Mercedes claims, a little immodestly, that its new S-Class is "the best car in the world."
More than a few of its competitors would disagree, but Mercedes has loaded the 2014 S-Class with every last piece of its latest technology. The press release alone stretches 26,000 words just to describe it all.
Rather than slog through that tome, we took it for a drive and decided for ourselves what makes this new ultraluxury car so special. Here's our breakdown of the things the new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class does that you might not have expected.
1. It can separate man from beast.
The new S-Class can differentiate man from beast. It needs to be able to do this because its night-view system can flash warning beams at a human standing at the road's edge. And that means that it must distinguish between humans and animals: Flashing a beam at an animal is guaranteed to make it jumpier than a pony during a fireworks display.
To make the identifications the S-Class' headlamp manufacturers have photographed every kind of mammal that might stray onto the highways of the world, from mustangs to marmosets, cows to camels, kangaroos to kiwis and more. These images are then converted into the complex mathematical algorithms that allow the lighting system to flash without triggering a small-scale stampede.
Night View Assist Plus' thermal-imaging camera does the detecting, prompting an image of the road to appear in the instrument cluster if danger lurks. And any mammals (human or animal) are highlighted in red. As a drive in a simulator reveals, the image is big enough that you can actually steer the car accurately using this rather than looking through the windshield, not that we suggest that course of action.
2. There are no lightbulbs in an S-Class.
Thomas Edison, this is the end. The automotive career of your humble and brilliant lightbulb is dimming. Mercedes has been fitting traditional lightbulbs to its cars for around 100 years, but this S-Class has none.
Instead, their role is now performed by an arsenal of almost 500 LEDS that light the road, the cabin, the instruments, the trunk and the under-hood area. A dazzling 56 shine a path down the road. Another 39 illuminate the car's tail. And no fewer than 300 LEDs light up the interior.
Besides being brighter and long-lasting, their 10,000-hour expectancy likely to exceed the car's night life, LEDs also consume far less energy than conventional lamps. The S-Class' LED headlights need 34 watts compared to the 120 watts of traditional halogen lights and the 84 watts required by xenons, yielding significant fuel savings.
3. Rides bumps as if they aren't there.
We see the bump in front of us, but we don't feel it. I'm driving an S-Class with Mercedes' so-called Magic Body Control, and it's about to surmount a sizable speed bump. We can feel a faint rise in the body as the bump travels beneath us, yet we're barely aware that an obstacle this substantial has passed beneath. And when we try it again, with the Magic Body Control turned off, the Mercedes' body momentarily pitches and we feel the tremor as the suspension fights to absorb the double impact.
Reading the road has been the dream of suspension engineers for decades. Twin cameras scan the road ahead to create a 3-D image for which the suspension can prepare, adjusting itself to best deal with the terrain rushing beneath the tires. It functions at speeds of up to 75 mph, partly because the road is unlikely to be seriously bumpy at this speed, and partly because the suspension wouldn't be able to react in time without it.
The sensation of Magic Body Control is otherworldly, and has the potential to make the S-Class the best-riding car in the world. We say potential, because we've yet to test the car for any distance, and also because Mercedes engineers admit that the suspension doesn't quite have the absorbency to ride potholes and railroad crossings tremor-free. But expect special things of the Magic Body Control option, especially as it virtually eliminates body sway and front-to-rear pitch, too.
4. The all-seeing automobile.
This car has 360-degree all-round vision. Well almost. It has a stereo multipurpose camera that can see 50 yards ahead in detail, besides providing a more general 500-yard reading. This windshield-mounted camera is backed by a suite of radar systems enabling the car to detect what's out there to the side and the rear. Short-range radar identifies objects to the front and sides up to 30 yards away, while long-range and medium-range systems provide coverage 60 and 200 yards away from the car's nose.
This mix of virtual vision is harnessed to provide an extensive suite of safety features, ranging from brake assistance systems that detect traffic crossing the car's nose to active lane-keeping (which can provoke sizable interventions if you steer slackly), night-view assistance and various convenience features such as high-beam assistance and the ability to safely follow the car in front during a traffic jam.
5. The scent of luxury.
Never mind the potpourri of leather and manmade materials suffusing the interior of modern cars: 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class occupants can enjoy the effects of an "active perfuming system" that dispenses a choice of four fragrances developed by one Marc vom Ende. "Sports Mood" is not the smell of a locker room but something pleasantly earthier, while "Downtown Mood" is a crisp, citrusy nose pleaser rather than essence of exhaust fumes. Fragrance dispensers are not new (Citroën's 2004 C4 hatchback had one) but what is new is the opportunity to manually adjust the intensity of wafting, perhaps to cater for the admission of garlic-suffused passengers.
6. The recline of the rich.
You can recline — or slob out — at an angle of 43.5 degrees in the backseat of an S-Class should you order the Executive Rear Seat package, this angle closer to the horizontal than in any competing sedan. A further option allows the front passenger seat to cantilever itself into a bundle small enough that you can almost have yourself a single-berth bed in the back, although it's not completely flat. It is, however, supremely comfortable, the unusual sensation of traveling in a near fully recumbent position heightened by the twin glass panels allowing you to watch the sky drifting by.
7. Mixed materials, lightweight body.
Aluminum was once the optimal material for a lightweight, mass-produced body shell, but now that they can be successfully blended, mixed materials are the ideal. So while the S-Class' doors, fenders, roof, hood, trunk and front crush structure are of lightweight aluminum, the passenger safety cell, including a pair of immensely strong B-pillars, is stamped from steel. The aim is to use the materials with the optimal strength-to-mass ratios for the job in question.
Despite being 50 percent torsionally stiffer than the outgoing S-Class shell, this new one is slightly lighter. A key contributor to the shell's strength is a set of rather untidily arranged strut braces tying the front suspension towers to the forward bulkhead. They're not the most elegant-looking solution, admits passive safety specialist Robert Reilink, but they're very effective — and you can't see 'em anyway.
8. Multi-intensity taillights.
Ever been dazzled by LED taillights? If you haven't, you likely will be, as these over-bright (but safer) lights are becoming increasingly common. Mercedes recognized the problem, says lighting specialist Ewe Kostanzer, and has developed taillights that function at three intensity levels. The brightest is used during daylight when the car is on the move. The LEDs then switch to 80 percent brightness during the night and when the car is stationary, but they dim to 60 percent to avoid dazzling the occupants of following cars.
9. Hot-stone massage.
High-end car seats have spoiled us with on-the-move massages for a few years now, but Mercedes goes one better with the latest S-Class, by providing a faux hot-stone massage.
True, the effect is not quite the same as having a hot, smooth rock applied to your skin by a masseuse, but the effect is about as close as you can sensibly get in a car. A built-in heating element combines with the slow pummel of the seat's bladder-inflated cushions to provide a pretty unusual experience. And once you're over the novelty of it, it's a pretty relaxing one, too. We can report that it's best experienced in the sumptuous executive seat so that you can drift off to sleep.
10. Chilled elbows no more.
Got chilly elbows? If you're an S-Class traveler, they can now be warmed by the heated armrests. Yes, it has electric elements in the door armrests and the center console lids front and rear.
These banishers of forearm chills are part of a warmth comfort pack that also includes fast-heating front seats, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel. The self-warming armrests were originally devised for warming electric cars that have no conventional heaters, but instead have ended up in Mercedes' most sybaritic model. The seat heating system can achieve an output of 2,000 watts per square meter, and you can be feeling it in the small of your back after just 10 seconds.