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Mercedes deems the new 2014 S-Class sedan the world’s best car


Doctor, gangster, developer or third-world dictator — the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has been a perennial marker of success in any career, legal or otherwise. And for the all-new 2014 edition, the world's oldest carmaker added every gadget it could think of — and a few that have never been seen on the road before.

Appropriately, Mercedes’ top executives unveiled the 2014 S-Class in the Airbus Operations center in Hamburg, where another jumbo flagship – the Airbus A380 – sees its fuselage and interior come together in a cathedral-sized assembly hall.

The Benz may not match the 262-foot wingspan of the double-deck A380, but it’s plenty big. And as anyone who’s peered through country club gates can tell you, the S-Class is the conservative choice in big sedans, and has been since 1972. That befits a car whose owner heads a household with an average income of $371,000.

But with luminaries such as former Formula 1 champion Niki Lauda sitting in the front row, Mercedes pulled out all the stops from its own design hangar and marketing playbook. After a technical presentation in a temporary, Mercedes-created theater built to Vegas standards, huge curtains behind the stage parted to reveal the hulking Airbus A380 parked on the outdoor runway just beyond. A pair of S-Classes drove onto the stage between fireworks and a rolling phalanx of other Benz models. And Alicia Keys stepped from the S-Class, strode to a concert grand piano and began to sing, backed by members of the Hamburg Symphony. You know, just another day in the Mercedes universe.

Twirling onstage to Keys’ “This Girl is On Fire,” the S-Class showed it’s more than a backup. This sixth-generation S-Class version ditches the gray flannel for a presence so sensual and commanding – inside and out — that assembled journalists nearly blushed. That design is a continuation of the confident brushstrokes found on everything from the upcoming, $29,995 CLA sedan to the reworked E-Class. Frankly, it’s a heavyweight knockout, so streamlined and powerfully wrought that it makes the Audi A8 look like a frozen slab of meat.

Mercedes claims inspiration from its über-sedans of the ‘30s. That seems a stretch. But the artistically formed front end – with its Viking shield of a grille -- coupe-like profile, scalloped doors, gently falling tail and smartly encased LED tail lamps make a nose-to-tail statement of modern wealth. Once again, Mercedes’ design language is suddenly speaking sexy.

Tossing humility out the window at autobahn speed, Dieter Zetsche, Mercedes’ chief executive, said the S-class aspires to be no less than "the best automobile in the world." It’s already the world’s most popular top-shelf luxury sedan, with the previous generation finding more than 500,000 buyers around the globe.

The company’s four-door avatar of design is stuffed with luxury and tech, enough to pack a 120-page press release with features and innovations – including what Zetsche called six eyes and ears: A set of cameras and radar that form the basis for not just a cocoon of safety, but for the automated cars of the future.

“This sounds a little bit like Frankenstein, but it’s much more attractive,” Zetsche said.

Those features include the world’s first camera system that scans the road surface to instantly adjust the suspension; to nearly 500 LEDs – that’s right, 500 – that make the S-Class the industry’s only car that carries not a single incandescent light bulb aboard. Massaging front seats based on the “hot stone principle” feature 14 separate air chambers and six massage programs, two of them heat-assisted. (Hot oil not included). An adjustable “active perfuming system” atomizes molecules to individualize the interior fragrance, using replaceable glass flasks in four “mood” scents: Freeside, Nightlife, Downtown and Sports. (Whichever you choose, the S-Class always smells like money). Occupants of all four seats can use a smartphone app to individually control radio, TV, Internet, navigation, DVD players and USB devices.

With an eye to chauffeur-driven, moneymaking markets such as China, the S-Class is the first in history to be developed first in long-wheelbase form, with a shorty model then spun off. (Beginning in September, Americans will only see long-wheelbase versions, including an S550, S550 4Matic AWD; a high-performance S63 AMG model in November; and other choices to come, including a plug-in hybrid version sometime in 2014).

The S-Class maintains the previous version’s wheelbase and 206.5-inch length, but the body is 1.1-inch wider and the roof 0.7 inches taller. Benz claims a gain in every interior dimension, including the limo-like back seat.

