It’s dj vu all over again. More than a decade ago, I was tasked with writing a cover story for the U.K.’s Autocar magazine, an article whose headline roared something along the lines of “The Best Luxury Car in the World!” We had gathered together in Michigan a second-generation Lexus LS400, a BMW 7-Series, a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham (don’t ask), and an Infiniti Q45, among others. After an intense few days, a couple of thousand miles, and more road-test notes than I’ve ever collected in my life, we had our conclusion.
We argued–intensely and almost to the point of verbal abuse–but the drama was over second place. Because by the end of day one, it had become overwhelmingly plain that the W140 Mercedes-Benz S-Class (1992-99) was simply untouchable.
The S-class still is. But the path leading to this All-Star award wasn’t smooth. Simply put, the last-generation S-class, the one that this All-Star replaced, didn’t fulfill the promise of the car I drove all those years ago. Its styling lacked the visual drama that should define every S-class, the quality of its interior wasn’t up to the high standards set by the previous iteration, and the extraordinary sense of occasion attending every journey by S-class was just plain missing.
It seems that Mercedes-Benz had arrived at the same conclusion. This latest S not only addresses every single criticism we’ve mentioned, it moves the bar for this class virtually out of sight. That’s depressing if you work for Lexus or BMW but mighty good news for fans of undiluted German motoring pomp.
And just as all big Benzes used to do, the latest S-class offers a road presence that telegraphs power and arrogance. Those cartoonishly massive wheel arches give the S a profile stance like no other contender.
The good vibes continue inside. Creamy, double-stitched leather covers the seats, the doors, and even the instrument panel. The ribbed-chrome controls look and feel terrific, and that sense of occasion is immediately apparent in the spacious cabin.
On our All-Stars event, we drove an S550, whose 382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8 delivers 60 mph in 5.4 seconds and a top speed limited at 130 mph (manufacturer figures). Super-refined, punchy, and beautifully matched to the seven-speed automatic gearbox, this is just about all the engine you need for the S, although there are a couple of twin-turbo V-12s available in mad and even madder states of tune.
Bigger, better to drive, and now looking the way an S-class should, the latest big-hitter Merc also is available with technology that’s actually useful. Active Body Control gives exceptional ride quality, but not at the cost of tied-down body control and wieldiness. Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control is one of the best of its kind, and the infrared night-vision system increases forward visibility by up to 125 percent.
Best Luxury Car in the World? Well, that’s a rematch I’d love to arrange, even at the risk of another clich. To wit, “the more things change . . .”