They are three of the most impressive S-Class models in Mercedes-Benz’s history. We take them for an elegant comparative drive on the other side of the spectacular Franschhoek Mountain pass.
Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Images: Danie Nel
Isn’t it fascinating how car companies can go through great change and release new models that put an intriguing twist on decades of heritage, yet somehow retain the core values of their ancestors?
When the 222-series S-Class was unveiled, hopes were high that it would follow the form of its predecessors and set the benchmark in its segment, pushing boundaries with new technologies that will eventually find their way to the C-Class, E-Class and even some smaller models. The car delivered on the promises of its maker, and so it came as little surprise that the S-Class was given the 2014 World Luxury Car award.
Where does this leave the S63 AMG, then? In my book, at the time one of the world’s best luxury cars – with an extra sporting edge. The V12-powered S65 AMG is arguably the ultimate model in the range, but the S-Class and the V8 have history. Indeed, 12-cylinder power did not stir the grand four-door Mercedes until 1991 in the form of the 140-series 600SEL.
This takes nothing away from today’s photoshoot, however. Here we have gathered three generations of S-Class (116, 126, and 222) with their respective range’s most powerful V8s, to celebrate over four decades of one of the best known car names in the business.
Eight by three
The 6.9’s clock is still a few hundred miles short of 30,000 (48 000 km), which surely makes it one of the lowest mileage examples in the world. The interior, at first sight, looks simplistic. But turn the key and suddenly a few lights reveal themselves below the speedometer and rev counter. The dashboard has a solid feel and structure to it. The air conditioning system is situated above the Becker Mexico radio, while the speedometer, which is marked in both miles and kilometres, immediately reminds you of the car’s British background.
The driver’s pew is comfortable, while the carpet covering the transmission tunnel and footwells affirms the cabin’s cosy nature. The dashboard is remarkably shallow, finishing not far behind the A-pillars, so the front occupants have ample room ahead of them, which contributes to the interior’s roomy feel.
Chasing the horizon
The fact that the rev counter’s red line starts at around 5 200 rpm, maximum power (210 kW) arrives at 4 250 rpm and maximum torque (550 N.m) is produced at 3 000 rpm, suggests the manner in which one should drive to extract the best behaviour from the three-speed auto-equipped 6.9. I press the throttle pedal to the floor several times and marvel at the way this near 40-year old limousine just lifts its nose ever so slightly (thanks to the hydro-pneumatic suspension) as it leaps down the road. Should you have deleted the 6.9 badge on the bootlid in the 1970s, you might have surprised a few sports car drivers of the time with this ultimate sleeper. With its M100 engine code, the 6.9’s V8 was based on the already monstrous 6,332cc unit used in the 600 Grosser and 300SEL 6.3.
This car’s Michelin 215/70VR14, steel belted radial tyres are period correct and were actually acquired only a few years ago. Pushing this older saloon through corners almost seems wrong but, keeping the car’s weight in mind, should you trim your speed before a bend, you will be surprised at the level of composure this near two-tonne car displays. There is more body movement than in a modern car, but this sense of flowing with the road adds distinct character and appeal to the 6.9’s drive.
Parking the car, switching off the engine and listening to the rear aerial retract into the bodywork, I jump out of the driver’s seat and open the rear door. As I sit down, I can feel and hear how the springs deform and shorten under my weight. Head, shoulder and legroom are all in good supply and I imagine three adults would not encroach on each other’s private space too much, something dignitaries of the day would have appreciated.
A more ordinary flagship?
Next to the green 6.9, the white, 1990 560SEL looks a little less special. However, it has a hidden weapon in the form of its alloy, 5.5-litre M117 V8, the launch of this flagship saloon coinciding with 126-series S-Class’s facelift in 1985. This being a post September 1987, non-catalyst example, it left the factory with 221 kW and 455 N.m torque, meaning a 6.8-second run to 100 km/h and a 250 km/h top speed. As on the 6.9, Mercedes granted the 560SEL hydropneumatic level control suspension.
