Technology Meets Magic In The New Standard Bearer



If you're like us, you've been eagerly awaiting this car for the better part of 10 years. No, not the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class specifically, but rather the technology underneath it. Perhaps you remember the Bose active suspension system? Yes, Bose – a company better known for overpriced audio equipment – revealed an amazingly sophisticated automotive suspension system about a decade ago, demonstrating it via a pair of 1994 Lexus LS luxury sedans. One LS was fitted with the system, and the other went without. The two could be seen on split-screen video performing a battery of ride and handling exercises, with the Bose car experiencing remarkably little body roll and head toss thanks to its network of electromagnetic motors and microprocessors. It was as if the car looked at the road ahead and the suspension used that data to actively counter inputs and keep the chassis level and drama-free. Bose revealed the technology back in 2004, but it had been working on the technology since the Carter Administration. We've seen active suspensions before and since, but even now, the Bose's performance seems positively next-level, with body control that boggles the mind. And that's before the jump at the end of the video presentation.

As it turns out, the Bose demonstrator car was keyed to the course it ran in the video – it wasn't examining the road at all, it was preprogrammed to expect those surface conditions. This might explain why a decade on, we still haven't been able to buy such a system in a production car. It's that missing anticipatory quality – the road scanning – that hasn't happened. Until now. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class features just this sort of technology, though the suspension itself shares nothing with Bose's architecture. Daimler's so-called Magic Body Control combines the S-Class' hydraulic Active Body Control (ABC) suspension with stereoscopic twin cameras mounted ahead of the rearview mirror to scan ahead and relax or firm up the suspension in preparation for the road surfaces ahead. Hitting your first speed bump with the system activated is nothing short of spooky – the Michelins feel for all the world like they're sluicing through the traffic-calming nuisance as if it's made of room-temperature brie. Like it isn't even there. You'll laugh and clap – we did.

The Michelins sluice through the traffic-calming nuisance as if it's made of room-temperature brie.

Yet this brand of Magic has its limitations: it only works during the day, foul weather can cause the system to pack up (if the camera gets blocked by snow, for instance) and it's really most effective over large disturbances like the aforementioned speed bump, as it's not yet quick-witted enough to catch subtler potholes and such. Oddly, it also only works with ABC set to Comfort Mode – if you choose Sport you're on your own. Most of the time, the system feels like a conventional luxury car, which is to say very well behaved, but not entirely sporty. The world's wealthy who toil in city centers where speed bumps are all too common will have cause for rejoice, but this is not yet the revolution the Bose presentation conditioned us to expect all those years ago.

So, on some level, Magic Body Control falls short of what we imagined, but the same can't be said for the rest of this W222-Series Benz. While it shares the basic powertrain and similar dimensions of its predecessor, this S-Class couldn't feel more new. That fact was rammed home by my 250-mile drive from Greater Detroit to the car's international launch in Toronto in the outgoing 2013 S550. A perfectly fine luxury sedan and not the segment's perennial volume leader by accident, the W221 nonetheless feels positively antiquated in the face of this new generation.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class side view2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class front view2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class rear view

It looks balanced and planted in a way its predecessor never managed.

That impression starts with the 2014's sleek exterior. Where the previous generation looked a bit bloated thanks to balloon fenders and over-sculpted detailing, the W222 comes off as both more stately and athletic. While not the most striking shape in the luxury sedan sphere, it looks balanced and planted in a way its predecessor never managed. The viewer's eye is drawn from the imposing slatted grille and complex LED headlamps around and along the bodysides, following a CLA-style tapering swage line to a tidy (if generic) rear end. The design isn't just more harmonious to the eyes; the S550 has a drag coefficient of 0.24, all but unmatched anywhere in the vehicle kingdom.

A mix of aluminum and steel body panels still cloaks a steel unibody, in the process giving away some weight to key rivals like the aluminum-chassis'd Jaguar XJ (a comparative bantamweight at 4,100 to 4,200 pounds), but at about 4,600 pounds, it actually weighs about the same as a comparable Audi A8 (though the latter has standard all-wheel drive). Even so, thanks to more intensive use of the lightweight metal, Mercedes claims that the new S-Class saves about 200 pounds over its predecessor, but heretofore unavailable features and options undo most of the advantage. At least the new structure is markedly stiffer and more capacious, growing as it has by 0.8 inches in height and 1.1 inches in width, and the weight is better placed with just 52 percent of the car's mass crowding the front axle, a factoid that promises surprisingly neutral handling.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class headlight2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class wheel2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class taillight2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class exhaust tip

A well-optioned S-Class contains over 100 separate motors and the interior includes around 300 LEDs.

