Rolls-Royce used to proclaim "The Best Car in the World" in its print advertising -- until a truth-in-advertising commission in the U.K. made them stop because it was unprovable opinion, not incontrovertible fact. Mercedes will probably not use the phrase in its publicity, either, but Michael Allner, head of Daimler-Benz Global Communications, certainly uttered it in a Stuttgart press briefing on the interior of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, talking about "our task in making the best car in the world." Based on what we've seen of the car in two separate trips to Stuttgart for pre-introduction briefings, if it isn't just that, it won't be from lack of trying. Indeed, the press release had the simple title, "The assignment: Perfection." With a capital P, note.
Seriously embarrassed by the Maybach fiasco, Daimler-Benz has put enormous effort into refurbishing its tarnished reputation. That reputation first took a beating back in the Jürgen Schrempp era with the "de-contented" E-Class, which was not "engineered like no other car," and by releasing some visually disappointing models that lacked the gravitas expected of Mercedes automobiles. This time for the S-Class, Mercedes says, "For the first time in the history of the S-Class, the development focus was on the long-wheelbase sedan. Unlike before, the standard-wheelbase version was derived from this."
Last year, we got a look at the exterior of the 2014 S-Class -- to be fully unveiled later this year -- at the Sindelfingen design center, along with the all-new CLA, the face-lifted E-Class and the spectacular S-Class coupe that hasn't been widely disseminated on the web as the sedan has. The sedan represents a huge improvement over the current car, with a more upright grille re-proportioning the considerable mass with a longer hood and clean sides making it appear longer overall. Not that it needs more length, but the resulting sleekness is a big plus. The car we saw months ago had blacked-out windows, but design chief Gorden Wagener promised that the interior would be as big an improvement. He and his team have definitely delivered, conceptually and visually.
The interior reveal was an extremely curious event. After the usual PR palaver, visitors were ushered into a dark -- a very dark -- room, wherein three pre-production cars were positioned so that all doors could open wide and groups of three people were invited to take the passenger seats. Our first experience was with the 1500 Watt, 24-speaker Burmester sound system. To liken the car's interior to a concert hall is a misnomer; there was no coughing, no shuffling of feet, just very pure sound, enhanced by several innovations that no other car enjoys. There are sub-woofers in the front footwells that embody a reversed layout to place the driving magnets in front of the cones in the interest of packaging. They're mounted in the stiffest part of the body shell, and hearing a jazz demonstration CD left one thinking that you were inside the drum. There is of course a unique name for this, the Frontbass System. A nice little feature is that one can direct the three-dimensional sound to focus on a single seating position, and the change from the general broadcast is clearly perceptible. Of course, all the usual high-tech features are available. You can plug in your telephone, iPod, MP 3 player, etc., and use whatever features you like in conjunction with the speaker array.
A new level of ambience lighting made sitting in the darkened demonstration room not just tolerable but downright agreeable. Entering the car, you first notice the surprisingly flat instrument cluster and central information screen that don't seem to be truly integrated into the overall design scheme, which embraces flowing curves everywhere else. The flat panel is backlit around its perimeter by LED ambience lighting, which also covers several disparate and separately controllable zones, not just the door panels as in the current S-Class. There are six different colors, including two reds that are surprisingly restful. The soft luminescence encompasses the rear compartment as well.
The steering wheel is the nicest we've seen in a sedan in decades. There are only two spokes, above which the rim is polished wood. The entire lower half is leather-covered, free of stitches that might tactilely distress the driver's hands. At the upper edge of the spoke, the leather wraps around with the stitches just out of reach of your thumbs, a feature seen in the very first Infiniti Q45 but not followed up until now. The entire opening between rim and spokes is spanned by a single piece of wood, completely without joints. The wood insert itself covers the stitches that hold the leather to the rim. It is clean, neat, and looks both very serious and very expensive, both of which attributes are no doubt very real.
There are innovations, including a "hot rocks massage" function for the seats that does indeed feel like someone pressing heated river stones against muscle groups in your back, and they are actually heated. As are the armrests, so your elbows will never suffer the indignity of sensing the presence of cold leather. There are individual controls for each passenger for accessing the multiple sources for the entertainment system, with radio, TV, internet, navigation, DVD player, and USB devices.
In one of the cars, we found vestiges of the Maybach, in that the right rear seat is clearly meant for the master of the vehicle. While both rear seats can recline, only the right seat has an airliner first-class-style adjustable leg rest and a foot rest that extends from the right front seat, which itself can be moved forward and up to enhance legroom, with its headrest automatically dropped out of the rear passenger's sight line. If the right front seat is occupied, sensors prohibit its movement.
Such electronic protectors are part and parcel of the whole S-Class experience. There are sensors to tell the driver he's getting tired and suggest -- with appealing colored graphics -- that he pause for a coffee, to tell him that he has strayed out of lane, to suggest that he slow down, or to actually slow the car automatically, and so on, almost ad infinitum. There are so many electronic aides that, to fully understand and employ them correctly, it would require hours of study -- rather like an airline pilot checking out in a new airliner type, in fact.
In that super-luxury trim level, down-filled pillows attached to the headrests provide the perfect feel for a relaxed passenger's nap time. Altogether, the 2014 S-Class promises to be one of the great cars. It is clean-lined inside and out and is claimed to be made to higher fit and finish standards, and there is no question that it is more comfortable than any previous Mercedes, even the vaunted 600 Pullman.