Last year, just 13,303 S-class sedans were sold in the US. That’s virtually zero in a market that ate up 15.6 million new vehicles. However, the S-class has been with us for more than 50 years, so it feels like we see one every time we turn around. Or flip on the TV; the S-class goes with diplomats, tycoons, movie stars, lottery winners and crime lords, and the cameras follow.
No matter how they earned their rides, S-class owners have fine taste in cars. The S-class represents the mechanical, electronic and esthetic best of the world’s premier automobile company, and damn the cost. It was completely re-imagined for 2014, and an S550 now starts at $94,400 and, with a few clicks on the order form, goes nowhere but up.
(It’s the S-class because there are two more models: the hotrodded S63, at $141,450 and up, and the ultra-rare S600, with a V-12 engine and a starting price of $166,900.)
The heart of the S550 is a 4.7-liter V-8 with two turbochargers. Despite its aluminum skin, an S550 with 4Matic all-wheel drive, passengers and a tank of gas weighs more than three tons, yet 449 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque—fed through a seven-speed transmission—provide startling acceleration and Autobahn-worthy speed. Thanks to a suspension built around air cushions, plus double-glazed windows and plenty of insulation, it feels like the world is moving past the car. The S550 may be the only top-dog German sedan that doesn’t beg to be driven at full whack; it gives equal satisfaction in parade mode.
The variety and complexity of the S550’s features can be intimidating. In fact, however, the system is so highly developed and so logical that it’s pretty simple to use. A crescent array of buttons on the console at the driver’s fingertips focuses the computer on one function or another—navigation, radio, media, telephone, the seats, the car. Then, pushing, twirling and nudging the big black controller knob steps us down through menus and sub-menus to reach about everything imaginable.
The things we touch often, such as the stereo, climate control and phone, are still accessible via ordinary pushbuttons, and the seat controls are on the doors, just below the windowsills. But the Active Multicontour seats are not only heated and cooled, they also inflate to keep us in place through corners, massage us and adjust 16 ways, so mere manual switches are no longer enough; fine-tuning has to be done with the computer controller.
Surprisingly, the driving itself isn’t all that adjustable. The default Eco setting makes the car feel like it’s trying to pull itself out of deep mud; we soon learn to select Sport automatically. There is no mid-range Normal setting, just as the only choices in ride quality are Comfort and Sport. More, it seems, would be superfluous.
On the long list of standard and optional features (such as the cabin scent spritzer, the heated armrests and door panels, or the stereo upgrade that costs $6,400), the most gee-whiz item offered on the new S550 is Driver Assistance. Switch it on, and it connects the adaptive cruise control to the collision-avoidance and lane-keeping sensors and takes over not just the throttle and brakes, but the steering too—at least on highways marked with lines. Eerily, the wheel moves in your hands as the car guides itself through bends while scanning for obstacles.
But don’t pick up that Wall Street Journal just yet. After 11 seconds, a red warning appears on the dash; five seconds later, a chime sounds and the genie lets go of the wheel. So consider this only a taste of self-driving things to come.
Is the car really worth the money? Leaving aside the expense of manufacturing in Germany, the value of the dollar and the cachet of the Mercedes-Benz star, the S550’s price reflects the cost of attaining that final, nth degree of sophistication and maturity. It’s like pushing past 200 MPH, where the last few miles cost as much as the first 175. The S-class is where new automotive technology often debuts.
So few of us will ever buy an S550 that there’s no call to wrap this up with some value judgment. Those who want and can afford an S-class are going to have one, no matter what I say about it. So I’ll say just one thing: Bravo!