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First drive: 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

First drive: 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Every seven years or so, a new generation of Mercedes’ flagship S-Class debuts and it becomes an occasion. The S-Class is the epitome of the large luxury sedan. Long before Audi, BMW, Lexus, and others had a credible competitor in this category, there was an S-Class that served as the benchmark for features, pampering, and technology. Typically, the S is also the best seller of the segment.

The redesigned S brings a host of advanced technology, and it ups the luxury ante on many levels. Prices haven’t been announced yet, but we expect the car to start at about $93,000 and command another $3,000 for the AWD version. It goes on sale in September with the AWD version coming a month later. We just tried an S550 for ourselves.

First impressions: The cabin is cool and snazzy with blue mood lighting everywhere and a huge digital screen that sweeps across the instrument panel and center screen. That sumptuous lounge seems to only be missing a butler.

The driving experience is first class with an extremely hushed cabin, a comfortable ride and effortless power delivery. If you don’t have a chauffeur and drive yourself, you’d be happy to know that the 5,000-pound super sedan behaves like a ballerina in the corners. And in case the complicated controls distract you, the car will nudge you back into your lane and even stop for you in an emergency.

On the road, the 4.6-liter turbocharged V8 pulls like a freight train with a sweet and subdued soundtrack. Strong, silent, and smooth, the 449 horsepower catapults the large sedan effortlessly. The seven-speed automatic is nearly seamless. Ride comfort has always been a hallmark of the S-Class.

No car in our tests has delivered a better ride than the two previous generations we tested in 2003 and 2007. The new one remains cushy and controlled. Our sample had the Magic Body Control option, which uses the stereoscopic cameras in the windshield to read the road and prepare the suspension for what’s coming. It’s almost uncanny how it hides speed bumps and other undulations, but it was less impressive dealing with potholes and broken pavement. Supremely quiet, the big Benz instills a relaxed and fatigue-free driving environment.

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Although the electric steering has lost some of the tactile feedback of the previous generation, handling is responsive and enjoyable. Unlike several other competitors, when the corners become demanding, the S550’s humungous size feels like it shrinks, allowing it to dance with the alacrity of a BMW 3-Series sports sedan.

Cutting edge technology goes without saying for this flagship. A comprehensive suite of active safety features fall under the umbrella called “Intelligent Drive” using a battery of radar sensors and cameras. The active cruise control, called Distronic Plus, not only keeps a set distance regardless of changing speeds, it can also follow the path in front of you if for some reason your hands aren’t doing it. Eerily, the steering actually moves by itself, but this is not the self-driving car of the future. Red lights and an alarm will sound after a few seconds, demanding your attention. The lane departure system, in addition to vibrating the steering wheel when crossing lane marks, uses braking on one side to nudge the car back into lane. The rear seat belts are inflatable, acting as mini airbags to prevent ribcage injuries. The PreSafe system identifies a car in front or a pedestrian and makes the car come to a complete stop, if you fail to do so.

Inside, flamboyant ambience notwithstanding, not all controls are easy or intuitive, which is also somewhat of a Mercedes tradition. Pairing a phone was a bit cumbersome, there is no easy way of setting radio presets, and the volume control is on the passenger side. To be fair, some radio functions can be done from the wheel; too bad those controls are chrome on chrome and lack contrast. The jewel-like small center dash vents are certainly stylish, but the large screen has forced their location to be too low and they don’t articulate upwards. In turn, it can get hot and stuffy in the cabin, especially in direct sunlight.

Seat comfort is terrific and the active seat bolsters inflate as needed to hug you in the corners. Oddly, the lumbar support adjustment is done through the screen and a center controller that’s cumbersome to get to the right menu and function. Several levels of massage are also on the menu. Rear passengers enjoy living-room-caliber accommodations with room to spare, including controls for recline and cushion position. Fortunately, the power rear sunshade control is an actual button and doesn’t require navigating through the on-screen menu.

CR’s take. The S-Class is indeed opulent and stately, even building on the already impressive two prior generations. In addition to presenting a technological showcase, it also proves to be an appealing and enjoyable luxury liner. We’ll see how it stacks up against its competitors when we buy our own and test it thoroughly.

Gabe Shenhar

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