(MCT) -- BMW may be the ultimate driving machine, but Mercedes-Benz is working on the ultimate driverless machine. The three-star 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic comes closer to autonomous driving than any other vehicle you can buy, thanks to a suite of sensors that can accelerate, brake and - in limited circumstances - steer the big luxury sedan.
It also has some frankly goofy features. Who would have thought super-serious Mercedes would boast about aromatherapy?
It's hard to describe a feature that spritzes perfume into the passenger cabin as anything but frivolous, but Mercedes is very serious about its technology for autonomous driving. S550 features include adaptive cruise control; automatic brakes that can bring the big sedan to a full stop to avoid hitting a pedestrian or another car; night vision, and steering that can correct itself to keep the car centered in its lane and follow other vehicles in traffic without the driver doing anything.
The car's ability to steer itself is far enough ahead of our time that S-class drivers can't fully appreciate it, though. Mercedes artificially limits the feature. While the technologies for self-driving cars exist, the regulatory and legal systems have barely begun to address autonomous vehicles. Customers are probably even farther from being ready. Mercedes won't rush them.
That makes the 2014 S550 a prologue to the cars Mercedes really wants to build. It's packed with technology that doesn't get to strut its stuff.
Perhaps for that reason, the S550 is a superb car in which to be driven, but not particularly engaging to drive. The luxurious materials and advanced features pamper passengers, but I found driving the S550 to be a competent, somewhat bland experience.
Mercedes' S-class family of large luxury cars is all-new for 2014. Prices start at $92,900 for an S550 with a 449-hp twin-turbo 4.6L V8 and seven-speed automatic transmission. Adding all-wheel-drive for the S550 4Matic model raises the price to $95,900. The high-performance S63 AMG features a 577-hp twin-turbo 5.5L V8 and lists for $139,500.
I tested a rear-drive S550 with massaging front seats; sumptuous reclining rear seats with memory; heated and ventilated rear seats; black leather upholstery; 19-inch AMG five-spoke wheels, and much more.
It stickered at $120,420. All prices exclude destination charges.
The S550 competes with such luxury cars as the Audi A8L, BMW 750iL, Jaguar XJ8L, Lexus LS 460L and Porsche Panamera S.
The S550's price is competitive with those models. It offers loads of technology and unparalleled comfort.
The engine delivers its power smoothly, including 516 lp-ft of torque from a mere 1,800 r.p.m. Mercedes' seven-speed automatic transmission is quick and smooth. The S550 4Matic's acceleration falls in the middle of its competitive set. Mercedes' claimed 4.8 second 0-60 m.p.h. time trails the A8L Quattro, BMW 750Li xDrive and Porsche Panamera 4S. It's quicker than the XJ8L Portfolio AWD and LS 460L AWD.
The EPA rates the S550 4Matic at 16 m.p.g. in the city, 26 on the highway and 19 combined. The combined figure matches Audi, BMW and Jag, beats Lexus, but trails Porsche.
The interior is spacious and ritzy, trimmed with attractive, understated wood, leather, suede and aluminum. The rear seat is spectacularly roomy, with heated and ventilated outboard positions and glorious pillowed headrest cushions.
While the S-class driving systems aim for a point where the driver doesn't have to do anything, some elementary controls could use work. The procedure to pair a Bluetooth device is counter-intuitive. There's only one 12-volt power point in the front seat, an indication the product planners perceived this primarily as a chauffeured vehicle. The outlet is part of a poorly laid out center console. It's impossible to access the outlet, CD player and cupholders simultaneously. The door of the sunglasses holder in the roof was defective and difficult to close.
The exterior styling is elegant, with crisp lines that make the S550 look smaller than it is. A short trunk, falling roofline and character lines along the sides visually counterbalance the long hood.
The 2014 S550 4Matic is a study in automotive luxury packed with technology that's a bit ahead of its time. It'll be interesting to see what Mercedes can do when drivers and the legal system catch up
Behind the Wheel
2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic
Rear-wheel-drive five-passenger luxury sedan
Price as tested: $120,420 (excluding destination charge)
Rating: 3 (Out of four stars)
Reasons to buy: Passenger room and comfort; features.
Shortcomings: Shortage of 12v power points; ergonomics.
Competitive EPA fuel economy ratings:
(Automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive models)
Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic: 16 m.p.g. city/26 highway/19 combined. Premium gasoline.
Audi A8L 4.0T Quattro: 16/26/19. Premium gasoline.
BMW 750Li xDrive: 16/24/19. Premium gasoline.
Jaguar XJL Portfolio AWD: 16/24/19. Premium gasoline.
Lexus LS 460L AWD: 16/23/18. Premium gasoline.
Porsche Panamera 4S: 17/27/21. Premium gasoline.
(Automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive models)
Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic: $95,900
Audi A8L 4.0T Quattro: $87,600
BMW 750Li xDrive: $94,000
Jaguar XJL Portfolio AWD: $84,700
Lexus LS 460L AWD: $81,925.
Porsche Panamera 4S: $98,300
SPECIFICATIONS AS TESTED
Engine: 4.7L twin-turbo 32-valve V8
Power: 449 hp @ 5,2500-5,500 r.p.m.; 516 lb-ft of torque @ 1,800-3,500 r.p.m.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy rating: 16 m.p.g. city/26 highway/19 combined. Premium gasoline
Wheelbase: 124.6 inches
Length: 206.5 inches
Width: 74.8 inches
Height: 58.7 inches
Curb weight: 4,773 lbs.
Where assembled: Sindelfingen, Germany
KEY FEATURES ON VEHICLE TESTED
Standard equipment: Antilock brakes; stability control; attention assist; automatic braking; curve-following LED headlights; LED daytime running lights; automatic high beams; collision prevention assist; emergency brake assist; rearview camera; power sunroof; ambient lighting; wood/leather steering wheel; power rear sun shade; power windows, locks and mirrors; memory for driver and front passenger settings; Bluetooth compatible; voice recognition; soft-close doors; power folding mirrors.
Options: Black Nappa leather; night vision; exclusive trim package; split view display; push button start; heated and ventilated front seats; power rear side window sun shades; parking assist; parking sensors; massaging front seats.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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