The Mercedes-Benz S-class series saloons and the coupes latterly known as the CL class have a long and distinguished history. The fifth generation series, announced in 1991, succeeded four other ranges of the same name, the first of which dated back to the Sixties. The 'W140' shape, as Mercedes' engineers call the 1991-1999 S-class model, took the world's motoring press by storm when it was launched. Though it attracted criticism from some quarters for its bulk and for being a 'symbol of excess' it was the yard-stick by which all other luxury cars, including the then-new Lexus LS400, were judged during the 1990s.
The technology it brought kept rival makers' engineers busy stripping examples down to see what made them tick. They even had double glazing to reduce cabin noise and ultra violet light intrusion. In 1991 Stuttgart moved the game on even further, with the launch of the all-new sixth generation S-class, also bristling with technical features that others scramble to copy and which eventually filter down to cheaper models. This S-class design continues today.
The fifth generation S-class saloons arrived in September 1991 though the older coupes carried on until their replacements arrived in October 1992. This S-class was the last of the truly large Mercedes-Benz passenger cars ever to be designed by the factory, but it doesn't feel particularly huge when you're hustling along behind the wheel unless you've just stepped out of a sixth generation car.
As well as the proved 4.2 and five-litre V8s, this time, a mighty six-litre V12 flagship version was also offered - in saloon and coupe form. In 1993, the badging was changed to reflect new Mercedes corporate policy. All models were now identified by `S` tags - including a new entry-level S280 variant. The range next had a mild makeover in 1994 with some styling tweaks in a brave but vain attempt to make the cars look smaller, accompanied by some upgrades to the standard equipment - this was in the days when M-B still had the cheek to charge extra for a stereo! Side airbags and automatic wipers activated by a rain sensor were added in June 1996 and a year later a high-level brake light became standard.
Coupe versions started out badged with an SEC suffix, from August 1993 were confusingly badged identically to the saloons with an S prefix and finally, in June 1996, became the separately identified CL class.
As for standard-setting, the list of design features pioneered by S/CL-class models is long and distinguished. Airbags, self-closing boot lid, the electronic stability system that prevents you entering corners too fast, just for example. For the sixth generation saloons sold from early 1999 (the CL coupes arrived early in 2000), there was more. Now you could have seats that gently massaged you as you drove, air suspension and 'Distronic', a new radar-activated cruise control system that automatically prevented you from driving too close to the car in front. Many of these ideas were unfortunately optional but you know what to look for on the used market, don't you?
This time round, with criticism of the older 'Der Grosse S-class' predecessors still ringing in their ears, economic uncertainty was not something the designers ignored. So that potential customers could not be accused of wanton wastefulness at a time when the Board was tightening its belt, the new S and CL-classes were leaner, greener and bristling with clever technology which could be used to justify such opulent purchases.
For a start, thanks to engine modifications and the loss of 300kg over the previous model, the latest models were 13 to 17% more frugal with the powerful five-litre V8 versions offering an optional cylinder cut-out system that automatically changed from eight to four cylinders at cruising speeds, improving fuel consumption by a further 7%.
The bottom line is that the S-class and its relatively rare CL sibling is still in many ways an executive market leader. Both fifth and sixth generation cars make safe, sensible used buys guaranteed to impress the neighbours and valet parkers alike.