June 25, 2014

News & Features

Auto review: Tech in Mercedes S550 only accents luxury

New York Times News Service

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The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 starts at $93,825. (Mercedes-Benz)

Pull up to the 7-Eleven in this car and you feel like Leonard Bernstein arriving at Lincoln Center. Ride in the back and you're escorting Julie Andrews to the Oscars. The doors are substantial enough to repel anything Occupy Wall Street throws at them, and it's effortlessly powerful enough to outrun any Securities Exchange Commission subpoena. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic sedan is so advanced it should be in geosynchronous orbit over Gstaad, Switzerland.

The new S-Class wears hyperbole well. It isn't merely a new version of Mercedes's largest sedan but a technological leap beyond its ancestors. It's built differently, ambitious in its details and utterly indomitable in how it behaves and performs. It's not the car of the future, but it's the car that some car of the future will be measured against.

Yes, it's luxurious, but concentrating on that is to miss its fundamental brilliance. It's a new and better Mercedes, but the liturgy is familiar. It's the only car in the current line that comes only with a traditional radiator shell and tristar hood ornament. The car is too dignified and temperate for a big corporate logo in the middle of its grille.

While the entire skin of the new S-Class is aluminum, a steel cage structure undergirds and supports it. The result, Mercedes asserts, is more rigid and crash-resistant than the previous-generation S-Class, but slightly lighter. At 124.6 inches, the wheelbase carries over from the previous generation, and the overall length is still pegged at 2.5 inches beyond 17 feet. And at 4,773 pounds when equipped with the optional 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, it's a road-bound dreadnought.

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(Mercedes-Benz)

It's not a car that draws attention, but it has a mature, reassuring presence. It's the steel and aluminum embodiment of adult supervision: George C. Marshall at the State Department or Dr. Zorba at County General Hospital. It's more cleanly elegant than the previous S-Class, but hardly flamboyant.

Of course, Mercedes has adopted LED lighting, but it doesn't define this car's face the way Audi's Glitter Gulch headlights do on the A8. It's the huge radiator-shape grille that announces this car even at night. Down each side, the flanks are sculpted to minimize the appearance of mass; the back end tapers to a tall fantail.

Around the world, the S-Class is offered with engines ranging up from ordinary V-6s and diesels. In the United States, however, only gasoline-burning twin-turbocharged V-8s and V-12s are offered. A hybrid will eventually be added.

The high-performance $142,425 S63 AMG 4Matic sedan uses a 5.5-liter V-8 rated at a thundering 577 horsepower. The $222,925 S65 AMG's 6-liter V-12 runs at a mind- and spine-boggling 621 horsepower.

There's also, starting at $167,825, the S600 with a 523-horsepower version of the 6-liter V-12 for buyers who want the creamy 12-cylinder experience without the high-performance pretensions.

With a base price of $93,825, the S550 seems like a bargain compared with its six-figure near-twins. And with a 4.7-liter version of the direct-injected, twin-turbo V-8 rated at 449 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, it's thickly muscled. Behind the engine is a seven-speed automatic transmission feeding the 4Matic system.

The $3,000 premium for 4Matic seems almost cheap. But adding in items like a $4,500 Premium Package, a $5,900 Sport Package, $4,450 for Nut Brown Nappa leather upholstery and the adorably named $2,600 Warmth and Comfort Package brought the test car's bottom line to $121,345.

When warmth and comfort are on the options list, cuddly is unlikely to be part of a car's character. And there is a coolness that's immediately apparent about the new S-Class. Mercedes proudly hails this as the first car that doesn't have a single bulb in it — everything is lighted with LEDs. Opening the door brings with it one of five selectable lighting themes. I nicknamed them Mirage, Bellagio, Wynn, Encore and Golden Nugget.

That noted, the rest of the cabin is spectacular. Conventional gauges in the dash have been replaced with two 12.3-inch high-resolution screens that reconfigure themselves according to what the driver is doing at any moment. If the night vision system is operating, for instance, the screen directly in front of the driver displays what's in front of the car in high-contrast black and white instead of the usual oversize speedometer and tachometer. The screen to the right usually displays navigation information and the ventilation settings.

