As I drove the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 for this review, a number of nicknames came to mind. Because of its sheer comfort and luxury, I was thinking Chariot of the Gods. The utter blackness of the paint and subtle exterior lines suggested Death Star. While powering along a twisty mountain road, it also seemed the perfect car to pack full of villains and go after James Bond in his Aston Martin in, so Anonymous Baddie Car, maybe.
Given its size (over 17 feet), powerful engine, and loads of tech, it is certainly worthy of more than one nickname.
Mercedes-Benz's flagship S-Class luxury sedan has been facing stiff competition, from the Audi A8 to even the Hyundai Equus. The company obviously couldn't rest on its laurels, especially considering the much lower prices of a few other big, luxury rollers.
The 2014 S550 shows that Mercedes-Benz took the threat seriously, and designed a car that will force other luxury sedan makers back to their drawing boards. Along with redesigned bodywork, a huge cabin, large LCD panels for instruments and cabin tech, and fuel economy technology, Mercedes-Benz adds an innovative steering-assistance feature that will ease driving and bring the S550 one step closer to being an autonomous car.
Dark and sinister
The phrase "understated elegance" seems crafted specifically for the S550's body. Despite a wide silver grille dominating the front, the skin lacks ornamentation or embellishment. It is an incredibly clean look. That look, despite the shape being nothing like a small moon, is what made me think Death Star would be an appropriate name. And while a few drivers gave me a thumbs-up as I drove by, more seemed to find the big, black sedan sinister, and pulled off the road to let me by.
Planting a flag in the future, Mercedes-Benz brags that the S550 does not have a single incandescent bulb -- from headlights to cabin lights to taillights, all illumination comes from LEDs.
The first S-Class models to hit showrooms all come standard with a long wheelbase, meaning an incredibly spacious rear seating area. None of your passengers will be calling shotgun, and you might make a habit of letting friends drive, so you can lounge in back. Those rear seats are power-adjustable, with comfy suede pillows attached to their headrests, and a dedicated sunroof overhead.
The front seats had the bulk and surface area of living-room recliners. Among the seven different massage settings, there were a couple that combined the seat heating function with the internal rollers. The seat adjustment controls were mounted on the doors, one ergonomic nicety I've always appreciated about Mercedes-Benz. For an over-the-top feature, the glove compartment held a scent container, a kind of aromatherapy system for the cabin.
From front to back, the S550 felt like a worthy Chariot of the Gods.
Wide-screen times two
Mercedes-Benz embraces advanced technology in the cabin, the most obvious sign being the two immense LCD panels on the dashboard. Sure, the previous S550 had an LCD at the center of the dashboard for navigation and other cabin tech features, but this 2014 model goes jumbo, having a center screen that looks about a foot wide. This LCD shows Mercedes-Benz's standard Comand interface, using menu strips across the top and bottom, but all the screens have been redesigned, updating the look and information layout.
In front of the driver, Mercedes-Benz does away with analog gauges in favor of a full LCD instrument cluster. I like this move, but the virtual speedometer and tachometer could use some refinement. I've seen some virtual gauges that were difficult to tell from the real thing, but the ones in the S550 look a little flat. I also didn't like the fuel level indicator, merely a percentage of fuel remaining showing at the bottom of the speedometer. Mercedes-Benz could have splurged on a more graphic representation of the fuel level.
Not much has changed with the underlying cabin tech features, and that is a good thing. Mercedes-Benz takes advantage of the big main LCD to show well-rendered maps, complete with 3D buildings. The large size of the screen made it easy for me to pick up details at a glance, such as traffic flow. And the map even showed which intersections had traffic lights.
Under route guidance, the S550 did an excellent job of giving me turn directions. Not only did the voice prompts read out street names and give good advance warning for turns, the screen graphics included lane guidance and good representations of freeway junctions. On top of that, the dynamic routing seamlessly recalculated to keep me out of more than one bad traffic situation.
Address entry used the same scheme as in the previous S550 model -- I had to turn the Comand interface's rotary dial to tediously scroll through the alphabet and pick letters. However, the response time was quick and the system had predictive entry, which gave me a list of all possible results depending on which letters I had chosen. Think of it as a good version of autocorrect.
Better yet, Mercedes-Benz has finally updated its voice command system, so that I could say an entire address string and the system would parse city, street name, and number. Voice command also gave me detailed control over the stereo, letting me request music by artist or album name from a drive or iOS device I had plugged into one of the S550's two USB ports. As in other Mercedes-Benz models, I could also place calls by saying a contact name from my Bluetooth-paired phone.
Other audio sources included HD Radio, Bluetooth streaming, the onboard hard drive, a six-CD changer, and, new for Mercedes-Benz, the TuneIn Internet radio app. I liked the new music library screens, which included an option for choosing albums by cover art.
For another luxury touch, Mercedes-Benz gives the S550 a Burmester audio system, standard. The car I reviewed was upgraded to a Burmester surround-sound system, and had very attractive aluminum speaker grilles. The audio quality was incredibly detailed and balanced. Listening to acoustic tracks by The Civil Wars, I could hear the individual vibrations of guitar strings, clear from attack to sustain. Fiddling around the three-band equalizer, I pumped the bass and got a convincing thump that palpably shook the air in the cabin. As I raised the volume, the music became more enjoyable rather than distorted.
TuneIn radio, part of the Mercedes-Benz Apps library, was the most successful portion of this connected feature. I recently reviewed the Mercedes-Benz GLK250, and found that Mercedes-Benz Apps took too long to connect to be useful. In this car that still went for apps such as Google Search and Facebook, but I tend to keep a music app like TuneIn running for a while, so the extended load time was a smaller percentage of my use of the app. TuneIn let me dig up online radio stations from around the world and play them through the car's stereo. For the S550, Mercedes-Benz has added more apps than in other cars with this feature, but it won't be really successful until the company addresses the load times.
It would also be nice to see Pandora in the mix, as it has become widely adopted among other carmakers.
Take the reins
All of this cabin tech seemed like a lot to handle, but the S550 was there to help with the driving. Mercedes-Benz pioneered adaptive cruise control with an earlier generation of its S-Class, and now adds a near-autonomous feature, Steering Assist. Adaptive cruise relies on radar to detect the speed of any cars ahead, and match that speed if it is slower than what you set for cruise control. I have driven literally hundreds of miles at a stretch without touching gas or brake pedals using adaptive cruise control.
Steering Assist is a new wrinkle on adaptive cruise control. The S550 had stereoscopic cameras mounted up on the windshield, in front of the rearview mirror. These cameras let the car know the location of lane lines. When I activated the adaptive cruise control system, the car not only matched the speed of slower traffic ahead, but tried to hold its position in the lane, actively steering the wheel to compensate for curves.
Using Steering Assist reminded me of an anecdote about a milkman who began his delivery career with a horse and cart. He would jump off the cart, grab a rack of bottles, then go down an alley between a block of houses putting bottles down at each door. Meanwhile, the horse plodded on down the main street of its own accord, meeting the milkman at the end of the block. When the milkman traded in horse and car for a truck, he had to continually park, deliver the milk, then go back to the truck and drive down a few more houses. Lather, rinse, repeat.