The days when luxury in a car meant shiny chrome on the outside and dead trees and cows on the inside have long faded. This is 2013, when even high-tech can fail to impress: Cut-rate hatchbacks have navigation systems, and the average Ford can park itself.
So when Mercedes-Benz set out to develop the latest S-Class — the pinnacle of indulgence for a brand that owns it — the automaker knew the ordinary wouldn't do.
This full-size sedan starts at $93,825 and is often the top seller in the blue-blooded class that includes the BMW 7 Series, Audi A8, Porsche Panamera and — if we're being generous — the Lexus LS.
Mercedes is keen to keep this sales crown, despite introducing new generations of the S-Class only every eight or nine years. So for 2014, the automaker turned the S550 sedan into a rolling buffet of comfort and safety features that may seem like wizardry now but will be commonplace on lesser vehicles in the future.
What distinguishes the S550 is how seamlessly it integrates such functions. With the S-Class attracting mainly older buyers loyal to its tradition, Mercedes didn't want to scare off the faithful. Fortunately, in the S550, the plutocrats and the technocrats can finally share a ride. And oh what a ride it will be.
Consider Magic Body Control, a $4,450 option. This system scans the road with a stereoscopic camera mounted on the windshield. When it detects bumps in the car's path, the S-Class prepares the air suspension accordingly.
And it's not as if the car even needs it. The ride on our $112,265 test car without Magic Body Control — adaptive air suspension is standard — was already one of the more serene and balanced in existence.
Mercedes has a long history of using the S-Class to introduce groundbreaking safety technologies. Some have later become common or even mandated for the industry — anti-lock brakes in 1978, for instance, and air bags in 1981. The 2014 iteration is no different.
This latest model surrounds itself with 360 degrees of radar coverage, scanning for threats on the road. It can recognize a pedestrian, a bicyclist or another car and determine its direction and how the car should best react.
The safety features spring into action even if the car isn't moving. If the S-Class senses an impending rear-end collision, it will lock the brakes, tighten the seat belt, close the windows and inflate the bolsters on the side of each seat.
Together, these systems offer a window into the future of self-driving cars — as Mercedes made clear during the recent Frankfurt Auto Show. The automaker debuted a fully autonomous S-Class and announced that the car had completed a 62-mile test drive on city streets.
That prototype had only a few upgrades from the S550 now available. Our test car came with this $2,800 driver's assistance package, which includes radar-cruise control, active lane-keeping assist, steering assist, blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic assist. Together they add up to a car that can drive and steer itself in certain conditions on the freeway, especially heavy traffic.
When the system worked, it worked well and didn't intrude on the driving experience. This is crucial to their safety benefits — automated systems aren't helpful if drivers find them annoying or confusing and turn them off. But the lane-keeping assist would occasionally shut down because of a "system error." And though this is a $112,265 car, Acura makes a better system on vehicles that cost half as much.
Fortunately, the S-Class remains adept at non-autonomous driving. Power comes from a sweet twin-turbocharged V-8 engine that's largely the same as the previous S-Class. Its 4.6 liters make 455 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque.
This motor hooks up to a seven-speed automatic transmission that pushes power to the rear wheels, or all four if you opt for all-wheel drive. Fuel economy is rated at 17 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway. Over 200 miles of mostly city driving, we averaged about 14 mpg.
Despite a prodigious 4,729-pound curb weight, Mercedes says both versions of the S550 will do the zero-to-60-mph run in 4.8 seconds. Not so many years ago, such a time would have brought a tear to a Porsche engineer's eye.
Despite moving forward with aplomb, the S550 never felt particularly agile in the turns. Its heft remained a lingering presence; the Audi A8 and the BMW 7 series both feel more nimble.
This car's target buyers, however, probably won't mind. They'll climb in the meticulously redesigned interior and have trouble noticing anything else. Higher-echelon S-Class models will creep into Bentley territory, so the entire model range was given a cabin worthy of such a competitor.
This car steps firmly into the digital age with the banishment of any analog gauges. The driver sees a pair of 12.3-inch screens; one for the instrument panel and one for the rest of the car's navigation, climate control and stereo functions.
The S-Class is also the first car in the world built without a single light bulb. Instead, nearly 500 LEDs are used throughout the car.
Elsewhere in the cabin, the passengers are coddled in an expanse of lush wood curving around them. They breathe air that's been ionized and perfumed by one of four scents, if desired. Any car can heat its seats, so the S-Class heats the armrests throughout the cabin too. The massaging seats, all four of them, now feature a hot-stone setting.
Space, of course, is plentiful. The car's footprint and dimensions are largely unchanged from the previous generation. The S550's body is sleek and curvaceous in an understated sort of way. Yet it has the proportions that tell the guy in the next lane that a single door costs — and weighs — more than his car.
Overall, the entire S550 experience lives up to its distinguished history. Mercedes started calling this model the S-Class in 1972; the moniker stands for sonderklasse, or "special class." The new model's unrivaled mix of comfort, safety and technology will certainly be challenged in the future. But for now, this car is indeed special.
2014 Mercedes S550
Times' take: A special car for people used to feeling that way
Highs: Groundbreaking safety, epic interior, smooth engine
Lows: Still drives like a boat; exterior is generic
Vehicle type: Four-door full-size luxury sedan
Base price: $93,825
Price as tested: $112,265
Powertrain: 4.6-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 engine, rear-wheel drive
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic transmission
Torque: 516 pound-feet
Zero to 60 mph: 4.8 seconds, according to Mercedes-Benz