Apart from being the oldest automobile brand in the world, Mercedes-Benz is known to have introduced many innovations in car technology and safety. In 1972, it officially named a series of specially-outfitted sedans as the Sonderklasse or Special Class. The S-Class became the flagship series that showcased these innovations.
1972-1997: The S-Class before the S430
In 1972, Mercedes-Benz introduced the S-Class series with the W116. These sedans were designed an obvious emphasis on safety placed above style. They had round-edged bodies to reduce pedestrian injury, deeply-channeled windshields for better visibility and rain management, and ribbed tail light lenses to remain clearer of dirt. Inside, there were safety padding around the windows, steering wheel, and dashboard. The headrests even sloped in the center to provide space for the occupant’s head. Due to the oil crisis, the W116 series would eventually come in three different engine variances: the fuel efficient V-8, the three-liter 5-cylinder turbodiesel, or the high-performance, limited-production 450 SEL 6.9 engine with an optional anti-lock braking system.
In 1979, Mercedes-Benz premiered the next S-Class series, the W126, which had much better aerodynamics than their predecessors did. With these sedans, the brand debuted its patented modern airbag in 1981. Seven years later, the W126 had passenger side airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, and traction control. Buyers could choose from a 2.8-liter straight-6, 3.8-liter V8, five-liter V8, or diesel engine models. In 1986, the W126 also became the first S-Class with a mid-cycle update. In it, the engines became a three-liter straight-6 as well as a 4.2-liter and 5.6-liter V8s.
In 1991, Mercedes-Benz introduced the W140 series. Evolved from innovation and competition, they were over-engineered with too many features and options. After their 1995 mid-cycle facelift, the W140 had separate low and high beam reflectors, clear turn signal indicator lenses, as well as an electronic stability control system.
1999-2007: The W220 S-Class and the S430 model
In 1999, Mercedes-Benz introduced the W220, the first sedan-only version of the S-Class and the first cars in the world with a pre-emptive safety system that could avoid disasters. The brand also premiered its COMAND input system, airmatic air suspension, active ventilated seats, in a smaller rounded body and roomier interior than the W140. However, it was during this time that Consumer Reports named the S-Class as “the least reliable luxury car” as it garnered a poor rating and had several early W220 models recalled.
The 2002 mid-cycle facelift gave these more aerodynamic front-ends with a more upright angled grilles, transparent headlight housings, and restyled lower intakes on the front bumpers. This update also redesigned the taillights and addressed several issues in the interior.
From 1998 until 2006, Mercedes-Benz made the S430 trim level available as part of the W220 series. This particular model could seat five people and was classified as a large car by the Environmental Protection Agency. It ran on a 4.3-liter V8 engine with a horsepower of 279 and a torque of 295-pound-feet. As with all W220s, it ran on automatic transmission but buyers could choose between the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system, the 5-speed 5G-Tronic transmission, or the 7-speed 7G-Tronic transmission.
2007-2012: The S-Class after the S430
In 2007, Mercedes-Benz introduced the current series, the W221 S-Class that’s slightly larger than all its predecessors, with several different variations of the I4, V6, V8, and V12 engines. These sedans have notable assistances for adaptive highbeams, blind spots, maintaining the speed limit, unintended lane departures, and drowsiness prevention.