2018 Mercedes-AMG S65 Review: When Too Much Is Just Enough
Some say the priciest S-Class is unnecessarily excessive. They’d be wrong.
Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Mercedes-AMG S65 sedan.
There are those out there who would argue the Mercedes-AMG S65 is a perfect example of wretched excess, an unnecessarily ostentatious example of wealth that makes little sense in a Mercedes-Benz lineup that already includes the AMG S63 and the Maybach S 650. In fact, quite a few of those voices can be found in automotive media—including such esteemed fellows as our own chief auto critic, Lawrence Ulrich.
But there's a simple reason for that: Traditional automotive enthusiasts—a group that includes most car journalists—aren't the S65's intended audience. Never have been. It's easy to see why most of us assume that about this mighty luxo-rocket; with a twin-turbo V12 beneath that mighty prow packing horsepower numbers starting in a six and torque figures that lead off with a seven and a price tag comparable to a new Ferrari, the biggest dog of the S-Class line has the stats needed to qualify for supercar status.
No, the Mercedes-AMG S65 is actually for a different group beyond fast-car guys and gals with money to burn. Simply put, it's made for those who simply expect the best, because they've always had the money to have it. It's not just the kind of car Jack Donaghy would drive; it's the car Jack Donaghy would drive while quietly singing Tina Turner to himself. When these folks walk into a Mercedes dealership, they just say, "What's the best car you've got?" The salesperson points them to the S65, and they say, "Great. I'll take it." They drop their AmEx Centurion on his desk with an audible clang, the dealership runs the card, and the new owner drives off with their new quarter-million dollar Mercedes.
Or, more realistically, said buyer has their bespoke S65 delivered to their house in about two months' time, after it's been built to their exact desires in Sindelfingen. These folks don't buy their clothes off the rack...so they're damn sure not going to buy their cars off the showroom floor.
- Hate making choices? Then the S65 is for you, because there are very few options to choose from. That's because, at this Mercedes's $230,000 starting price, nearly everything on the S-Class options list comes baked in. (The pricest option is the $8,950 track-spec carbon-ceramic brakes, but they make as much sense on an S-Class as a Burmeister stereo in an F-22.) Of course, you'll still have to choose from 14 paints outside and 16 leathers and trims within...and that's assuming you don't want to go off-menu and have the car matched to the color of your shar-pei's fur.
- The V12's power delivery redefines "effortless." Sure, having two fewer driven wheels and two less gears than the V8-powered S63 means it's not as explosive off the line, but once the S65's tires hook up, it blasts forwards as though propelled by some sort of otherworldly propulsion system that defies the laws of physics. There's no angry roar, no sense of violence—just an ever-building wall of force pressing against your backside that seems like it'll never let up.
- The proactive curve-tilting capabilities of the Magic Body Control active suspension sound utterly spooky, in principle; canceling out the camber of bends by leaning into the turn sounds far too smart for a simple car. In practice, the system is utterly transparent; you won't realize it's working until you realize your coffee hasn't splashed through the lid. (It's also one of the few features that set the S65 above its V8-powered S63 brother; the system isn't currently compatible with the 63's all-wheel-drive system.)
- The S-Class's interior sets the standard for modern automotive guts. A Bentley Mulsanne or a Rolls-Royce Phantom might be made with even more TLC, but it would take a discerning eye and an anal demeanor to pick out any ways the S65 falls short of them. And those cars can cost two or three times the price.
- Sure, it sounds sybaritic and douchey, but I'll say it anyway: The S-Class has the best seat massage function in the automotive world. You can tack hours onto a road trip before stopping to stretch with the helps of these babies.
- All the haters do have something of a point when it comes to this car as a value proposition. If you're being driven instead of driving—as many S-Class owners are—an S450 or S560 will deliver every bit a sumptuous a commute for half the price, even loaded up with all the luxury options needed to reach parity with the fully-loaded S65.
- Depreciation on 12-cylinder Benzes, as any regular Bring a Trailer reader can tell you, is a bear. You can find minty-fresh three-year-old S65 sedans with less than 20,000 miles on the clock selling for less than $140,000 every day of the week on eBay Motors or duPont Registry. Or, to put it another way—each mile you drive will cost you about $5 in depreciation alone.
- It doesn't sound as exotic as V12 fans might hope. The sport exhaust purrs politely when you press down on the gas, but never comes close to the audio drama of either AMG's V8s or most other modern 12-cylinder engines. It's not as though AMG's engine gurus can't coax dulcet tones from a 12-pot; just listen to the Pagani Huayra, which uses a different version of the S65's motor.
- I still very much have to fight the urge to write "Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG" whenever I refer to it.
The 2018 Mercedes-AMG S65, Ranked:
Hauling people: 4/5
Hauling stuff: 3/5
Curb appeal: 4/5
“Wow” factor: 3/5
The Bottom Line:
The Mercedes-AMG S65 is not a car meant to be understood by ordinary folks. It is a car so special, anything one would do with it feels like a waste—like a beautiful summer weekend, where nothing seems good enough to fulfill its potential. Gallivanting down the autobahn, blitzing across John Ford's Western landscapes, strafing back roads with a precision that belies this car's massive wheelbase—even your favorite drive doesn't seem quite worthy.
Yes, an S63 would be just as enjoyable in any of those circumstances. But it wouldn't be as special. The S65's value and virtue comes from not just its mighty, increasingly-rare type of motor—it also comes from the simple fact that it costs more. And is therefore rarer, and thus more valuable. It's basically a self-fulfilling prophecy of price. (That shaky proposition also likely has a lot to do with the falling-rock depreciation curve, but hey.)
The folks who have the luxury—literally and figuratively—of driving an S65 on a daily basis don't have some higher ability to appreciate beauty or a better understanding of pleasure, of course. Money doesn't buy taste, of course, and it doesn't make the person who has it any more intelligent, creative, or wise. The few hundred people every year who buy a new Mercedes-AMG S65 are no better than you, or me, or any other human being. They just know that they like the finest things in life...and have the money to possess them.
The 2018 Mercedes-AMG S65, By the Numbers:
Price (as tested): $230,495 ($241,795)
Powertrain: 6.0-liter twin-turbo V12, 621 horsepower, 738 lb-ft of torque; seven-speed automatic transmission; rear-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy: 13 miles per gallon city, 22 miles per gallon highway
0-60 MPH: 4.1 seconds
Electronically limited top speed: 186 miles per hour
Likely top speed without the governor: