What It Is
Ultra-luxe sedan, for executives looking for functional comfort.
The 2014 S-Class is crammed with tech, features, and rich materials.
This level of luxury doesn't come cheap. Six-figures.
For comfort, luxury, and safety, the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 sets the standard among competitors.
The free market speaks loudly, and in the world of luxury sedans, none have been more desirable than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. To test its latest expression of ultimate luxury, Mercedes sent us to Toronto, a city that like the 2014 S550, is quietly spectacular. Toronto is also very international, and with over 500,000 models sold--mostly in the U.S., Europe, and China--the S-Class is a global savant. It's also returned with several features that make this the most complex, advanced, and possibly bizarre model yet.
For one, the S500 that we drove--a model that will be sold as the S550 in the U.S.-doesn't need you to actually drive; it can manage the task on its own. For all we've heard of autonomous driving one day arriving, it's already here. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is capable of driving while you twiddle your thumbs. Using sensors generously placed around the body of the vehicle, the big cruiser can detect and stay within its lane, can keep a safe distance, and both brake and accelerate based on traffic. The catch? It will only do this for 10 seconds at a time, and it gets grumpy and yells at you if you test the 10 second rule: the steering wheel vibrates, a red icon appears by the gauges instructing you to resume control, it will even beep--all manners of annoying behavior--because while the technology is already here, the laws allowing it to are not. So the car can help you out, but it legally can't drive for you. Yet.
There are also all of the niceties and absurdities you'd expect from the nicest and most absurd sedan, priced considerably south of the Bentley and Rolls Royce sedans of the world. Expect starting prices of $100,000 when the S-Class goes on sale in September, with available options and packages quickly escalating that figure should the consumer desire. Every model will be powered by a capable 455 hp twin-turbocharged V-8 engine; more engine choices will surely appear later. There are features like Magic Body Control (not an illicit drug, despite the name), that uses sensors to detect pot holes or speed bumps or road imperfections, and adjusts the suspension to account for those imperfections. What does this mean? A really, really smooth ride. Yet despite these useful advances, it's some of the less rational options that we find most intriguing. There are four air fragrances to perfume the cabin, and a massaging function in the seats based on the hot stone principle. There's so much stuff in fact that it's easy to forget the S-Class is an actual car that you drive around. When we did, we found even more to like.
WalkaroundWalking up to the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550, you first notice its proportions. It's big. An immediate sense of its width and length are conveyed. The S-Class is commanding, but it doesn't scream. It looks solid and substantial. As head of design, exterior, Robert Lesnik pointed out to me during a walk-around, a larger, prominent "3-D" grille immediately communicates that the S-Class is recognizable as a Mercedes. The S550 is also the most aerodynamic sedan in the class, but that's something you wouldn't notice. The beltline is moved up slightly in front and lowered in back, to give it a prominent stance.
And as Lesnik mentions, the perception of quality is there, while you really have to get up close to appreciate the details. A Mercedes-Benz badge is embedded in the taillights, something you wouldn't notice in passing or from afar. And functional details like fins on the inside of the side mirrors are hidden, but help with aerodynamics and with detracting rain, as do raised bars on each side of the windshield, that capture rain and direct it away, pushing it over the car instead of onto the side windows.
Sitting DownThe 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 is meant to be an executive cruiser, but how you perceive the interior depends greatly on your perspective. Drivers will appreciate the visual breadth of the cabin. We always poke around once seated inside to see where automakers employ tricks to cut costs, but here you're greeted by rich, plush materials. As Dr. Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz cars said, "everything that looks like metal, is metal." Both the driver and passengers have massaging seats, with six functions, two of which include heat "based on the hot stone principle." We tested them out, and while not a replacement for a good Shiatsu, it's better than anything we've seen in a car.
The seats can be easily adjusted to an ideal position, while bolstering and pre-tension seatbelts (that tighten in anticipation of an accident) wrap you in for the ride. A quick scan around the cabin and the full complement of wood and stitching one would expect is present, but the cabin still looks clean, uncluttered and airy. A dual panoramic roof that is all the rage these days only helps the cause. Controls and dials come at a premium, which works to give you the sense the S-Class is a lot simpler than it is, with a lot of features and technology "hidden." A Burmester 24-speaker sound system ensures everyone will have crisp, premium audio Rear-seat passengers get a "first-class" flight-cabin feel with seats that recline 43.5 degrees, media screens on the back of the front seat head rests, and Mercedes even outfitted the back with fold-out trays for both passengers. The trays are perfect for a laptop or iPad, and each S-Class can serve as a dedicated WiFi hotspot. Since owners (especially in countries like China) won't be driving, it's important that the rear is at least as nice as the front. Our favorite part? The nap-inspiring, impossibly comfy pillow-top headrests for those in the rear.
Because the features we've already detailed were apparently not enough, Mercedes added seven selectable ambient light settings, and one of our personal favorites, air fragrance perfumes. Currently there are four scents: Nightlife Mood; Sports Mood; Downtown Mood; and whatever Freeside Mood is. The Sports Mood fragrance had a vaguely floral aroma. We could take or leave the air fragrance, but our only complaint with the interior is with the driver's sun visor. It folds, but it doesn't slide, a feature that probably costs south of a dollar, but its oversight means you may have sun glaring down on one side of your face at certain times of the day. Nitpicking? Not in a $100,000 car it isn't.
DrivingDriving the new S-Class is a little like driving a future that has already arrived. Take the active driving aids, for example. Three times I aimed for the center divider and took my hands off of the wheel--don't try this at home, of course--and two of those times the S550 hastily pulled me back in to my lane. Once I did it myself, the car might have been ready to take over but I was very close and going pretty fast, so I didn't chance it. We also got a taste of Magic Body Control, which turns out to be aptly named, as it did magically control the body of the vehicle. The system uses sensors to detect things like pot holes and speed bumps, and adjusted the suspension to minimize the effects felt in the cabin. And it really works. Multiple times I saw cars in front spring up and down going over dips and the like, while we just cruised miraculously straight on, as if we were on a flat road. Very curious and strange, and to see it in action lets you know you're in a hyper-advanced vehicle.
Figuring out how to set the self-driving settings however, will take a few moments and some fiddling around, but once there, the systems impress. Aside from all of the techy fun, the Mercedes-Benz S550 gets up to speed pretty quickly in sport, with a slight lag, while the eco mode really tapers back the throttle, meaning when you press the gas, expect a second or so of lag from the time you ask for more power to when the car delivers it. Despite real sports car performance numbers--0-60 mph in 4.8 seconds; 455 hp--the S-Class is meant to be a big, powerful cruising sedan, and it is. Braking was good, the steering was tuned for a comfy cruiser, power is ample, and if you really do want a sportier ride, the AMG version promises to soon follow. While the S-Class is undoubtedly the nicest to be chauffeured in, the Audi A8L and BMW 750Li still offer a little more fun for the driver.