Open the SEL’s door and a familiar cabin design and instrument layout welcomes you, but because the V126 followed in the footsteps of the V116 (‘V’ denoting a long-wheelbase model), there are a number of changes and upgrades seen in the trim and buttons, and the general layout, which appears more cohesive and less cluttered. Despite having 16 000 km more on the clock, the SEL’s interior feels even sturdier and more solid than the 6.9’s, while the dashboard is similarly shallow, so front occupants still have a serious amount of room. Space for rear passengers is also similar to that in the 6.9, although headroom is down a touch, possibly because of this car’s sunroof.
The rev counter’s 6 000 rpm redline suggests a more technologically advanced engine, while the transmission has also gained an additional forward gear. However, you should not think the M117 motor needs more revs to get into its stride because it is still in the lower two-thirds of the rev range where this V8 is happiest. The ride quality is equally impressive, although there is an additional layer of control to the way the 126 handles compared to the 116.
The owner bought this three-pointed star in 2001 with only 29 000 km on the odometer. Since then, he has added 30 000 km by taking the old S-Class on regular journeys and participating in Mercedes-Benz Club South Africa’s long distance road trips, the wide and open roads of South Africa perfectly matched to this flagship limousine.
As beautiful and imposing as the V116 and V126 are, it is the W222 S63 AMG that gets the most attention. Its age, or rather lack thereof, is visible in the exterior design. The body looks bolder and stronger, and on closer inspection of the front, you notice the camera, sensors and radar system for the cruise control. In terms of technology, the S63 AMG is simply on another planet compared with its predecessors.
Surprisingly, the AMG’s front quarters don’t feel as roomy as those of the earlier generations. The thick and high transmission tunnel divides the cabin in two, while the large digital screens on the dashboard take some getting used to. But once the driver’s door has sucked itself shut, you are encased in a virtually soundless cocoon. The soft seat engulfs your body while your head is cushioned by a wonderfully soft headrest. The flowing lines of the dashboard and lack of any unnecessary buttons have a visually soothing effect on both the driver and passengers.
In terms of engine size, the 560SEL and S63 AMG are close – 5,547cc versus 5,461cc respectively. However, two and a half decades of research and development mean that from the moment the key is turned in the AMG, the similarities end. The S63’s V8 biturbo engages with a distinctive snort from the AMG exhaust system, yet despite this early drama, the soft throttle response in Comfort mode means moving away from rest is utterly smooth.
With 430 kW and a monumental 900 N.m torque, it isn’t long before things liven up, though.
Using only 2 000 rpm, you will make surprisingly quick and effortless progress, but far greater potential lies higher up the rev range. Switch the transmission and suspension to Sport mode, and immediately the car firms up while the seven-speed automatic responds by dropping a gear or two, encouraging you to place your fingertips on the metal paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.
Bury the throttle pedal into the carpet at low speed and the ESP system kicks in as the tyres struggle to deploy all that torque to the road. Select the next gear and the onslaught simply continues.
Rest your arm on the heated, Affalterbach badged armrest, adopt a more laid-back seating position and settle into a fast (ish) cruise and you can’t help but smile at the dual personality of the S63 AMG. Although it is light years ahead of the 450SEL 6.9 and 560SEL, it shares a common theme, and the owner of the latter two agrees. “They were simply the super saloons of their time,” he said.
V116 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9
Weight: 1 935 kg
Engine: M100, 6.8-litre, V8, petrol
Power: 210 kW at 4 250 rpm
Torque: 550 N.m at 3 000 rpm
Top speed: 225 kph
0-100 km/h: 7.4 seconds
Gearbox: three-speed, automatic, RWD
V126 Mercedes-Benz 560SEL
Weight: 1 830 kg
Engine: M117, 5.5-litre, V8, petrol
Power: 221 kW at 5 000 rpm
Torque: 455 N.m at 3 750 rpm
Top speed: 250 kph
0-100 km/h: 6.8 seconds
Gearbox: four-speed, automatic, RWD
W222 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG
Weight: 2 045 kg
Engine: M157, 5.5-litre, V8 biturbo, petrol
Power: 430 kW at 5 500 rpm
Torque: 900 N.m between 2 250 - 3 750 rpm
Top speed: 250 kph
0-100 km/h: 4.4 seconds
Gearbox: seven-speed, automatic, RWD