The entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City is a sloping downhill left hand turn. Radar cruise control and steering assist is on in the S550. I take my hands off the wheel. Instead of careening into a wall, the big Merc turns the wheel on its own and cruises into the tunnel. Holy crap. Welcome to the future.
(Full Disclosure: Mercedes let us borrow the S550 for a weekend. It was a weekend that involved the Jalopnik staff taking turns driving each other around and using phrases like "I don't want to be seen by the hoi polloi" and "very good, driver.")
The S-Class is always a preview of what's coming to the next generation of cars meant just for the hoi polloi that the big Merc thankfully keeps away. It was the first car in the world with seatbelt pre-tensioners and since then it's been home to as many new inventions as it has murderous dictators.
Like all S-Classes it's big, it's comfortable, and it looks best in a sinister black. So what does this newest one bring to the table? A simply astounding level of tech.
Every single beam of colored light, in and outside this car, comes from an LED. It has an air freshening fragrance system. Seatbelts that adjust to your body. Night vision cameras. The best massaging seats ever in a production car. A predictive suspension. And it's basically semi autonomous at low speeds.
That's the most impressive part. I'm in the Lincoln Tunnel going about 20 MPH in traffic, and the car is just dawdling along, driving itself. I can change the iPod track without worrying too much about whether I'm going to hit a wall or be in a horrible accident.
And that's what makes the S-Class so great. It's never been a driver's car, but rather a car to be driven in. The latest generation allows someone who has the job title of "driver" to be driven in the car, too. That's the ultimate expression of opulent tech. Your goddamn driver doesn't need to drive.
The S-Class is one of many in its price range, but it's the original. It's the standard bearer. What Mercedes does is then followed by BMW, Audi, and everyone else. It's a case where they lead by leading, not by following.
And this latest model is a truly incredible level of engineering contained in a car sized package.
The one place where Mercedes didn't lead with the last generation S-Class was in exterior styling. And that's because of the BMW 7-Series and it's Bangle-butt and other crazy design features. That made Mercedes designers follow suit, and what it created was a design that was simultaneously angular, rounded, happy, and intimidating. It just didn't work.
This new one is simpler and more cohesive, with a trunk that doesn't rise above the fenders and a much softer, more incognito, anonymous look. I like that in a big German sedan. It should be understated, it shouldn't shout or call attention to itself. It should just be.
The trade off is that the design isn't very interesting or exciting. It is an attractive, slightly imposing sedan with elements of art, like the design of the tail lights, the slim LED strip in the headlights, and the three pointed star up front that acts kind of like a sight to take down pedestrians. It's all very understated
The S-Class makes Donald Trump's house look like a gas station bathroom. It makes Bill Gates's house looks like a landfill. And not a nice landfill. The interior is the defining element of the S550, and it is truly in another league.
Everything feels hand made. Every piece of metal feels like it was milled just for this car out of one solid piece and then placed in the car with care by one elderly, skilled German craftsman. Every part of it feels satisfying, like the small buttons to adjust the vents or the window switches or the knob to control the COMAND system, the cross stitched dash. All of it.
Then there are the seats, which offer a hot stone massage and bolsters to coddle you during gentlemanly cornering. It's like having a small masseuse living in your car. There are seven different options for interior lighting depending on your mood or the time of day. The fragrance system, which in this car was "fireside mood," just freshens the air a little bit to get rid of the stank left by that plebe in his Camry.
Scoot Camry. Scoot away.
It's not raucous or wild. It's not supposed to be. But it is effortless. A gentle application of the right foot to the accelerator equals a smooth ascension to the upper echelons of dignified speed.
That's what a 449 horsepower V8 will get you, just a seamless transition from standstill to comfortable autobahn speeds. No drama. No shock. No awe. Just acceleration by sheer power of will.
The S550 weighs about the same as an Abrams tank. Well, actually, that's not true. An Abrams weighs much less than an S550. For a car that weighs approximately the same as a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, it has a surprisingly short stopping distance.
What isn't great is the pedal feel, which is overboosted and not very communicative. I did find at the beginning of driving the car that stops would be shorter or more aggressive than intended, which did not impress the very important dignitaries (Read: Other Jalopnik writers) in the backseat.
If you have a driver, the pedal won't be your problem, so don't worry about it. If you do drive your S550, it'll take a day or two to get used to it. You should also work harder and hire someone to drive your car for you.
