2014 Mercedes-Benz S-class / S550

2014 Mercedes-Benz S-class / S550 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-class / S550
First Drive Review

The last word in luxury limos hasn't been spoken until Mercedes-Benz has had the floor. Herr Dr. Benz’s firm was making the preferred shipping containers for the mostly unelected elite when Audi was merely a business plan, when BMW was in the bubble-car business, and when the word “lexus” was just badly butchered Latin. No company in this market has more experience catering to finicky buyers.

Thus does Mercedes now deliver its latest take on the executive-level sedan after just about everybody else, from Hyundai to Hongqi, has taken a shot. Over the years, Benz and its closest competitors have reduced power, handling, and comfort to commodities. Supplying them in overabundance is the table ante now, so the strategy with the new S, code-named W222 and initially available in the U.S. as the S550 and S550 4MATIC, has been to think of what else the rich desire even before the rich think of it themselves.

For example, absolutely nobody knows he needs two reverse gear ratios or stereo-speaker mood lights in seven driver-selectable colors. At least, not yet. Or seat coolers that suck (air) for four minutes before they blow, which does indeed chill your sweaty backside more quickly. The “hot-stone massage” feature, also optional, feels as if somebody were poking you with warm snooker balls. And the softer pillows on the headrests of the two optional, electrically reclining “executive” rear chairs are like dunking your head into clotted cream. Americans even get special maxi air conditioning that can channel a nor’easter at your chest, something Europeans hate, apparently.

Bottom left: What, no hot towels? The S’s business-class rear seats are among the many amenities when you fly Air Mercedes-Benz. Bottom right: The gauges and the central screen share a huge rectangular bezel.

There’s more, with Mad Men–marketing names such as Magic Vision Control for wiper blades that incorporate tiny washer nozzles so your vision isn’t momentarily obstructed by the usual splurge of water. The Air-Balance system perfumes the cabin with your choice of atomized scents, “a world first,” trumpets the 154-page press kit. A fully outfitted W222 has more than 100 electric motors onboard.

However, the S class’s most byzantine feature must be Magic Body Control, supplied with the optional hydraulic active body control (ABC) suspension. It employs the car’s stereoscopic, or twin, cameras to “see” bumps in the road ahead and then relaxes the suspension to the consistency of overcooked macaroni in time to float the body over the obstacle. It is a truly bizarre feeling to expect to be tossed into the roof at 30 mph over a speed bump, only to feel…nothing. How Europe’s crowned heads would have treasured this feature a few centuries ago as ruts and diseased peasants lay in the path of their chaise-and-fours!

Magic Body Control is a bit of a one-trick pony, though, as it works best at low speed and on the kind of long, flat-topped speed bumps that are common in Europe. The cameras, which basically scan for shadows or scene contrast, can’t see pavement fissures and everyday wheel bouncers such as manhole depressions, which arrive too suddenly for the system to react. And bad weather blinds its eyes.

Although it’s tempting to dismiss the new S as a collection of supernumeraries on what is still just a car for going from hither to yon, such exhaustive gadgeting is what automakers at this level need to distinguish themselves in a crowded market.