No really, you read the subject correctly. Obviously, this is apples to oranges, but thought it would be an interesting post for other owners to read. Why? This is meant to share impressions that stood out from recent time spent running around in the MB flagship as a current-generation ES owner. The focus being on the Merc, with some references to the ES where it makes sense.
Starting at about twice what was paid for an UL ES with everything, I can reasonably assume other ES owners also did not
cross shop the S550. I actually have quite a lot of misgivings about Mercedes as a brand, and while I can say I can't see buying any of the company's products now, I couldn’t say "I will never buy or drive X" because I find that limiting. Neutrality was an objective coming into this comparison.
For example, one of the things that I actually do like about the company and particularly this model is that you can easily trace its exterior design heritage. You could lay out a row of photos of the same car year after model year and see how shapes such as the headlamps, the grill, the taillights have all evolved over time. No “random mutations” where a model year popped out looking like it was some other car company’s baby. I think the significance there is that there exists a long-established design direction that is for the most part unswayed by what is currently in style and that they really do value the history of their products which is inherent to their vehicles today.
Externally, the ES has also evolved similarly in the short time it’s been around. Even the “new” grill looks like a logical extension of the old when comparing front-ends side by side. In contrast, other Lexus vehicles like the GS have had major breaks or disconnects between its current and past forms. What is left and ends up defining each model exterior for Lexus appears to be the shape of their respective greenhouses or window silhouette which the company has kept more or less the same across generations of each model. One greenhouse design detail I would never expect from the S-Class or any MB vehicle, (but has been copied from BMW by every other luxury car playbook) is the hofmeister kink
Visually the S-Class has imposing dimensions combined with a sleekness that do the most to to draw attention than any of the individual curves or character lines of the car. Shoulder to shoulder with the ES it sits wider, considerably longer than it is taller than the ES (though that could be adjusted to a small degree). It has a presence that succeeds in projecting elegant, stately and conservative. It is also very curvilinear in its design versus Lexus’ current theme of concave and sharp angles.
Inside is definitely, as car reviewers love to describe, limo-like. In back it feels like twice the legroom of the ES with probably the most comfortable seats in a car that I can remember. Compared to the ES 350, the seats in the Lexus are comfortable in such a way that you’re not actively thinking about the seats, whereas the seat in the Merc is so comfortable that you actually do take notice of just how comfy it is. Soft but very supportive, like tempurpedic foam that isn’t hard-cold. Actually the most interesting feature of the seats were the dynamic side bolsters (and not the massage programs) which instantly cuddle you when turning to keep you from being thrown around. This happens in a surprisingly quick and simultaneously weird and natural way (it's a subtle hug from a car!).
For a large car, it felt a lot more maneuverable and composed than I expected. I’m sure rear tires were steering or some other form of technology was helping make that happen. It never feels like you were actually driving its size, that is until one of the rear wheels goes over a curb in a turn out of a parking lot. Driving over the same roads (which are in need of major repair) in the S-class, bumps were smoothed out more evenly than in the ES. On the other hand, I was more aware of road or maybe tire noise in the S-class than in the ES (!) Wind noise volume was about the same. I thought both points spoke very well of the isolation that Lexus has been able to achieve in the ES. The V8 also made its presence known in a way that was annoying during slow acceleration. I would put the noise in the same nit-picky nuisance category as the whine which is sometimes present in the ES when accelerating slowly. It is by no means loud, but I prefer the way Lexus mutes their V8 in the LS to a very distant low-frequency roar compared to how MB is filtering theirs.
When it comes to in-car technology/infotainment, I think it’s Lexus that should take a cue. The Command system and interface is more responsive and a smoother experience all-around than what Lexus currently offers. I have no issue with Remote-Touch which I actually like, it’s the lag that is often present in the Lexus systems that really should be eliminated. (How long should it take to load Enform?) Of all the electronic parts in a car, surely putting in a faster graphics card or processor would be a cheap but worthwhile upgrade for all Lexus models!
Minor details that I found interesting: the automatic high beam system on the S550 gradually sweeps up when engaging whereas the adaptive high beams on the ES instantly come on, the tach and speedo were fully virtual and massive, coming back to the ES, the gauges actually felt small. Lastly I actually liked the soft close doors.
What I don’t miss about the S-Class? The 19mpg V8, the physical size of the car. Just as my preference is not to be the sole occupant in an SUV, I’d rather not feel like a chauffeur in the S-class (or the LS or the 7-series, or <insert flagship of make>). However, for its price, if the car did come with a driver, I could definitely appreciate and get used to being a full-time passenger in a comfy land yacht like the S550.