Used car buying guide: Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W221)

Mercedes S Class front three quarter

The fifth-generation S-Class was produced between 2006 and 2013

Benchmark, trend-setting luxury saloon gives you world-class luxury from £3000, but watch for unwanted surprises

Putting aside anything bearing the Spirit of Ecstasy or similar, is there a luxury saloon more revered than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class

We think not, particularly in fifth-generation form. Between 2006 and 2013, everyone from celebrities to world leaders got around in them, often sitting behind a chauffeur. These days, it’s an uncommon sight. After all, the W221-era S-Class has long since been succeeded. 

That’s no bad thing, though. Now they have fully descended into the used market and examples are in reach of anyone with as little as £3000. Fancy a V8 one? There are some listed for less than £10,000. 

The extensive engine line-up ranges from the S280’s 3.0-litre V6 to the S65’s 6.0-litre V12, although most buyers opt for the S320 and S350 CDi diesels.

They have 232bhp and 268bhp respectively, with the S320 linked to pre-facelift cars (before 2010) and the S350 to those after. Let’s circle back to that V12, though, because it’s ridiculous – in a good way. With 603bhp and twin turbos at its disposal, this engine pushes the 2.2-tonne S65 from 0-60mph in 4.4sec. 

Even the lesser S63, with a 6.2-litre or 5.5-litre V8 (depending on, again, which side of the facelift it falls under), puts in a sub-5.0sec effort. Numbers tell you only so much, of course, so how does the S-Class drive? It deals with bumps like they don’t exist and is about as quiet as a church. 

The seats are suitably plush, too, with lots of adjustment and, should the original owner have chosen it, a massage function. As for handling, this heavy machine is surprisingly competent. It’s no sports car, but there’s a good level of precision, poise and balance. 

You also get a reasonable degree of feel coming through the steering, even though its weighting is very light. What isn’t surprising is the impressive level of tech. 

The S-Class is always the first to get any new systems that Mercedes produces, and this iteration of it is no exception. To name a few, there’s Active Lane Keeping Assist, Active Blind Spot Assist, Attention Assist and Distrionic Plus radar cruise control, all of which were innovative options at the time. 

It’s a lot, isn’t it, and we won’t sugar-coat the fact that this isn’t a Ford Fiesta in terms of maintenance. Fancy gadgets and air suspension are far from immune to going awry, not to mention there’s the fuel economy to think about. 

Some of the lower-powered diesels can officially average more than 40mpg, sure, but get one of the V8s or V12s and you’ll see much closer to 20mpg. It’s also worth looking into insurance and road tax before you buy to ensure neither comes as an unwanted surprise. 

However, the S-Class is a used car bargain to begin with, so we wouldn’t blame you for stomaching these costs and diving in. 

Nor would we blame you for hiring someone in a nice suit and tie to drive you around in it. This is a car that’s east to enjoy whichever seat you’re sat in. 

What we said then

14 February 2006: “Pretty it ain’t, but the S320 CDi is still a tour de force. Fast and frugal, luxurious yet rewarding, it incorporates brain -melting technology into what remains conceptually a traditionalist’s luxury car. It is the new class benchmark.”

An expert’s view

Nick Young, Southampton Chauffeur Hire: “The S-Class has always been a chauffeur car at the top of its game. I progressed from the very competent E-Class to the fifth-generation S-Class (and subsequently the sixth). I had a S350 L and I found its 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine to be capable and good on fuel, while the long-wheelbase body provided lots of passenger leg room. It came with all the bells and whistles of the time, completing the luxury experience essential for all clients who want the highest-rated chauffeur service and are prepared to pay the premium. Mine was reliable and, though not a performance car, great to drive. I have no notable complaints.”

Buyer beware

Gearbox: Make sure the service regime has been followed. This includes changing the oil in the seven-speed automatic gearbox every 40,000 miles. Check that shifts are smooth as well.

Suspension: Pay attention to the suspension on your test drive, because it should keep the car flat when cornering. If not, a new pump could be required. 

Interior: The Comand sat-nav system allows you to enter only a four-digit postcode, but Mercedes can upgrade it to seven-digit functionality. If this hasn’t been done, it could be worth asking for the work to be completed before agreeing to buy the car. 

Engine: With the diesel engines, listen for excessive rattling at idle. This could indicate a stretched timing chain and, if left unchecked, this can result in a catastrophic engine failure. 

Electrics: Electrical problems are common and repairs can be very expensive. Among the most prevalent issues are failed amplifiers, broken inflating seat bolsters and faulty keyless entry. Use a trickle charger to keep it topped up if you plan to leave the car standing for a long period, as a flat battery can play havoc with electrical systems.

Exterior: Some owners report finding corrosion and blistered paint, so look over the car carefully before buying.

Also worth knowing

You’ll want a long-wheelbase S-Class if you plan on chauffeuring. Perhaps obviously, these cars are denoted by an ‘L’ in their name. Fortunately, they are very common and don’t always come at a premium. Versions range from the S320 L to the S65 L.

How much spend 

£3000-£4999: Early cars in S320 CDi guises. Mileages of around 150,000. 

£5000-£9999: More of the above, with some S350 CDi and S500 cars in the mix. Mileages get closer to 100,000.

£10,000-£14,999: Facelifted S350 L examples in diesel form. Some S500 L and S600 L cars. 

£15,000-£19,999: Mileages drop to around 50,000 and conditions become very respectable. 

£20,000-£24,999: Early S63 L cars enter the fold. £25,000-£40,000 More S600 L and S63 L cars in good nick, plus the S65 L.

One we found

Mercedes-Benz S600 L, 2006, 108,000 miles, £12,995: A 5.5-litre V12 for the price of a new Dacia Sandero? Count us in. True, this S600 has done its fair share of miles, but it’s had only one owner from new. It’s also a long-wheelbase car – a great spec in general, actually.

Oliver Young

Source: Autocar

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