For $114,475, you could buy a handsome three-bedroom colonial in Detroit ($75,000) with enough cash left over for a fully loaded 2014 Chevrolet Impala ($42,000). Or you could buy, as we just did, a 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic, the just-released redesign of the company’s flagship sedan.
My practical Scottish soul urges me to take option one, find tenants for the Detroit homestead, and hit the road in that excellent Chevy, which is honestly all the car I need. My employer, though, told me to go find the new Mercedes, loaded with an array of leading-edge safety features.
From any angle, the S550 is an impressive car, from its soigné looks and ultra-plush leather interior to its intergalactic technology packages and Park Avenue co-op appointments. (Bye-bye, Detroit.) Compared with such jaw-dropping features as its partial self-driving capabilities, rear power seats with more adjustments than a chiropractor, and a cabin-air purifier that can exhale one of a number of selectable scents, the potent powertrain seems almost mundane.
Under the hood is a 4.6-liter V8 good for 449 horsepower, filtered through a seamless seven-speed automatic. Despite its open road potential, power delivery, at least in normal mode, seems less than instantaneous.
On my test drive, I thought my sales associate was nudging me in the ribs. But no. This was, instead, the Dynamic Multicontour Seat function. When you make a moderately hard turn left or right, one or the other of the seat’s wing bolsters inflates momentarily to keep you from sliding sideways. If you want to slide sideways, you can turn it off.
Since the new S-Class is pretty rare right now, and 4Matic versions—Mercedes-speak for all-wheel drive, are even scarcer—we had to spend about $10,000 more than we’d planned to. All-wheel drive is important to us because many luxury-car buyers in northern states prefer to buy them that way, whether it’s a BMW, Jaguar, Lexus, or, of course, an Audi. And since the other cars we’ll be comparing the S550 with all have all-wheel drive, by golly that’s how we needed to get this Mercedes.
The only S550 4Matics I could locate between Boston and Manhattan were "launch cars"—show-offs apportioned at the rate of two samples per dealership and loaded to the gunwales. The dozen or so dealers I spoke with told me that if I wanted to wait for the exact car we wanted, I could order it today and then wait "16 to 20 weeks." Since all six of the "launch car" 4Matics I’d found seemed to be identically equipped, we bought the closest one, from a dealer just down the road in New London, Connecticut.
For form’s sake I asked for money off, feeling a little like Tessio in The Godfather asking Michael to spare his life "for old-time’s sake." My salesperson showed a scintilla of mercy, though, and after the inevitable secret conference with the manager knocked off $475, bringing our tab to an even $114,000. That’s the most we’ve ever spent for one car.
One of the more obscene extras we were compelled to swallow was the $6,500 "Edition 1 Package." In the main that consists of 19-inch alloy wheels, poplar-wood trim, "designo" paint, Nappa leather, and special “badging”—meaning a metal placard with the words "Edition 1" on the dash and fenders. Presumably, if we passed all that up we’d get an unpainted car with no wheels.
Next to the Edition 1's ostentation, the $2,800 Driver Assistance package looks like a rare bargain. It includes a bunch of high-tech safety gear, including adaptive cruise with autonomous braking and a lane-keeping system that lets you take your hands off the wheel for a few moments while the car steers itself. There’s also cross-traffic alert, blind-spot warning, and a pedestrian-detection system.
The S550 assumes that rich people aren’t dumb. The 12-inch central dash screen houses an almost limitless supply of electronic menus for audio, climate, navigation, communications, and six types of seat massage, from "relaxing" to "full workout," all activated by a large knurled and chromed knob on the center console. Thankfully, redundant physical buttons can punch up the basic functions.
Mastering the car’s settings is probably no more difficult than conning a nuclear submarine, but it does take a deal of homework to figure it all out. If you’re the sort who, like me, is confounded by the average wine list, it may pay to take some time with the owner’s manual before actually hitting the highway.
As a case in point, I had to ask the salesperson where to find the front cup holders and the steering-wheel heater. Both are there, but well concealed. It could be that I’m not as hardy as the Germans, who designed this car, or I’m just ignorant of the fine points, but so far I can’t make the steering wheel or heated seats get nearly warm enough for my liking.
And it’s at moments like that when I yearn for an Impala.
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