But the dazzling light show and video screens are a sideshow. It's the sweeping shapes of the door panels and dashboard, accented with eyeball vents and finished in various metallic surfaces, several different gorgeous woods and leather that feels almost like velvet, that elevate the S-Class beyond the competition, which is often even more expensive.

Throw in heated, cooled, 16-way adjustable front thrones — you can order up to six massage programs including hot-stone effects — and the most comfortable back seat not found in a private rail car, and the effect is astonishing.

A cabin atomizer infuses the air with four scents: Nightlife Mood, Sports Mood, Downtown Mood and Freeside Mood. They all smell like money to me.

Start the engine and it settles into nearly silent idle. A wand on the steering column electronically engages the transmission, and then, it seems, the rest of the world moves while the car stays put. The isolation of the passenger cell is so thorough that the sensation of movement itself is muted. There is even a second reverse gear to more gently guide this ship out of port. But as speed grows, the S550's talents become increasingly apparent.

Tuned to produce its peak torque at a low 1,800 rpm, the S550's engine is never stressed or strained in normal operation. At part throttle, the transmission's seven gears change almost imperceptibly as the engine approaches 3,000 rpm. At full throttle, the engine will run to its operating limit of 6,300 rpm. But what's the point of doing that in this car?

Mercedes says the S550 will glide to 60 mph in only 4.8 seconds, and it's hard to believe anyone who can afford this car would be in that much of a hurry.

Mercedes has updated and redesigned its Airmatic air suspension for the S-Class, and it feels as if it obliterates road bumps as it hovers over them. Other cars in this price class may be more in the vein of a sport sedan, but the S-Class — the S550 at least — is about isolation from the road.

That isolation doesn't come with an unmoored or floaty ride. It's as if the Airmatic system creates an alternate reality to the road. And that, I might add, was in an S550 lacking the optional Magic Body Control technology that scans the road surface ahead with cameras and then adjusts suspension damping to match what it sees.

There should be more feel through the electromechanical steering, and there's no way to overcome the S550's mass as it winds through corners. But when it comes to driving serenity while covering great distances over highways, there aren't any better cars. It's so good, in fact, that it hardly needs a driver at all.

That's because Mercedes has embedded a system called Intelligent Drive that will drive the car — in 16-second bursts, at least. It's the logical extension of existing technologies like the radar-based active cruise control, lane-keeping systems and accident-avoidance sensors.

With the Distronic cruise control set, the Intelligent Drive system uses its sensors to monitor cars in front, track the lines that define lanes on a highway and scan for unexpected obstacles. With your hands on the steering wheel, you can feel the system adjusting as the S550 enters gentle curves or reacts to other cars entering in front of it. But the real fun comes as you take your hands off the wheel and the car continues to drive itself.

Then, 11 seconds later, the S550 realizes you're behaving like an idiot and a graphic shows up on the dash depicting a steering wheel with two red hands. Wait another five seconds beyond that and a warning tone announces that the car is no longer driving itself and the moron behind the wheel had better grab it.

So it's not quite set-and-forget self-driving yet. In fact, because the system practically demands that the human driver pay attention, it's of only limited utility. But it sure is fun to watch in action.

What's most satisfying about the S550 is how tightly it ties all the technology together. Nothing feels tacked on; every bit of tech is a seamless part of the car's character. And beyond that, it expands upon the virtues expected of a large Mercedes — it seems fantastically well built, supremely comfortable and in every way impressively overengineered. It's not a cheap car, but it's a bargain compared with the $267,800 Rolls-Royce Ghost, the $205,825 Bentley Flying Spur or the $143,600 Maserati Quattroporte V-8.

After the disappointing CLA250 that now sits at the bottom of the line, it's reassuring that toward the top the company still knows how to build a real Mercedes. After a hard day guiding the International Monetary Fund, arguing before the Supreme Court or figuring out how to maximize the value of your franchise's NFL draft picks, this is the automotive decompression chamber you deserve.

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