The cream of the crop? Bentley Flying Spur vs Mercedes S-Class

It would take a road tester with many more miles on the clock than yours truly to tell you when it was first claimed that the Mercedes S-Class might just be the best car in the world. Well, now there’s a new one, and it’s emerging into a rapidly and radically changing car market. So, might that assertion still be the case?

What is meant by that claim is that this big Benz might be the most technologically advanced and roundly accomplished new car of any currently in production. Sadly, it’s not so good as to have been bewitched by Ronald Weasley’s dad: better value than a Fiesta, faster than a Porsche, brilliant off road, never needs petrol, capable of low-level flight etc… If Mercedes did autonomous driving a bit more like Harry Potter’s flying Ford Anglia did it, this car might be a little easier to warm to.

The point is, as it has heralded so many world-first technologies over the years, the S-Class has remained so utterly word perfect at its particular job – of being the world’s defining limousine – that little else has come close to challenging it for stature. But, for almost all of its long life, the S-Class has also been Stuttgart’s ‘special’ halo model. It has occupied an apparently unassailable place in the company’s model hierarchy that made it subordinate to nothing. And yet, for the new version, that position would appear to have been assailed – and not just once.

There are now several ways to spend more money on a new Mercedes than on an S-Class. You might well do so on a fully loaded AMG performance saloon, estate, GT or sports car, for example. There are Mercedes’ Maybach-badged super-luxury options to consider, too.

And there will soon be yet another high-end, in-house rival for the S-Class’s long-held showroom primacy: the car company insiders are already describing as the ‘new flagship’. Unlike the new S-Class, the all-electric EQS, due later this year, does have an all-new model platform, as well as the lure of zero-emission running and that incredible-looking, full-width, all-digital dashboard you’ll have probably already seen in pictures. Cars like that inevitably hoover up research and development resource that might otherwise have been directed at other expensive projects. They just have to.

Exactly where that leaves the regular S-Class is what the next few pages should help to establish. It’s a car that’s been built on heavily revised mechanicals, and infused with a lot of new digital cabin technology. Its design has been handled with deliberate conservatism as it always is, because this car has to be easily recognisable in the airport departures taxi queue: “Shall we go straight to the casino? Oh look, there’s an S-Class – we’re winning already.”

But classic and conservative or not, this is also a car from which you just expect giant-slaying potential when you depart on a long convoy drive, as we just have, with a suitable superluxury rival in tow. Our test started in inner-city Birmingham, ended up in the Brecon Beacons and sought out every type of urban and out-of-town road we could find in between.

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Does a 626bhp 6.0-litre W12 beat a 326bhp diesel straight six? Of course it does – but in a luxury car it’s because the bigger engine just does drivability, mechanical charm and woofling, whispering refinement better, not because you need all the power. Very rarely would you use all of the Mercedes’ 516lb ft, never mind the Bentley’s 664lb ft. It’s the greater proportion of that peak torque that the Spur makes available, so suavely and accessibly, on part throttle that makes the difference.

The S-Class is lovely to just mooch about in, until its size becomes an obstacle (Mercedes UK will offer four-wheel steering on higher-end S-Classes, but doesn’t yet on the more affordable ones). But, except for the occasional moment of brusqueness from a driveline out of which Crewe is still evidently knocking the quirks, the Flying Spur is a delight.

In light of all that, I don’t think we can consider Mercedes’ biggest executive saloon the world’s most convincing, least superfluous, most fitfor-purpose and most perfectly executed luxury car. Not any more. The market has moved some way beyond this car’s capacity to dominate it like it used to. The kinds of cars made by the likes of Bentley now are much more technically advanced and widely accomplished than they ever used to be.

But the S-Class also seems to have lost some of its old technical and functional superiority, and some of its pervading sense of self-assurance. Feels like the end of an era, doesn’t it? And right now, we’re all very interested to find out exactly what comes next.