When the Mercedes-Benz spokesman confirmed they believed the new 2014 S-Class was the best car in the world, I couldn’t help but shudder slightly. That kind of statement often leads to disappointment, mainly because our idea of what makes a car “best” isn’t always the same as the average driver. But more importantly, could this four-door sedan live up to the hype?
First impressions of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 are positive. It might not be as distinctive as the slightly challenging previous W221 model, but the new W222 is handsome and slightly understated. It also disguises its size, looking shorter than its 17ft length.
We had the chance to speak to the exterior design chief, Robert Lesnik, who was enjoying what he described as the best job in the world because he had a wide portfolio of projects to work on, stating the difference between the new CLA and S-Class as proof.
He also pointed out that Mercedes is the only car company in the world with two grilles – one with the three-pointed star on the hood, and the other with the large star in the grille. And while the new E-Class gets both options, he felt the more refined S should receive the classic grille treatment.
Interestingly, this was Robert’s first assignment at Mercedes, his design being selected three months after he joined the company in 2009, giving him another four years to create the production version.
“This car is all about proportion,” he stated. “We wanted the details to be seen close up rather than from afar, so the defined wheel arches have gone but it has the classic long hood and rearward cabin of a RWD car.”
“After the A-Class and CLA designs, people were worried about how the S-Class would look,” he continued, “but people have fewer expectations of the smaller cars, so we could push the envelope further. Whereas there have been six generations of S-Class so we needed to be more evolutionary. We worked hard to get the proportions right and hide the fact it’s slightly longer than the previous model. In fact, everything is built around the rear seat passengers for legroom, headroom, audio, etc. Many of these cars are chauffeur driven so we needed to get that right while incorporating the new safety regulations, which is one of our biggest challenges.”
The new S-Class undoubtedly has presence, as testified by the number of motorists scampering out of our way as we barreled down upon them. And yet the cabin remains serene in all but fast corners.
Although the weight of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 is currently undisclosed, it’s claimed to be almost 220 lb lighter and 50% stiffer than before. Yet it’s no featherweight. Even in Sport mode, the car leans into turns. It remains relatively flat but you sense the mass moving below you, which is a shame because the 449hp V8 biturbo gets you moving along nicely.
Slow down, select Comfort, and the Merc regains its composure. In fact, Mercedes has given it Magic Body Control, which frankly sounded rather silly until it was properly demonstrated: approaching a speed bump at respectable speed, the car’s stereoscopic cameras (first seen in the 2014 E-Class) read the road, see the obstacle and discreetly raise the front suspension in anticipation. The car then glides over the hump as if it were, well… magic. It describes the effect perfectly since you feel absolutely nothing.
The car has sensors like we use our eyes and ears. This new generation flagship deploys radar, infrared, ultrasound and its dual cameras to create a 360˚ picture of its surroundings. It can distinguish between animals and humans, even at night. It can read the road surface and adjust the air suspension as we mentioned, and even detect approaching traffic and take steps to avoid an accident if necessary.
Steering assistance goes to another level. The electrical system (there’s a nice weight to it, by the way) doesn’t only exist to park the car for you… It will gently nudge you to keep the car safely within lane demarcations. If you ignore it and are veering into oncoming traffic, the brakes are applied on one side to return the car to its correct lane. It doesn’t actually say: “I can’t let you do that, Dave.” But the level of awareness is uncanny.
The engineers have taken it a stage further by offering the first glimpse of autonomous driving. Although regulations don’t allow this in the pure sense, the cruise control on the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 can now follow a car or remain in a lane at a pre-determined speed and distance, while steering through turns itself. There are some safeguards to ensure the driver is giving regular inputs but we experienced a low-speed corner taken behind another car and coming to a halt without any input from the driver. Regarded as a safety device, it seems to provide the opportunity for the driver to occupy himself with other tasks, but it’s a glimpse of the future.
The new 2014 S-Class is all about soothing its occupants, relieving them of the drudgery of congested driving. It does so by employing more than 20 interacting systems that include parking assistance, blind spot monitoring, night vision, intelligent cruise control and intelligent headlights. Add to that a Burmester audio system and you have a great long distance cruiser. However, these aren’t the S550’s greatest trick.
Navigating the onscreen menu, you can instruct the infinitely adjustable seats to provide you with a hot stone massage, altering the pressure and location to suit your aches. There’s also a scent diffuser in the glovebox that wafts your selected scent on a gentle breeze of ionized air, creating a relaxing spa environment.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that you can also select the color and intensity of electric light, although not a single bulb is deployed in the new S. It houses 500 LEDs that, of course, last longer and require less energy.
If the right option boxes are checked, the double-glazed cocoon brings 43.5˚ reclining rear seats like those in the first class cabin on an airplane. They can similarly massage, heat or cool you and, in our car, were trimmed in a “quilted” leather. This was actually diamond-shaped perforations rather than full quilting but the effect was appreciated.
And Benz claims the elegant and functional cabin is virtually hand-built. Where faux is a no-no, it uses real leather, wood and metals throughout. It’s library-quiet and aerodynamically efficient thanks to a drag coefficient of 0.24, which beats a well-known Japanese hybrid.
Trunk capacity of 18cuft gives the 2014 S-Class an advantage over the Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series, yet it doesn’t look awkward in proportion, even on the long wheelbase versions that will be standard in the US.
As the best-selling car in the sector, and with 20,000 advance orders, it looks as if the 2014 S-Class is guaranteed success. And there’s an AWD 4Matic version around the corner, plus a V6 hybrid model to follow.
Since the demise of the ultra-luxurious Maybach brand, the S-Class is left to fill the rather small void, with rumors of a model along the lines of an S600 Pullman waiting in the wings. And while Europe will get several other engine options, including a thrifty diesel hybrid, all models will be more efficient than the outgoing ones. Prices are also expected to be close to the outgoing models.
So is this the best car in the world? Rolls Royce might claim more luxury, BMW might be more sporting, but nobody seems to have more technology. The 2014 S-Class may well be the safest car in the world, and for many of us that would make it the best…
2014 Mercedes-Benz S550
Layout longitudinal front engine, RWD (4Matic AWD optional)
Engine 4.7-liter V8 DOHC 32v biturbo
Transmission seven-speed automatic
Suspension four-link/air springs f, multi-link/air springs r
Brakes 13.2" discs f, 11.8" r
Wheels & Tires 18x8", 245/50 R18
Peak power 449hp at 5250rpm
Peak torque 516 lb-ft at 1800-3500rpm
Top speed 130mph