And yet despite the scorn ladled on the vulgarity of such a car, it was - almost reluctantly in some quarters - heaped with accolades earmarking it as the Best Car in the World, and has held the title of the world's biggest-selling luxury car for some years with 370,000 sold worldwide - a staggering 42% of its segment. Scarcely a news clip of a head of state procession goes by without the ubiquitous S-class making an appearance, and it even gained fame in a macabre way as the car in which Princess Diana died. Now, eight years on, there's a new S-class. True to Mercedes' stated intent, it is smaller than the old - 75mm shorter and 31mm narrower - but at a shade over five metres overall for the short wheelbase model (5,158mm for the limousine) it is still one of the biggest cars on the road.
But better packaging has meant the cabin is actually 17mm longer - 37mm longer in the limousine - and, at 1,530mm, there's more shoulder room than in any comparable luxury saloon. It translates to a car that looks less gargantuan, less slab-sided, than the old, and it weighs less too - up to 300kg less dependent on model. The svelte new lines - styled by Briton Steve Mattin - disguise the new S-class's dimensions and make it a far more acceptable, more discreet, proposition than before.
Yet the new S-class is not just about size. Its specification reads like a passage from a science fiction novel: air suspension, Distronic radar-assisted cruise control, 'Keyless Go' (of which more later), sat-nav, audio, telephone, CD changer and TV receiver functions contained in a simple dash-mounted control module, air-cooled seats and voice-activated control of the carphone. All will be available by the end of the year, a list that sends a cold shiver through most rival manufacturers' technical departments.
There are also eight airbags (two front bags, four side bags and two window bags in front), a massively strong bodyshell structure with larger crumple zones front and rear, an automatic child seat detector in the front passenger seat, five three-point belts and Mercedes' award-winning Brake Assist emergency stop system - enough for the S-class to pass all present and future EC crash test requirements with ease.
At launch on March 4, three engines will be offered with either standard or long wheelbases - 3.2-litre V6 (224bhp), 4.3-litre V8 (279bhp) and 5.0-litre V8 (306bhp). Later this year, a 2.8-litre (193bhp) V6 entry model joins the line-up, while the range-topping S600 with a new 6.0-litre V12 goes on sale in 2000.
Surprisingly perhaps, in view of the technology that has gone into the new car, some models are also less expensive than the cars they replace. With an entry price of £49,140 for the S320 (or £43,640 for the S280 when it comes on stream later this year), it is £1,200 less than the equivalent old model. The S430 V8 costs £57,140, while at the top end, the S500L costs £74,040 - exactly the same as previously - but the new car comes laden with extra kit which, pound for pound, makes it a much better value proposition.
Notably, long wheelbase models cost just £5,000 more than standard, despite the fact they come with heated rear seats, Parktronic parking distance sensor, electrically operated passenger seat from the rear, an electric rear blind and power adjustment for the rear seats, not to mention an extra 120mm in the wheelbase and 37mm extra rear legroom. This may not sound a lot, but, believe me, there is simply masses of space, especially in the limousine: it is the only car on sale where, with the driver's seat fully back, my feet can't touch the pedals - and yet there's still ample rear legroom.
Mercedes claims more than 30 technical innovations in the new S: full air suspension with selectable ride height and adaptive damping, automatic headlamp switching, Distronic radar-based cruise control, ventilated seats and window bags are just a few examples. But perhaps the most interesting is the Keyless Go system, which uses a 4.5mm thick microchip card in the format of a conventional credit card which can be kept tucked in a shirt pocket or wallet.
Whenever the driver's hand touches the door handle or boot lid latch the car unlocks, and once in the driver's seat a push of the touch-start button on the top of the gearlever fires the engine. The locking and unlocking procedure works on the same basis as the infra-red codes in a regular remote locking 'plip', thereby safeguarding security.
It's clever stuff, and just think of the convenience: no more fumbling for keys, and because of the chip card's compact size you can keep it concealed indefinitely. Available from the summer, Keyless Go will cost £970 as an option on all models.
Perhaps the most noticeable improvement in the new S-class is in the way it drives. The AIRmatic suspension provides a magic carpet ride, while the system's adaptive damping firms things up to make the new S-class a far more enticing drive than before. About 20% of S-class cars are chauffeur-driven in the UK, though Mercedes anticipates a greater proportion of owners will want to drive the new model because of its more youthful image. They're unlikely to be disappointed. Though this is still a large car, it feels nimble and lithe in a way the old car never was, and can be hustled along twisting roads with ease, while cornering and roadholding are far more predictable and surefooted than before.
At speeds of over 140km/hr (about 87mph), the ride height automatically lowers by 15mm, reducing drag and thus improving fuel consumption. It also lowers the centre of gravity which adds to the car's stability at speed. Furthermore, ride height can be raised by 15mm for negotiating rough roads or 'sleeping policemen', though if speed rises above 50mph it automatically reverts to standard height.
There's no lack of performance in any variant, but the V8s are noticeably more refined than the V6, and quicker in the mid-range. The S320's 220bhp is enough for a top speed of 149mph with 0-62mph in 8.9secs, while the S430 and S500 are both electronically limited to 155mph. Acceleration times are just 7.3secs and 6.5secs respectively - impressive for such heavy cars. Combined fuel consumption is also improved over previously, and for the class of car the figures are respectable. The S320 is good for 24.6mpg, the S430 23.0mpg and the S500 21.1mpg.
Mercedes' five-speed automatic transmission is a paragon of smoothness and fine response, and is now fitted with a 'Tiptronic' function, allowing the driver to manually select gears. The installation is one of the neatest around, requiring no deviation from the 'D' position in the shift gate: up and down changes are selected simply by 'tipping' the lever to left or right.
Service intervals are set according to ASSYST, Mercedes' 'Active Service System' which varies the service interval according to how the car is driven. It means a car used mainly for motorway work can have its oil change interval extended to as much as 30,000km (or 18,642 miles). Mercedes-Benz UK has 2,000 cars allocated for 1999, of which a significant proportion are already sold: earliest delivery for an S-class ordered today is estimated at about 13 months, but Mercedes is confident these lead times will reduce as production steps up.
It's equally confident of shifting some 60,000 cars and vans this year, up from 52,000 in 1998, and the S-class is anticipated to take second place in the UK's luxury car market behind Jaguar, a position currently occupied by the BMW 7-series. In Europe, Mercedes expects to take the number one slot within the year.
With the threat of another economic slowdown just around the corner, Mercedes is destined to launch the new S-class in a shaky UK car market that's set to contract in 1999, but it will rely on marque reputation and sheer engineering excellence to carry the new car through. There's little doubt it will succeed, too: those worried over the old car's image in a politically correct environment need have no such fears with the new car's leaner and more up-to-date persona. It redefines the luxury sector.