Mercedes-Benz's extensive and successful overhaul of the world's best-selling luxury sedan, the S-Class, aligns perfectly with their unwavering aspiration to be the best car in the world. With competition from all sides, demands from an ever-growing Chinese market who prefer to be driven and the demise of the company's Maybach marque, a big leap forward—and upward—was required. From its technological advancements to its industry-leading interior, the new S-Class (known internally as the W222) delivers in just about every way.
Being the world's best selling luxury sedan makes it difficult to make a grand statement with the exterior's appearance, and the redesign is at its least impressive here. Lines are tighter and the shape is simpler, it's slightly taller, wider and more athletic. This is a universally good looking car, but its outward appearance is not a jaw-dropper. An industry-leading 0.24 drag coefficient (lower than that of the sleek CLS at 0.26) is a major engineering accomplishment. Due to an increased use of aluminum, it's also lighter and stiffer than the outgoing S-Class, which led to a decent increase in fuel economy.
We've become jaded consumers that are accustomed to quick and constant changes and updates, to the point that car interiors seem to lag behind. Even the newest cars can feel old. This S-Class comes to life once you get inside; its cockpit ushers in a new era of dashboard design not seen since the Aston Martin Lagonda's 1970s digital extravaganza. Only this time, it works. The dash is the automotive version of a Bloomberg terminal with its pair of 12.3" TFT displays—the left display showing typical gauge data and the one on the right for infotainment. The 2014's interior both looks and feels very modern.
The cabin received an extensive upgrade with stitched leather, LED-only lighting, seats with "hot stone massage" mode, heated armrests and door panels, and an optional rear-seat First Class package—reminiscent of the Maybach—with the most recline offered in any car. With its flat bottom, the two-spoke steering wheel is another highlight that is the source of much debate.
The top-of-the-line Burmester High-End 3D Surround Sound system, with its 24 laser-etched aluminum speakers, sounds as spectacular as it looks. Some of the speakers have changeable LED lighting. The S-Class also has the innovative FrontBass system that was first introduced in the SL. The dashboard's inset entertainment console makes watching movies or going online easy to do. All in, the nearly plastic-free cabin appears remarkably more upscale.
Every flagship redesign packs in the firsts and there are several notable achievements here. The Air-Balance package (a $350 option) provides the cabin with "active perfume atomisation." A small jar of fragrance (one of four available scents or your own) sits in the glovebox. This is not your standard gas station air freshener; the system monitors the air and emits the fragrance when needed (which can also be manually controlled)—its claim is to never inundate or overwhelm. Other features include rear seat cup-holder that have both cooling and warming options.
New driving assistance packages offer myriad ways to help control the car, from the lane assist to systems that can drive your car in traffic, break suddenly for pedestrians or cross traffic and park your car. Bumps in the road disappear with Magic Body Control and Road Surface Scan, a system that constantly scans the road and adjusts the suspension. More than 500 LED lights—not a single incandescent bulb—add all kinds of aid. Brake lights are dimmed when it's dark to not inconvenience drivers behind you. Lights in the front can illuminate the side of the road while staying out of the way of oncoming traffic. Night View Assist Plus scans the road ahead for people and animals, and can actually tell them apart. When it sees a person, a cluster of the LEDs in the headlight shines a spotlight on them and blinks, alerting them to danger. When it sees an animal, the spotlight stays on. These warnings also automatically appear in the display.
The S-Class lacks the exclusivity and some of the refinement found in the Bentley Flying Spur and Rolls-Royce Ghost, but at around half the price they're clearly in sight. With the S 600, AMG and stretched-out Pullman version coming in the next year, Mercedes-Benz will offer serious competition for luxury sedans at the highest end of the market.
For 2014 only, the S 550 will be available in the US in both rear-wheel and 4Matic versions starting September 2013. Pricing is expected to start just below $100,000; fully loaded will retail closer to $150,000. European models include the S 300 BlueTec Hybrid, S 350 BlueTec, the S 400 plug in Hybrid and S 500. The S 500 plug-in Hybrid is expected to debut later this year. Visit the S-Class online to learn more.
Dashboard images courtesy of MB, all others by Evan Orensten