The 2014 S550 has this new feature called Magic Body Control. It uses cameras to scan the road ahead and then adjust the suspension in anticipation for the next bump. It sounds like it's incredible and almost impossible to really understand unless you're an engineer.
The issue we had is that our car just didn't have Magic Body Control and we had to make do with the Airmatic suspension that the commoners might understand.
I can't imagine that Magic Body Control is oodles better than Airmatic. It's what I imagine driving a hovercraft, a comfortable hovercraft, across an ocean of whipped cream is like. Small imperfections no longer exist. Big imperfections don't really exist either.
A lot of times we judge ride based on a connection to the road. But the S-Class needs to be based on an insulation from what surrounds you. And on that scale, this is almost perfect. If a Magic Body Control version of the car is as amazing as people say, then it might get an 11/10 on the scoreboard when we drive one.
Handling isn't exactly a thing that the S550 "does." Sure, it'll go around a corner. Sure, it'll do it quickly. But that same insulation from the road that earns it such high marks in ride quality earns it demerits in handling. the lack of feel makes this feel like you're Captain Philips keeping an ocean liner out of trouble.
And yes, there are sport settings for the suspension. And when you put it in that setting, it works semi-competently, which means it doesn't flip over in the corners. But this is not an autocross demon, though I do think that would be hilarious and is now something that we will have to do.
Don't tell Mercedes.
The ZF eight speed is yet to show its face around Mercedes, who instead prefer to stick with some tried and true tech. No, the seven speed in the S550 isn't as good as the ZF box, but it's still smooth and tractable. Shifts aren't as fast, but they are seamless, the perfect way to be squired about town or the highway.
Four words can tell you why this gets a 10. It can drive itself. Read that again. IT CAN DRIVE ITSELF. This is something that I have thought I'd never see in my lifetime just a few years ago, and now I'm eating so much crow that crow is almost delicious.
In low speed traffic, the big Merc follows the car ahead. It lets you sit back and not worry about repeatedly braking or accelerating. At highway speed, you can remove your hands from the wheel if the car detects the lines and the road, and for a brief time it'll do everything for you. After a few seconds it gets mad at you and tells you to put your hands back on the wheel, but it's a magical few seconds.
Watching a wheel turn for you is truly a freaky experience that made me yell. A lot. My passenger in the back seat felt the same way. It's crazy to experience.
Beyond that? It has everything your car has, but moreso. Radar cruise control, night vision camera, fragrance in the HVAC, heated, cooled, massaging seats, seven lighting options, only LED lighting, panoramic roof, two huge LCD screens to tell you everything, a split-view screen, cameras all over the place, a crazy suspension, a built in popcorn maker, and window shades for the rear passengers.
Oh, it doesn't really have a popcorn maker. Sorry.
The audio of the S-Class is astounding in two very different ways. With the stereo off, it's nearly silent in the cabin. You're inside a fortress. This is solitary confinement in car form. It's simply amazing.
Then you turn on the stereo. In this case, it's Burmester's high-end unit. Holy shit. If your source audio is high quality (not a 96 kbps MP3 of Britney Spears), then the S550 will unleash a totally new auditory experience on you. This is the best stereo I've heard in a car, and that includes the big buck Meridien system that Bentley uses.
It even has speakers in the trunk. Obviously, they were thinking of their mafioso buyers who still want to entertain the tied up jamokes they keep in the trunk.
You might think an 8/10 is ridiculous for value here since this is a $127,000 car. I don't think it is. You're getting a car with every luxury feature known to man as well as the ability to drive itself in certain situations. Sure, some cars have even better materials inside or have better tech. But the cars with even more impressive interiors cost at least twice as much and the cars with the better tech are all owned by Google.
The S-Class defines its segment. It is its segment. Everyone else that plays here is just pretending and playing catch up. Mercedes sets the bar at this level, and they know it. The newest S550 just extends that lead and has suddenly made BMW, Audi, Jaguar, et. al. have to reconsider all of their future product plans.
That's how you lead.
Engine: 4.6 liter turbocharged V8
Power: 449 HP at 5,250 RPM/ 516 LB-FT at 1,800 RPM
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
0-60 Time: 4.8 seconds
Top Speed: Gentlemanly
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 4,773 pounds
Seating: 5 people (4 if you want supreme comfort)
MPG: 16 City/26 Highway
MSRP: $92,900 ($127,745 as tested)