Climb aboard, and the S550 (badged S500 in our Euro-spec photo car) doesn't give away anything to anybody. The cabin is where you'll find the biggest departure from its antecedent, and indeed, the rest of the luxury sedan class. Daimler's super-premium Maybach brand may have been a costly financial lesson, but it's clearly taught the company a thing or two. The available Gatsbian rear-seat "Executive" accommodations are peerless, especially on well-optioned models like our Diamond White Metallic tester, which was fitted with stunning quilted Designo Nappa deep-sea blue leather and silk beige trim. Every conceivable creature comfort is on offer, including a few we've never even thought of in our Powerball-winning daydreams.

Our four-place tester included the usual battery of D-segment luxury trimmings, along with reclining hot-stone rear massaging seats. The passenger-side Executive chair features a power footrest and ottoman, but both rear berths are privy to DVD entertainment and Internet access, airline-style folding tray tables, heated armrests(!), a truly impressive 24-speaker Burmester surround sound system, twin-element panoramic roof, heated/cooled cupholders and more airbags than a Senate judiciary committee. Did we mention the Air Balance package, which includes an ionizing and perfuming feature for the heating and ventilation system? It's all spectacularly well-done but terrifyingly complex, as a well-optioned S-Class contains over 100 separate motors and the interior includes around 300 LEDs alone – there's not a single light bulb in the whole gin palace. This is a cabin that's going to give Bentley and Rolls-Royce night sweats, and that's not by accident. With Maybach shuttered, it will have to reach further upward to capture the tycoon dollar, though it will eventually get an even longer-wheelbase Pullman model to do the heaviest lifting.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class interior2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class rear seats2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class rear seat tv monitor2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class rear seat table

The engine has been retuned to deliver 455 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque.

The 2014 S-Class ain't too shabby from the left front seat, either. The driver's vantage point is dominated by a pair of 'floating' 12.3-inch TFT displays, one of which serves as a reconfigurable gauge cluster, and the other as the main entry point for the infotainment technology, including the best iteration we've yet seen of Mercedes' COMAND interface. Despite a myriad of additional functions, we found the wheel-based controller to be quite intuitive to use, and a new series of personalized short-cut buttons hidden in the palm-rest are useful for the driver's most common functions, from tuning in a specific satellite radio station to activating the seat-massaging functions. Pillars are quite thick (as one expects of a modern car of this size), but overall visibility is good, aided by a ridiculously long catalog of active safety features including blind spot assist and an optional 360-degree camera – the latter of which should feel familiar to anyone who has experienced the Around View Monitor from Nissan. The new two-spoke steering wheel looks a bit old-school for our tastes, but offers a good view of the gauges and feels good in the hand.

At launch, the S-Class will only be available in North America in long-wheelbase (124.6-inch) S550 guise, which brings with it an updated version of the 4.7-liter twin-turbo V8 found in last year's model. The engine has been retuned to deliver 455 horsepower at 5,250 rpm (up from 429) and 516 pound-feet of torque from 1,800 rpm. That's sufficient to give this 4,300-pound sedan enough hustle to reach 60 from a standstill in 4.8 seconds, powering on to a limited top speed of 130 miles per hour. What those numbers don't convey is the seamless manner in which power arrives and is put down. The seven-speed automatic is a well-mannered unit, and downshifts are but a toe-tickle or finger-flex away. The engine sounds a bit burlier than before in its higher registers, but it's mostly bystanders who will notice, as the interior is truly serene. Even the start-stop tech is the least-intrusive system we've yet encountered on a non-hybrid.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class engine

In truth, we did not really get the opportunity to push our big rear-drive Benz very hard dynamically. We were on some decent roads north of Toronto in the Muskoka region, but traffic loomed, and besides, Ontario isn't terribly accommodating of speeders – copious roadsigns warn of $10,000 fines and vehicle forfeiture for exceeding the posted limit by 50 kilometers per hour (31 miles per hour). That wouldn't be so bad, except speed limits are low, even on flat, straight, barren freeways, where a 100-kph limit (62 mph) is the norm. Even so, we snuck in a few spirited sections, and the new car feels surprisingly spry for its dimensions, its new electric power steering rack proving pleasingly accurate and the brakes strong underfoot when called for. Steering feel is in predictably short supply and there are moments of subtle tugging and pulling when the lane-keeping assist mode is active, but frankly, hardwired driver feedback and enthusiastic canyon carving isn't what this sort of model is about.

