The 1998 S-Class attempted something of a rebalancing act after the critical wobbles experienced by its predecessor. Today it is as forgotten as it was forgettable.
The German general election of 1998 was fought against the backdrop, not only of increased European integration, but growing pains on the domestic front stemming from the 1990 reunification project. With incumbent centre-right Chancellor, Helmut Kohl campaigning on a continuity mandate, the opposition Social Democrats portrayed themselves as the ‘new centre’. The results saw Europe’s strongest economy vote for change, with Kohl, Germany’s longest-serving Chancellor defeated by an SPD / Green Party coalition, lead by Gerhard Schröder.
In Stuttgart-Sindelfingen a similar ideological shift was taking place and while the old order wasn’t quite out on their ear, they were being edged steadily closer to the door. None more so than veteran Mercedes Design Director, Bruno Sacco, the man who had presided over the Swabian carmaker’s stylistic heyday.
But by the mid-’90s, the company he helped visually define was finding its previously unassailable position at the automotive pinnacle under growing threat. Sacco, whose ‘vertical affinity’ design ethos had been discredited amid the poor reception accorded to the overwrought W140 S-Class, might still have been in office, but like an embattled politician, he was no longer in power.
The loss of influence was palpable, especially following a succession of new models which traded the marque’s former timeless appeal for something more ephemeral. With the lower orders of the model range renewed, it was the turn of the flagship Sonderklasse to receive the new dressed-down aesthetic, courtesy of Sindelfingen’s favoured sons, Peter Pfeiffer and Autocar’s 1997 ‘Designer of the Year’, Steve Mattin; the Briton fresh from the triumph of the previous year’s A-Class.
Like the German government, whose outgoing leader personified an era which clarified Germany’s pre eminent economic status within Europe, and presided over German unification, the W140 marked the closing of a chapter. A vehicle which lest we forget, Car magazine once described in the following terms. “The S-Class reeks of quality – quality of every kind, a quality which runs to the very core of its soul.” Somewhat po-faced it might have appeared, but from its fin de siècle aesthetic to its cost-no-object engineering ethos, the ‘140 was every last centimetre the patrician Swabian flagship.
The W220 S-Class, introduced that August, symbolised a formal shift in both look and feel. Seemingly built on a modified W140 platform, the W220 was slightly more compact externally, but maintained the outgoing car’s generous cabin dimensions. A great deal of effort was expended in reducing the visual heft of what was still a very large vehicle, with most critics lauding Mercedes’ design team for leavening what had been widely criticised as being an S-Class too far.
However, most of the car’s visual lightness stemmed from the 220’s styling scheme, which eschewed the ‘140’s lineal form language for something a good deal more curvaceous. Also aiding the visual illusion was the lower, ‘faster’ roofline, pronounced taper towards the rear of the vehicle, not to mention the distinct sculpting of the bodysides.
This informality was also carried into the W220’s cabin, where the dashboard, in an ill-advised reflection of the entry-level A-Class, was designed to a similar undulating theme. The standard-fit and liberally applied eucalyptus wood finish did little to raise the tone either, appearing cheap-looking and in typical Mercedes-Benz fashion, somewhat ersatz. Burr walnut, elm and maple finishes were however also available.
But while the W220 presented a less formal proposition, one which seemed to chime with the immediate pre-milennium period, its studied lack of gravitas ensured it dated quickly and aged poorly. Its position at the pinnacle of the Swabian ziggurat wasn’t aided by the 2000 announcement of the W203 C-Class, a car which appeared for all the world as a shrunken carbon-copy, a pratfall its predecessors had hitherto avoided.
Despite being the habitual technological tour de force, the W220 also was the first S-Class to suffer significant durability issues, partly owing to the sheer amount of electronics controlling so many aspects of the vehicle’s functionality and its advent amidst Daimler-Benz’s “anni horribili” when it came to matters of build integrity.
The W220 marked a new era for Mercedes. One where the advent of a new Sonderklasse was no longer marked by a breathless sense of wonder. Following this iteration, the S-Class became like everything else – predictable, slightly mundane, somewhat throwaway. And while enthusiasts continue to revere the W126, fervently debate the merits of the W140, few apart from true believers even recall the W220. A car which appeared to enjoy a mayfly’s career in Benz terms and has since faded without trace.
Everybody can remember former Chancellor, Helmut Kohl – after all, giants tend to live long in the memory. But Gerhard Schrōder? I had to look him up. But unlike the S-Class which coincided with his reign, his time at the top was comparatively short-lived, while in the W220’s case, it simply looks that way.