I’m lolling about in the back of the car — my seat is in the fully horizontal position, the tray table is out and the massager is swirling away at my backside while I try to get the music droning in the front to come through the rear speakers of the flashy Burmester Audio system — when suddenly I feel the car slow down, swing right and crunch across the gravel shoulder lining this Canadian roadway. It’s difficult, as a motoring journalist, not to drive — but I’ve made an exception for the 2014 Mercedes S-Class, pressing some poor Mercedes-Benz PR hack into service as my chauffeur so that I can play the Donald Trump role, wallowing in the plush refinement of the car’s rear passenger area, and apparently avoiding a speeding ticket in the bargain.
To be fair to my (now slightly poorer) driver, he was only going around 120kph when the cop flashed his lights at us, but they’re rather strict about speed limits up here in the Greater Toronto Area and, as if to demonstrate this, there are both police cruisers (maybe they say prowlers this far north?) and speed limit signs every other kilometre, and the signage has proclaimed a rather timid 90kph maximum for the bulk of our drive. Oh well, I thought to myself as I took the wheel — it’s not likely I’ll be back in Canada any time soon.
Driving the S500 is a bit like walking a Great Dane, there’s quite a lot of power and plenty of respect for the beast at hand, but something makes you think that spending too much time in a flat-out sprint would be a mistake. The 4.7-litre V8 pairs handsomely with the 7G-Tronic Plus automatic transmission to deliver 455bhp and peak torque of 700Nm, zipping you down the road with the assurance that comes with knowing that power is on your side (probably literally and figuratively if you own one of these). This big-boned beauty can do the 0-100kph sprint in 4.8 seconds according to Merc, and my experience leads me to believe them.
Across crowded highways, city streets, and winding Canadian back roads the S500 proved incredibly smooth and agile, so much so that you basically forget just how large this ride is. The car’s electronic steering is an able-bodied chameleon, adapting ratios with speed and driving conditions to leave you feeling both in control and well looked after. The chassis is game for zipping through corners, so much so that I expect a number of chauffeurs will be chastised for enjoying this car just a little too much, since barrelling through the curves isn’t a lot fun from the back seat.
Behind the wheel, you can set a rather drastic approach, and then muscle your way out of the apex with nary a complaint from the car. Sure, its buttery ride quality isn’t the stuff of sportscar dreams, but it’s incredibly forgiving and comfortable, just as a limousine should be. Part of this is down to a rather nifty invention called ESP, developed in part by a new friend of mine (more on that later). But then, it’s important to point out that unless you’re trying to drift (and I wasn’t), the effect of the various nanny technologies packed into the S500 (ESP, chassis control, etc) are so well honed that you’re not likely to notice when they intervene, instead experiencing the kind of fluid, effortless driving that ought to accompany any superlatively luxury car. Time and time again, I attempted to find the outer limits of the car’s abilities, attacking corners, elevation changes, and overtaking whenever I had the urge — but S-Class is so well engineered that you can’t really find a single rough edge on public roads without behaving very badly.
And yet, despite excellent driving dynamics, these boardroom-on-wheels whips aren’t really about being the fastest guy on the block — they’re definitely about being the guy with the most and/or best toys. Here, Mercedes has gone to great lengths to give the S-Class’s interior a heady blend of old-world luxury and techno-centric modernity that relegates the old analogue gauges to yesteryear (except for a quaint two-handed clock mounted in the dash), instead adopting a 12.3in digital display for all your driving ballistics needs, while another large screen in the centre of the dashboard covers infotainment, climate and navigation. The cabin is a riot of polished wood, leather and metallised switch surfaces with pearl-effect paint finishes.
The end result is an appealing and very luxurious space that seems like the ideal place for Jay-Z and Beyoncé to host Mr and Mrs Angela Merkel to discuss, er, actually I have no idea what they would talk about. Instead, the quartet could fill those awkward silences with the buzz (actually it’s pretty much silent) of the optional “energising” massage, which uses 14 air cushions to offer six different types of massage to passengers in any seat. Having tried it myself, I’d suggest that the system might not be potent enough to ease the stress brought on by, say, trying to bully Greece into fiscal submission or staging a comeback tour at his age after retiring from rap, but it does take the edge off.
