The launch of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 is a milestone in automotive circles. The S-Class is the car that has dominated the luxury car ranks for years, so when a new one comes along there's a certain level of anticipation that comes along with it.
Try as they might, the likes of Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Lexus have yet to match the sheer cachet that comes along with the "big" Mercedes: something that is fully reflected in its ever buoyant global sales figures. In its final year of production, the outgoing model still managed to beat the competition in sales volume. To suggest the new one has a lot to live up to is perhaps understating things a little.
A Wide-Ranging S-Class The new rear-wheel-drive, long-wheelbase S550 driven here is just one of six different variants of the new S-Class that will eventually hit the market. Among them are short-, long- and extra-long-wheelbase variants together with a Pullman limousine, two-door coupe and two-door convertible. All except the short-wheelbase variant are planned for sale in North America, with deliveries of the long wheelbase scheduled to get under way in September.
This S-Class follows an evolutionary path, eschewing big changes for subtle modifications, all aimed at seeing the S-Class attract new customers without turning off its current owners. This latest model looks more stately than the car it replaces, with a bolder front end appearance, greater structuring to its flanks and a more confident-looking rear. Dimensionally, there's not much between it and its predecessor, the new S-Class being less than an inch longer, only 1.1 inches wider and not even half an inch higher.
During the early conceptual stages for the new S-Class, a number of construction techniques were apparently discussed, including a possible switch to a space frame like that used by the Audi A8 in a bid to shed weight. In the end, though, Mercedes-Benz's engineering brain trust decided on a more conservative approach, retaining conventional monocoque construction in the interests of production continuity.
With an all-aluminum body and more high-strength steel within its floorpan, the new S550 is marginally heavier than its predecessor at 4,442 pounds. Where it does manage to score is in rigidity. We won't bore you with the details but the overall integrity of the body has risen dramatically, with Mercedes-Benz's own figures pointing to an almost doubling in rigidity levels compared to the old S-Class.
Familiar Engine With More Power The new S-Class will initially be sold with just a single engine in North America. The twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter V8 is carried over from the old model with slight revisions. The result is a slight bump in output to 455 horsepower, while torque remains at 516 pound-feet.
Mercedes-Benz planned to launch the S-Class with a new nine-speed automatic gearbox but ended up going with an updated version of the seven-speed unit used by its predecessor. The nine-speed gearbox will eventually make its way into the S-Class, but likely not before a planned face-lift in 2016.
Even without the extra gears, the S550 is capable of startling performance figures. Mercedes-Benz claims a 0-60-mph time of 4.8 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph.
From behind the wheel, there is a dual personality to the S550. On the one hand, it is remarkably smooth and superbly refined, providing relaxed and soothing qualities at part throttle in Comfort mode. But it also has the in-gear acceleration to keep in touch with some highly fancied performance cars in a straight line when you switch into Sport mode, something that sees it dispatch big distances with great authority.
Never Forgets What Makes It Comfortable So, it is strong on performance and terrifically refined, but the one factor that continues to lift the S-Class clear of the competition is its imbibing comfort. The new model builds on the inherent strengths of its predecessor with great poise to the body, a superbly cosseting ride and a level of refinement that reaches well beyond that of the A8, 7 Series and XJ and tops even the LS.
The standard suspension employs adaptive damping in combination with air springs, a layout closely related to that used on the old S-Class but with detailed changes to the elasto-kinematic properties to enhance its ability to soak up potholes with even greater control.
The big news, however, surrounds the availability of an advanced new system that goes under the name of Magic Ride Control. An option on the S550, it uses a stereo camera mounted within the windscreen to constantly scan the road surface and then automatically prime the underpinnings. It is an active system, meaning there is a continuous altering of firmness within the suspension for an optimum ride up to speeds of 81 mph.
The result is a wonderfully supple feel, with a consistent ride height and next to no movement of the body even on big bumps. It sounds complex, and in terms of engineering clearly is. But there is little doubt Magic Ride Control will alter the luxury car landscape as it takes the idea of adaptive suspension one more step in the right direction.
Less satisfactory is the steering: a newly conceived electromechanical setup. It may have slightly better weighting but it comes with a lack of feedback. It often feels detached from the action so there's a little less involvement than we would like, especially for a car that's so capable of extreme performance.
Cabin Worthy of the Hype The promise delivered by earlier photographs of the new S-Class interior is fully backed up when you open the door and climb inside, where you are met by an inviting combination of luxurious leather, deep grained wood, high-quality plastic and flashes of brushed aluminum.
Perceived quality is hugely impressive: every bit as good as that offered by the A8, 7 Series, XJ and LS, if not better. The design represents a big break from old, giving the new sedan a far more luxurious and thoroughly contemporary feel.
There's a compelling softness to the cushioning of the seats that immediately tells you the clear emphasis here is more on outright comfort than anything to do with sporty pretension. Despite riding on the same 124.6-inch wheelbase as before, Mercedes-Benz says the new S-Class offers marginally more head-, shoulder and elbow room both up front and in the rear.
All this, along with generous levels of steering wheel and seating adjustment, soon has you finding a decent driving position and feeling fairly confident about what's to come. The only real criticism is a slightly obstructed view out back owing to the high-set rear window and rather large rear-seat headrests.
Plenty of Extras Buyers will be able to choose among five different rear-seat configurations, ranging from a conventional fixed rear bench all the way through to a setup that offers 43.5 degrees of backrest adjustment in what Mercedes-Benz dubs its first-class seating option.
As you'd expect from a car sitting at the very top of the Mercedes-Benz lineup, there is no shortage of safety features, although the most advanced items, including new rear seatbelt airbags, are mostly optional equipment.
What you do get as standard on North American specification models is radar-controlled collision prevention assist, so called Magic Vision Control that provides infrared images during nighttime driving; a Burmester sound system; and LED interior lighting with a choice of seven different colors, five dimming levels and four different dimming zones.
Only a Few More Wishes The new S-Class is quite a machine: a celebration of contemporary engineering, state-of-the-art safety technology, bank vaultlike solidity and soothing calmness. It is a bit surprising that Mercedes-Benz did not see fit to provide its new flagship with a driveline to fully complement the rest of its achievements. With efficiency on the minds of even the wealthiest buyers, an advanced hybrid right out of the gate might have set the tone in a way that no one expected.
Mercedes head of research and development Thomas Weber tells us such a model is under intensive development and planned to join the lineup in time. Good thing, too, as a new Audi A8 is in the works for next year, along with a redesigned BMW 7 Series after that. No doubt those sedans will have endless arrays of technological gadgets to go along with newly designed interiors and sports-carlike performance.
Until then, however, this S-Class should have no trouble attracting the level of attention it has grown accustomed to. All the elements of a top-notch luxury sedan are there and even some elements you don't expect. The standard has been set once again. Now it's time to see how long it stays that way.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.