Mercedes-Benz isn't a brand afraid to put on a show for any old reason at all – like, just because it's Tuesday – but the premiere of the 2014 S-Class, even by the standards we're used to, was Broadway-theater intense. Held at a purpose-built venue inside a hanger at the Airbus factory in Hamburg, the hours-long extravaganza was hosted by two German newscasters and guest-starred Alicia Keyes, an A380, fireworks, every model in the lineup in a choreographed driving routine while The Stig did donuts in an SLS AMG in the rain, and at the very end, burlesque. That's how much the S-Class means to this brand.
What's it going to mean to the razor's edge of the mass-market large luxury sedan market? The exterior, that's ripe for debate. But the interior – well, it just hung a sign on the segment that read, "Achtung! This, meine Damen und Herren, is how it's done."
Related Gallery2014 Mecedes-Benz S-Class revealed
Truth be told, we were concerned about meeting the latest conveyance of kings. We couldn't get a handle on its proportions in the photos – the homogenized face gave us pause, and the sloping rear end had us genuinely concerned that this was about to get ugly.
Turns out the car is fine. Some other introductions of late have had us worried that Mercedes is designing cars like it knows people will buy them no matter what, even if they're unattractive (SL anyone?). And they're right - the new SL will not have a problem finding new owners to please, and it is a terrific car for its class, but to our eyes the current convertible is an aesthetic step sideways and down compared to the last one. And those headlight eyebrows that are going on everything, well, let's just not get into that.
Likewise, the new S-Class should not have any trouble with sales. Even with the larger grille, it's not as assertive as the current car, a fair bit of which has to do with its rounder, silkier lines penned to chase the 0.22 coefficient of drag. Its angles go in a lot of different directions, and we still haven't settled on the design - seen from one angle at some given hour, it was like the current car was left in the sun too long, from another angle and at another hour, it was sleek and stately. The wheels have a lot to do with that as well - the personality of this particular design seems much more affected by a swap than the outgoing car.
But everyone will have something familiar to hold onto, because in overall shape and footprint, the 2014 S-Class is like the ghost of the current car slid into a new body. A Mecedes rep told us the 2014 had a new chassis and subframe, but we'd like to get more specifics on that. The 2014 has the exact wheelbase and length as the soon-to-be-retired sedan, and is only an inch wider and 0.7 inches taller. Inside, you can trace the same architectural lines along the instrument panel and the elsewhere around the cabin. It is as if they didn't make a car from scratch, but used the skeleton of the current car and designed a brand-new body and internal organs to hang on it.
Again, it's fine outside. Stand in front of the car and, yup, that larger grille is laaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrge. It will not be confused for an E-Class at anything less than a half a mile. From the side, even though the S-Class is the same length and slightly taller, it looks trimmer, probably because it isn't so bold about its rising wedge shape as the current car, so the difference between the front end and rear isn't as accentuated. As for that run from the C-pillar down to the rear lights, well, those look like lines lifted from the departed Maybach 57S. We didn't care for the exterior of the Maybach, it looks alright here.
Another Mercedes rep told us that the priorities on this car were what lived underneath the sheetmetal, and it is there that the S-Class throws down a new marker for luxury interiors. Not necessarily in how it's laid out, but in how it is finished and how it feels. This is like a concept car, the kind that you know would never see production except that this one is seeing production. It might not come across in our photos because this is so much about the finish and the total sensation from sitting in the car, but it really does feel like something on an auto show floor that you'll never see on the road. The diamond stitching, the cross-stitching, those 12.3-inch screens, the sectioned seats that look more like pillow chairs, the COMAND area that looks like it could be an extra in Star Trek: Into Darkness - this is the new ruler of the game. The only odd note we found was the cupholder area ahead of the COMAND center, the veneered cover sliding back to reveal a pit of black plastic that now looks terribly out of place.
Yes, the two-spoke steering wheel is an intriguing choice, and no matter how much we concentrate we can't stop thinking about Seventies Chevrolets when we see it. With Mercedes being so focused on the Asian market and chauffeured buyers, though, the wheel makes sense; it's a tiller for a special occasion car, a coach meant to be driven by someone who isn't doing so all that quickly. We won't be surprised if the AMG version has something much sportier wheel with three spokes.
And no, the cabin is not top-tier Bentley or a Rolls-Royce, nor is it meant to be, nor will it cost nearly as much as a Mulsanne or a Phantom. The new S is sleek and high-tech and modern and comfortable, not that particularly English lair of leather and plush. Come down a bit though, and while this author hasn't yet sat inside the new Flying Spur, the S-Class interior makes the Ghost feel like it's from another time - as if you chose the Rolls-Royce specifically because you want the ambiance of a private English club from the Eighties.
A final note: those rear seats. We'll get five options in rear seat configuration, and the First Class package with the reclining right-side throne is all that. The seatback reclines 43.7 degrees, and does do independently of the bolster – a calf rest emerges from beneath the bolster, a heel rest emerges from under the front seat that rises and folds in on itself to make room. The recline is possible because the rear shelf is scalloped just like that of a seat in an airliner's First Class cabin, leaving plenty of room for the power player to lean back for a power nap during a lull.
When we spend more time with the S-Class on its launch, we'll find out if the impressions of a few hours can be sustained over a few days. The S is the newest car in the segment now and we don't know how long it will remain at the top, but we'll stand by our assessment: say what you want about the outside, the inside is The Show.