Also quite novel is Merc’s active perfuming system, which wafts four different scents into the cabin in case, you know, Angela Merkel’s wearing too much cologne or something. In any event, it’s a feature that seems tailor-made for the perfume-mad Middle East, and I suspect it will be a popular option here. The press kit I found waiting on my hotel bed upon my arrival in Toronto contained a set of sample fragrances developed by Merc for the new S-Class, but I didn’t break them out.
The most interesting driving I did in the S-Class saw yet another driver who wasn’t me behind the wheel as I rode alongside minor Mercedes celebrity, Frank-Werner Mohn, the engineer whose crack up on the Autobahn caused him to ponder, “why not create a system that brakes individual wheels to counteract oversteer and understeer?” Frank’s pondering gave birth to numerous applications of the technology (most obviously ESP) and has helped save countless lives.
Barrelling down a stretch of closed-off runway outside Toronto, Frank showed me one notable new application of the technology he helped invent, called Lane Assist. As Frank steers us over the yellow line, the car brakes on the opposite side, pulling us gently back into its lane, without disrupting the steering wheel. The purpose of this gentle nannying is obvious — Merc doesn’t want to startle the driver, who is not paying close attention as he or she drifts off on to the shoulder. It works a treat, and joins a host of other excellent Intelligent Drive features that help give the S-Class some of the most advanced safety capabilities in motoring.
Through the course of our time together, Frank showed me how the car will stop short when a pedestrian steps in front of the bonnet at a reasonable pace (if they leap, Frank said, all bets are off). In this case the ‘pedestrian’ was a mannequin attached to a hydraulic arm that bore an uncanny resemblance to Norbert Reithofer, CEO of BMW, despite which the car stopped short of Norbert without incident. On a second pass, Frank showed me how, should the driver see Norbert and try to swerve, Intelligent Drive cedes to their actions.
Another neat trick that the S500 pulls off is the ability to render the vast preponderance of Dubai’s sleeping policemen moot with the advent of Magic Body Control, a system that allows the car to scan the road surface ahead, detecting bumps via a stereo camera mounted at the centre top of the windshield.
Once an uneven surface is identified, the system instantaneously sets up the suspension to mitigate the approaching hazard. With Frank at the wheel, we ploughed over a pair of large bumps, around 15cm high, that they’d built for the event. Each time we rolled over the obstacle it jarred the car just enough to send a faint ripple across your beverage, when any other car would have you bathed in coffee under the same conditions.
With the S-Class, Mercedes finds itself in an interesting place — the car is such a potent icon historically, that if you close your eyes and imagine a saloon from almost any era with diplomatic plates, it’s probably the S-Class you’re imagining. Long, luxurious and leveraged; the car’s place in history means that every redesign must balance modernity against the long arc of the car’s development. It must move forward, and yet remain identifiably S-Class. So, this somewhat conservative car gets a somewhat conservative redesign with the most radical departure painted across its rear end, which adopts a plethora of LEDs to pronounce it’s au courant-ness, while adopting the gently sloped C-pillar of a Bentley or a Rolls. The radiator grille has grown, and sports a discreet quadrant of shiny black sensors to watch the road ahead in concert with the aforementioned stereo camera. Meanwhile the car is dotted with significantly less discreet LEDs — in fact it’s the first car in the world to come standard with full LED lighting, harnessing the illuminating power of 56 LEDs for each headlight, 35 in each taillight, and a minor cosmos of 300 LEDs lighting the cabin. These little sparks nicely outline the car at night, revealing that the S is flanked by a pair of distinct creases running along the sides, and its steeply raked roofline helps give it a nice sense of momentum, even when stuck waiting for the light to change.
Once I’d returned the S-Class to its rightful owners and boarded a plane for the long flight home, I found myself missing the stretched-out comfort of the S500’s back seat, and the supple embrace of its headrest pillows. I don’t want to complain, but the cabin of the S-Class is a significant upgrade compared to Air Canada business class, and I found myself pining for the in-chair massage function and lamenting the lack of foresight I’d shown in disposing of those Mercedes scent samples back at the hotel — I wasn’t keen to travel with the little vials as I can never remember the volume restrictions for carry-on liquids. Too bad though, I could have used them to cover up the, er, scent emanating from the seat ahead. specs & ratings