz S500 (W221) | The Brave Pill

Can't afford a new S-Class? Here's one for 90 per cent off…

By Mike Duff / Saturday, October 31, 2020

You can accuse Brave Pill of many things, but being fashionable isn't on the list. This column prefers to hunt its prey in the primordial swamps where monstrous engines and scary bills live, definitely not the sunlit uplands where hybrids and lifestylish crossovers skip and gambol. But while this week's selection of elderly beef is no more modish than our usual offerings, the inspiration for its selection is up-to-the-minute – the launch of the brand new W223 S-Class.

As the bloke who also reviewed the new car I'm to blame for this, having spent a fair amount of my time driving around Germany mentally comparing the new S-Class to its predecessors, then wondering just how cheap the equivalent versions of earlier generations had become. The answer, of course, was "enticingly." The first examples of the outgoing W222 generation have already lost up to three quarters of their sticker price, but it still feels too modern and shiny for inclusion here. Hence the decision to skip back another generation to this W221 S500, a car that offers "take my money!" value at under seven grand.

S-Class design has definitely softened over the years. The 2021 car is as understated as a good manservant, to the extent that – on the launch – I sometimes struggled to distinguish it from the facelifted E-Class. The just-retiring W222 always lacked visual thud as well, more of an upmarket airport taxi than leading a dictator's motorcade. But no accusation of modesty could be levelled at the W221, which was seemingly designed to be look as big and imposing as possible, a clear reaction to the bland looks of the 1998-era W220 it replaced. Development work took place alongside the fugly Maybach 57/62 that went on sale a couple of years earlier, but the Mercedes is a far more harmonious piece of design than the munty plutobarge. One that still looks pretty good in these softer and more organic times.

For Mercedes, any new S-Class is more than just a car – it's also a showcase of futuristic tech. In the case of the W221 that included such gee-gaws as the part-digital dashboard, with a rendered speedometer flanked by conventional instruments for fuel, temperature and revs. It also got an improved version of the Distronic radar cruise control that had debuted on the W220, which was now capable of bringing the car to a full stop, and also got Pre-Safe automatic crash mitigation, active turning lights and even the pricey option of an infrared Night View system. All of which still sound pretty advanced 15 years later.

The 2021 S-Class is being launched in the UK with powertrain choice limited to a coin toss between six-cylinder diesel and six-cylinder petrol, but in the mid-2000s Mercedes still knew how to do things properly with a top-heavy range of powerplants. Above the base petrol V6 W221 which almost nobody in Britain bought – and the sometimes agrarian 320 V6 diesel that made up more than 80 percent of sales – there were two V8s (S500 and S63 AMG) and two V12s (S600 and S65 AMG).

Our Pill is the most junior of this senior quartet, with a 5.5-litre version of the naturally aspirated M273 V8 making an unstressed 382hp. Mercedes claimed a sprightly 5.4-second 0-62mph time for the S500 – only half a second adrift of the figure for the e-boosted six-cylinder 2021 S500 – but confirming that would require a shoeing unsuited to the car's laid-back character. Although capable of summoning forceful shove, the V8 was never a vocal performer – although it could doubtless be treated to a fruiter exhaust. The standard seven-speed auto was also much better at seamless deference than rapid responses and will default to pulling away in second gear in its comfort mode.

Looking back to when the W221 was new I find I remember much more about what it didn't have rather than what it did. Beyond the niceness of its cabin and effortlessness of its performance its defining trait was always the lack of fuss or unwanted drama. Refinement was outstanding thanks to double-glazing and lashings of noise cancellation, and the seats made multiple-hour stints feel no more taxing than popping to the shops. It was even more relaxing in the back when being chauffeured, especially in long wheelbase form.

For anyone not needing the face-distorting performance from one of the brawnier engines the S500 was definitely the pick the range, both lacking the diesel's vibrating bottlebank harmonics and yet still capable of respectable fuel economy figures under respectful use. I once saw what I reckoned to be an obviously optimistic 25mpg on a press car's trip computer after a rapid journey over a combination of A-roads and motorways, but brimming the tank proved it was pretty much spot-on.

While the regular V8 is reckoned to be pretty tough when looked after, and lacks the expensive vices of the AMG and V12 versions, there is still plenty of risk running anything this complicated and this old. Although generally considered sturdier than the Festival of Bork which is its immediate predecessor, the W221 still dates from the era when Mercedes enthusiasm for electronic complication ran some way ahead of the corporate ability to deliver it reliably. There are lots of control modules, any of which can check out expensively and unexpectedly, and a low battery can produce a rash of alarming warning lights. The 7G gearbox is also known to throw occasional expensive wobbles at higher mileages.

Our Pill is a good example at what the market for early cars now looks like, a 2006 example being sold by a dealer in Buckinghamshire. The advert is one of those shouty CAPITALIZED ones, but details are all reassuring ones – including a full Merc service history, a fresh MOT and even the promise of an 18-month warranty, which sounds like a very generous offer in this part of the market.

The MOT history is unscary, although with multiple warnings for worn tyres and tired brakes over the years. With an inexpensive S-Class, that tends to come with the territory. The official record supports the mileage, but indicates the vendor's claim that the last service was just 9,000 miles ago means it was also likely to have taken place at least three years ago. Although less spec-laden than many W221s it does have the desirable option of the panoramic glass roof. Understated dark blue still suits the S-Class's muscular shape well, although having been photographed in the rain it is hard to assess condition in the images. The combination of grey leather and chestnut brown wood trim is a bit more dated, but may well still find fans among 'noughties nostalgics.

Savage depreciation is nothing new for the S-Class, of course. Nor is it likely to let up any time soon – check back in 2035 to see what a 2021 example is worth five years inside the ban on combustion engine sales. For a perspective on how compellingly cheap older versions are getting consider the fact that our Pill is being offered for just a few hundred quid more than the "Premium Plus" option pack on the new S500, one that adds such fripperies as an augmented reality head-up display. For those who appreciate proper value, our Pill will be a more compelling reality.

See the original advert here

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