In order to rise to that challenge, Mercedes crammed its all-new S-Class with the latest automotive tech, ranging from a new air freshening system to a suspension that can read the road ahead. That all looks good on paper, but can the new S-Class hang with the big boys on the roads of the real world? Come with us as we find out.
What is it?
Now in its sixth generation, the S-Class hails as Mercedes' range-topping sedan. The S-Class can be had in a number of different guises, ranging from our relatively docile S550 tester on up to the fire-breathing S65 AMG.
The S-Class has long been Mercedes' technological test bed, and that holds true for the latest iteration of the luxury limo. Some of the features available on the 2014 S-Class would have been considered sci-fi just a few years ago.
What's it up against?
The S-Class' main rivals include the Jaguar XJ, BMW 7-Series and Audi A8. However, given the S-Class' heightened levels of luxury and technology, it's not impossible to imagine a Rolls-Royce Ghost intender at least stopping by a Mercedes dealership.
Those shopping Mercedes' high-performance S-Class AMG line might also be considering sporting alternatives like the Porsche Panamera and Maserati Quattroporte.
What's it look like?
Although somewhat of an evolutionary design, the 2014 S-Class arrives with new exterior styling that features tighter proportions and softer edges than before.
Up front, the new S-Class is highlighted by a prominent, chrome-rimmed grille that conceals some of the S-Class' driving sensors. New headlights with LED accents are also part of the 2014 S-Class update.
Although not swoopy enough to land the four-door coupe tag, the S-Class looks sporty in profile thanks to a long hood, thick C-pillars and a short decklid. Our test car's AMG-sourced wheels helped boost the S-Class' athletic aura.
The rear-end of the S-Class tapers, helping to give the illusion that it's a little smaller than it really is. LED taillights follow the S-Class body lines while integrated dual exhaust outlets finish off the car's lower bumper.
And the inside?
As with any luxury vehicle, it's what's on the inside that counts, and the S-Class delivers in spades.
Slide behind the wheel of the S-Class and the first thing you'll notice is the complete lack of analog dials. In fact, the S-Class is so forward-looking that it doesn't have a single old-school incandescent light bulb.
Rather than a conventional gauge cluster, the S-Class uses a 12.3-inch LCD screen. A similar display sits atop the center stack to handle infotainment and HVAC controls. Both screens are mounted in a single housing that "floats" on the dash. We liken the look to a TV hanging on a wall.
The S-Class' HVAC controls are handled by toggle-like switches located just below a set of heritage-inspired air vents. Uncluttered and easy to use, we can't help but wonder why other automakers don't use the S-Class' switch design.
In order to delve deeper into the S-Class' capabilities, you'll need to take control with the console-mounted joystick. From there you can do just about anything, from changing the color of the S-Class' interior mood lighting to picking just the right amount of air freshening to selecting from one of six massage functions (we suggest the hot stone).
Despite having an abundance of features to wade through, the S-Class' interface is actually rather straight forward and easy to use. Menus are logically grouped, but there is some room for improvement with their arrangement. For example, we found ourselves using the S-Class' massage feature for virtually every drive, but had to cycle through a few menus to get there. Try as we might, we couldn't find a way to arrange the menus to our tastes.
Thankfully, the S-Class' voice control system is one of the best we've sampled.
More than just a high-tech chariot, the 2014 S-Class also has all the hallmarks of a traditional high-end luxury vehicle.
Nearly every surface in the S-Class is covered in butter-soft leather or real wood accents. Our particular tester featured quilting on the dash, doors and seats that added an extra level of interest. We weren't initially impressed with our car's optional Metallized Ash Wood trim, but it grew on us during our week with the car.
As you might expect of a car with a personal masseuse, the S-Class is an extremely comfortable cruiser. The S-Class' front buckets feature a number of power adjustments, making it easy to find just the right positioning. The S-Class' rear quarters are just as comfy, particularly when optioned with power-adjustable outboard seats. Although rarely used during our summer evaluation, the S-Class' heated seats also activate heated armrest, which is a feature we hope spreads throughout the industry.
The S-Class' cabin remains whisper quiet whether driving in city traffic or steady-state highway cruising.
But does it go?
As good as the S-Class' styling and high-tech features are, they pale in comparison to the way the big sedan drives.
As a luxury cruiser, the S-Class is second to none. You can spend more, but you won't find a more comfortable ride anywhere on the market.
That comes down to Mercedes' AIRMATIC air suspension, which is paired with MAGIC BODY CONTROL in the S-Class. In a nutshell, MAGIC BODY CONTROL uses stereo cameras to scan the road ahead for imperfections and then relays that information to the suspension, which adjusts accordingly. The result is an amazingly smooth ride that is truly worthy of the magic moniker - it's almost as if the S-Class floats down the road.
But that's not to say the S-Class is floaty like a Cadillac of yore. The S550 is actually remarkably competent in the twisties, but its sheer size limits the fun factor. Brakes are also an S-Class strong point, with its four-wheel disc more than capable of hauling the 4,773-pound sedan to a dead stop.
Adding to its cruising prowess, the S-Class can be equipped with Mercedes' DISTRONIC PLUS adaptive cruise control and steering assist, making it the closest thing you can get to an autonomous vehicle today. Just set the cruise and the S550 will automatically keep a set distance with the car in front. If the driver inadvertently begins to veer across a lane line, the S550 will steer itself back on course. The system technically doesn't need any driver interaction, but issues visual and audible warning if it senses the driver has let go of the steering wheel.
Unlike other systems on the market that can bounce between lane lines, we found the S550's to be particularly good at keeping the car centered in its lane. The system does have some limitations - such as navigating sharp corners - but we rarely came across them.
Unfortunately the S550 suffers from our typical Mercedes gripe - too many stalks behind the wheel. Controls for the adaptive cruise control are all but hidden, so be sure to study up before you hit the open road. Also, we found the S550's gearshift lever - which is the same unit used in the entry-level CLA - to be unbecoming of a six-figure luxury vehicle.
Thankfully, we didn't sample it, but the S550's COLLISION PREVENTION PLUS system is capable of coming to a complete stop if it detects an imminent crash. Mercedes' Night View Assistant PLUS - which can detect pedestrians - is intended to cut down on night time crashes, but seems more like a novelty than an actual safety feature.
The V8 in the S550 might be the baby of the S-Class range, but it certainly isn't lacking in the power department. Thanks to twin turbochargers, the 4.6L makes 449 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque. The S550 doesn't feel sports-car fast off the line, but it's certainly quick - Mercedes says the sedan can zip from 0-60 in just 4.8 seconds. Fuel economy is quite decent for a vehicle of this caliber, measuring 16 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.
The S550's seven-speed automatic seems somewhat lacking by today's standards, but the unit delivers smooth and imperceptible shifts. Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters are available, but seem out of character with the S550.
Most S550s will ship from the factory with Mercedes' 4MATIC all-wheel drive system, and our test car was no exception.
Leftlane's bottom line
When we first heard that Mercedes was taking its S-Class even further up-scale, we were skeptical to say the least. However, after spending some time with the S550, we're now true believers.
With nary a fault to speak of, it's quite possible that the Mercedes-Benz S-Class is the best vehicle in the world today.
2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 4MATIC Sedan base price, $95,900. As tested, $122,895.
Designo Metallized Ash Wood Trim, $800; Night View Assist PLUS, $2,260; Exclusive Trim Package, $950; Premium 1 Package, $4,500; Sport Package Plus One, $6,650; Warmth and Comfort package, $2,600; Air Balance Package, $350; Driver Assistance Package, $2,800; Destination, $925.
Photos by Drew Johnson.