2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class first drive review

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One of the more confusing questions car reviewers get--other than, "why so much bacon?"--is innocent enough, on the surface.

"What's the best car?"

Hm. Can I get a metric? Some vague parameters or constraints? Are we talking about the most value you can extract from a $20,000 bill--or the most indulgent, athletic, outrageous and exclusive piece of auto erotica ever assembled?

A few cars claim a space in that dream garage, and they're not all McLarens and Lamborghinis. The 7-Series is one, along with the A8, the Jaguar XJ and Range Rover, the Flying Spur and Mulsanne. The newcomer to the crowd: the Tesla [NSDQ:TSLA] Model S, getting in on the puffery even before it offers true cross-country drivability.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class? It might have founded this pricey club. For decades it's been one of the benchmarks of the car world--so much so, whole luxury brands have been aimed at it--and this year it's mounting some fresh hardware to back up the sweeping statement with more hard evidence than ever.

That evidence should shake its rivals, particularly the Brits. The new S-Class has finally learned how to connect with its driver on an emotional lever. It's intimate now, connected with its owner in dozens of little ways, from the lingering scent it perfumes its cabin with, to the mobile tether it links up with in the driver's smartphone.

An intimate connection

It begins with the S-Class' revamped body and interior. The sheetmetal's now entirely aluminum outside, and it's less a full 180-degree turn than the past three generations of S-Class shapes have been. From leaden, to graceful, to highly surfaced, the S-Class has finally settled on a strong but balanced look that hones down the fussy intersections and surfaces of the previous car into clear, focused themes. It's paired with the kind of cabin that's far removed from the clinical German stereotype: the new S-Class cockpit rewards the eyes and fingertips along with the brain, with some achingly gorgeous details at work. Our favorite: the landau bars cut into the grilles of the Burmester speakers, and the wash of ambient LED lighting both in and outside of the S-Class.

You'd have to be a true cynic to find fault with the Mercedes-Benz S Class' passenger comforts. The 2014 S550 has spacious accommodations, superb front seats, easy access for those in back, and a fillip of first-class accoutrements to go with occasionally fiddly ergonomics. There's a bit more room inside than before--all U.S. cars are a longer-wheelbase variety--and every cubic inch is filled with systems to nurture passengers.

It's fully realized with the First Class Rear Suite option, which is just that--as close as you'll come to the front of the plane while you're riding in the back of the car. It's fitted with reclining rear seats, airline-style work trays, dual TFT screens for the driver and the car's infotainment systems, and it's enabled for mobile-app connectivity. The seats have a warm-stone massage mode; Burmester sound systems are a pricey but achingly gorgeous upgrade.

If anything, its finishes are more beautifully crafted than ever. The tiny knobs that control its round vents aren't as sensually pleasing as the chrome pulls on a Bentley, but the quilted leather dash and silver-toned trim are as glamorous as anything Mercedes has ever made. The S-Class even has its own scent, one of four perfumes designed for it is atomized into the cabin from a hidden glovebox compartment, on a schedule that doesn't desensitize the nose or permanently odor the cabin.

Let's just recap, briefly. The seats have their own app, and the car has its own fragrance.

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