The First-Class Luxury Sedan

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Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

What if, on certain days, you needed to get somewhere in your car, but you just didn’t feel like driving? First thing you’d do is go out to your local Mercedes-Benz dealer, slap down a credit card, and purchase a 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550, a car built as much for the driver as it is for the passenger reclining in the back seat reading the ‘Financial Times’ on an iPad. Then, on those lazy-feeling days, you’d send a text message to your chauffeur, who’d steer the S550 under your manor’s portico, and open the door to the rear Executive seat, which has, among many exquisitely rendered delights, the most comfortable headrest ever designed.

The S550 is Mercedes-Benz’s swaggering flagship, a slick behemoth with the brains of a surgeon and the graceful footwork of a varsity athlete. It is nearly silent at all speeds, especially the fast lane of the autobahn, where we recently drove it. Going on sale in the U.S. in September, the new car is lighter, stronger, and more efficient than the previous generation S-Class, which was unveiled 10 long years ago. The 2014 model’s new 4.7-liter V8 has a modest boost to 455 horsepower, and hits 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds. Sadly, the three other very compelling drivetrains coming off the Benz production line – including the S400 hybrid, the S350 BlueTec diesel, and the S300 diesel/hybrid – aren’t coming to the States…yet.

For now, sitting in that Executive seat, which borrows graciously from the lie-flat business class seats of many an airline, reclines to a restful, nearly supine state, and coddles your head in the aforementioned headrest. An “ottoman” deploys beneath the seat and supports the feet. From this position, the owner/passenger/Global Titan has control of the sound system and the interior ambiance (there are seven different color styles to choose from, and four different aromas, including “Nightlife Mood”). The stereo is a 3-D sound designed by Burmester, and is concealed behind arabesque speaker covers that subtly rotate when you turn the system on.

In the words of S-Class chief engineer Herman Storp, who is known in the hallways in Stuttgart as “Herman the German,” the buyers of this car are the highest demo in the world.

“In the past, it was a toy of the super-rich,” Storp says. “Today, it is a central pillar of the global economy, and a highly effective office on wheels.”

The S-Class also deploys a stunning array of next-gen driving technology that has many jaw-dropping elements. First, there is Night View Assist Plus. This uses a combination of infrared and stereo cameras and radar, and it generates such a clear view of what’s in front of the car that it distinguishes between wildlife and humans, and highlights them each on the windshield in front of you. It will also identify the road surface and adjust the shocks and suspension before you or your driver roll over a speed bump the size of a moose. As if by magic, you feel nothing.

Distronic Plus uses the same camera and radar system to demonstrate that “autonomous driving” is technology that has arrived in a show of German engineering. The S550 follows the car ahead seamlessly and tracks the lane you’re in so well that if you drift just a bit, the wheel will “suggest” corrections and actually steer the car between the lines for up to 10 seconds – about enough time to text “lol” to your girlfriend. Under the right conditions, the S-Class could steer itself indefinitely, though federal regulations still prohibit it.

In the heated horse race between the Big Three German luxury automakers, the new S-Class is a serious stride forward for Mercedes-Benz. In the super-luxury, or GKL, segment, only two cars can get near the S550 – the Audi is consistently improving its gorgeous A8L, and BMW’s 7-Series continues to sell well despite having gone some time since a refresh – but nobody’s approached the same technological levels. And only the Benz offers four different interior aromas. Talk about a new car smell…. [$95,000;]

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