This S-Class is arguably more about enjoying being driven than it is about enjoying the drive.

In fact, this S-Class is arguably more about enjoying being driven than it is about enjoying the drive. It's here again where Mercedes-Benz separates the S-Class from the rest of the fullsize ultrapremium herd, and it does so with a blanket of sensors – a network of long, medium, and short-wave radar and the aforementioned stereoscopic camera, the S-Class is always looking out for your wellbeing in all directions. It's this synthesis of different sensor types that allows the S-Class to take the industry further down the autonomous driving path than any production vehicle has ever before.

In addition to now-common features like blind spot warning, drowsiness attention assist and lane-keeping assist (which, it must be said, rather rudely yanks the car back into line), there's Distronic Plus with Steering Assist and Stop&Go Pilot. The latter cruise control system allows for automated driving at speeds up to 37 mph (60 kph). Ideal for slow traffic situations, the system allows for hands-off, feet-off driving where the car will follow the vehicle ahead, braking, accelerating and cornering accordingly, as you might in a rush-hour jam. We had the chance to test the system doing some lead-follow exercises on an airport runway, and it worked a treat, including when the lead vehicle veered off, leaving our car to follow the road lines. The system will bark at you if you have your hands removed for more than ten seconds at a time while driving over 19 mph (and will eventually turn off), but this is little more than a balm to calm the nanny state's fear of autonomous vehicles. As Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche told us over dinner, "Regulatory approval won't happen overnight, but the technology is ready."

Autoblog Short Cuts: 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Gone are the diesel six-cylinder, the hybrid and the all-conquering V12.

Interestingly, Mercedes is pushing into the 2014 model year with far fewer S-Class models. At launch, North American buyers will only get the S550 with rear- or 4Matic all-wheel drive. Gone are the diesel six-cylinder, the hybrid and the all-conquering V12. Some of those may figure into the equation down the road (an S500 plug-in hybrid will be revealed at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September, but hasn't been confirmed for our market), but we wouldn't be surprised to see the V12 only return in the Pullman limo and the S65 AMG. Speaking of which, AMG performance variants are nearly here. In fact, Mercedes teased one such offering earlier this week.

Additional safety-minded features include self-parking (both parallel and perpendicular), an available infrared night vision system that can discern between humans and other animals (the former will be subjected to flashes of light to alert both driver and pedestrian of each other's presence, but the system won't flash animals in order to curb unpredictable responses), along with full autonomous braking to avoid collisions at up to 31 mph. Rear seats are available with belt-mounted airbags and there's even a seat-resident anti-submarining airbag on models equipped with the reclining rear chairs. The car can also detect impending rear-end collisions from a trailing vehicle with Pre-Safe, automatically pressurising the brakes and tightening up the seatbelts (in an accident, the latter are also subsequently released at a controlled rate to minimize forces on occupants' bodies). While we were out on the airport runway course to test the S' semi-autonomous skills, we assessed many of the other safety features, simulating many autonomous full-lockup panic stops and avoidance maneuvers. The brain-sloshing session in a hot car left us with crushing nausea but unmarked sheetmetal. In short, there's literally a dizzying amount of bacon-saving technology at work in this new S-Class.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class rear 3/4 view

Perhaps more than any other car before it, the 2014 S-Class not only thinks ahead, it thinks behind, to the sides and underneath.

For those few S-Class owners who leave home without their Friends Of OPEC discount fuel card, Mercedes has pledged a 20-percent improvement over the W221's fuel economy figures, which was rated at 15 miles per gallon city and 25 highway in rear-wheel-drive S550 form (24 mpg with 4Matic), and official EPA figures for the new car should arrive shortly, as sales begin in September. Pricing has also not been announced, but even the base model is receiving massive doses of new technologies and finer furnishings, so we wouldn't be surprised to see a not-insignificant price walk from the outgoing S550, which starts at $95,905 delivered. If the entry-level model doesn't creep into six-figures, it will be an impressive concession by Benz beancounters.

These days, when we think of truly innovative new automobiles, we tend to train our focus on cutting-edge powertrains, or perhaps advanced lightweight materials and production methods. The 2014 S-Class has some of that stuff in its perfumed, quilted-leather arsenal, but its revolution is more electronic in nature. Perhaps more than any other production car before it, the 2014 S-Class not only thinks ahead, it thinks behind, to the sides and underneath. It's all part of its mission to coddle and protect the well-heeled from life on the road's trials and imperfections, be they speed bumps, parking, traffic jams, careless drivers, wayward deer or malodorous air. It even has a kick-ass stereo system. Take that, Bose!