That cabin is a story in its own right. It appears hewn from a single, Arthurian slab of richness, including a curving double-S shaped dash. With Bentley-esque materials, details and craftsmanship – but far more luxury gizmos — this eye-popping parlor makes you question why you’d spend $200,000 or more to get the same effect. And it instantly puts every rival, including the formidable Audi A8, on notice.

A magic forest’s worth of wood, with a choice of five exotic timbers contrasts with aluminum controls and pearl-metal painted surfaces. Optional Executive rear seating extends the center console between a pair of finely contoured back seats. Those aircraft-style seats feature both a calf support and 43.5 degrees of recline, the steepest in the segment. That package’s goodies include heating-and-cooling cupholders and a folding table that emerges from the center console.

A pair of enormous, 12.3-inch configurable display screens span the driver’s instrument cluster and central display, with a “corona” effect that makes them appear to float in space. Google comes aboard with street-level map views, local search and a slew of cloud-based apps. Ambient cabin lighting glows in a choice of seven colors, five dimming levels and four separate zones. The latest Comand multimedia system features more than 30 million lines of computer programming, powered by the Intel Atom processor. Coming from Benz, whether the system proves easy or infuriating remains to be seen – but the Linguatronic voice recognition system does allow navigation destination input by simply speaking an address in one unbroken stream.

An optional, chart-topping Burmester audio system features 24 speakers and 1,540 watts. All models feature the Frontbass system, using caverns within the body itself as resonance-boosting subwoofers.

At some point, owners will have to stop showing off and actually drive the thing. Mercedes says the S-Class weighs up to 220 pounds less than before, despite all its added features. It also claims the most aerodynamic, stiffest structure in its class, a largely aluminum shell that supports an all-aluminum exterior skin.

Benz’ prodigious, 4.7-liter Biturbo V-8 is a carryover engine, but it now pumps out 450 hp, up from 429 in the previous model. Torque holds steady at 516 pound-feet. Mated to Mercedes’ slick seven-speed automatic transmission, the S-Class should nip 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, about a half-second quicker than before.

True to Mercedes form, the S-Class wraps itself in so many 360-degree camera, radar and sensor views that it’s like a metallic mother bear protecting its cubs. The latest Night View Assist system adds a heat-detecting infrared camera to detect, highlight and warn for both pedestrians and large animals such as deer that could ding the precious sheetmetal. Instead of a passive view, the system automatically switches the speedometer to a crystal-clear thermal view when triggered by on-road danger. Active Lane Keeping Assist continuously monitors cars in the adjacent lane, and can prevent a driver from drifting into a head-on smash by applying brakes on one side to center the car.

Distronic Plus’ radar-based adaptive cruise control automatically maintains the Benz’ speed and position, even in stop-and-go traffic. The Benz will even steer itself along highway curves, allowing the driver to remove hands from the wheel for up to 30 seconds at a time.

The Pre Safe system will brake the Benz automatically to avoid striking pedestrians at around-town speeds. Pre Safe Impulse uses front seat belts to pull driver and passenger away from impact in the early moments of a crash, potentially reducing injuries. That system will quickly pulse hazard warning lights to warn following traffic of impending rear-end collisions; and apply brakes and fire seat belt tensioners at rear impact to minimize whiplash and other injuries.

Unfortunately, the clever Adaptive Highbeam Plus, which allows drivers to keep bright beams on by tracking and masking other vehicles within its cone of light, hasn’t been approved by U.S. regulators. The Spotlight function, which shines a tracking beam on pedestrians or animals well beyond headlamp range – but only after cameras and algorithms determine the warm-blooded creature is entering the roadway and in imminent danger – is another no-no for the American market, at least for now.

Every S-Slass glides with an adaptive air suspension, but an optional Road Surface Scan uses a stereo camera to read the road and prep the Magic Body Control suspension to soothe every bump and pothole.

Mercedes execs hinted at a starting price close to that of the current S550, or roughly $95,000, though option sprees can kick that to $120,000 or more, and $150,000-plus for the S63 AMG.

After briefly losing its sales title to the BMW 7-Series, even the current 2013 S-Class has reestablished itself as America’s most popular full-size luxury sedan, capturing nearly one in four sales overall. This new, rigorously engineered model seems likely to cement that position. We can’t wait to drive it, and see how its propulsive style, lush cabin and innovative engineering work in the real world.