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2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic Test Drive

  • s550-876.jpg

     (Mercedes-Benz)

  • s550-cabin-876.jpg

     (Mercedes-Benz)

The all-new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 has a starting price of $95,900 with options pushing that well into the six-figure range, so suffice it to say that it’s not cheap.

But it’s not expensive, either, because compared to it, the car you drive is from the Stone Age.

You wouldn’t guess it from the outside, because it looks like a standard and subdued luxury sedan. But its list of amenities and features is mind-boggling.

Open a door and you’ll find an opulent leather, wood and metal-trimmed interior worthy of a Hunger Games victor; more legroom front and rear than the beach on your private island; hundreds of LED lights illuminating everything in a dazzling display of adjustable color ambience; two LCD screens on the dashboard – one for the gauges and one for the infotainment system, which magically allows the front passenger to watch a video hidden from the driver’s view; and a built-in air freshener system with a selection of scents, new car odor not among them.

But it's the things you can't see or smell that are really impressive.

The S550 rides on an air suspension that can be fitted with a camera that looks ahead for bumps and adjusts itself just as they’re hitting the tires. The camera is available only on rear-wheel-drive cars, so my all-wheel-drive S550 4Matic tester didn’t have it. But even without, it’s like riding on a cloud that stop to rest on a magic carpet lined with memory foam. Unfortunately, the optional and very stylish 19-inch AMG wheels wrapped in stiff, run-flat tires harsh the mellow over very sharp bumps. Stick with the 18-inchers if your local roads are not billiard-table smooth.

The engine is a 449 hp 4.7-liter twin-turbocharged V8 that can drag the 4,630-pound sedan to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. A seven-speed automatic transmission squeezes 26 mpg out of it on the highway.

There, the S550 is the kind of quiet where you find yourself complaining about how loud the air conditioner fan is, which it isn’t at all. Stressed out by it anyway? The seats offer a hot-stone massage, among several simulated techniques. If that sounds a little too relaxing for when you’re behind the wheel, don’t worry – because the S550 can basically drive itself.

Watch the test:

Choose the $2,800 Driver Assistance package and you get adaptive radar cruise control, lane departure prevention, automatic collision avoidance with a pedestrian-spotting camera and a host of other CYA features. One detects when you’re about to drift onto the shoulder or across a solid line into incoming traffic and uses the brakes to slow down and nudge you back on track. Another takes the driving out of your hands … for short stints, at least.

This feature keeps an eye on the lane markers and uses radar to latch a virtual tractor beam onto the car in front of you at low speeds, allowing the S550 to guide itself, even on a gently curving road. When engaged, you can let go of the wheel, sit back and be amazed.

You’re not supposed to do that – it’s really just there to augment your sad, distracted driving abilities – but it works up to 125 mph, and it works well. For better or worse, it goes the full robot for only about 15 seconds, then makes you touch the steering wheel to reset the clock, which you will.

It’s not always available, and not 100 percent faultless when it is, but it’s the closest you can get to autonomous drive today. That said, Mercedes-Benz built a prototype car with a beefed-up version of the system that included additional sensors and an advanced navigation system that drove 62 miles through Germany without human intervention, negotiating stop signs and red lights along the way. So, apparently, it’s really just the lawyers keeping our robotic overlords in check at this point.

Drive a lot at night? There’s an infrared option that displays a black and white image of the road in the gauge cluster, enhances animals and pedestrians and will automatically blink the lights to warn the latter. Lights that are 100 percent LED, I will add. This is the first car without a single incandescent bulb inside or out. A PR brag if there ever was one, but notable, nevertheless.

Sales of the S-Class have doubled this year, and I’m sure all of the above has played as much of a role as simple badge loyalty. And while, thanks to the high price -- which jumps to $$98,325 for 2015 models -- only 20,000 or so will make it to the road, much of the tech is already starting to trickle down through the rest of the Mercedes-Benz lineup.

In the meantime, while BMW and Audi make the drivers’ cars in this segment, and have plenty of their own gadgets, the S-Class is truly a driving car, and as effortlessly luxurious as possible, especially when it transports you to back to the Stone Age…with one of those massages.

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2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic

Base Price: $95,900

As Tested: $129,645

Type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

Engine: 4.7L turbocharged V8

Power: 449 hp, 516 lb-ft torque

MPG: 16 city/26 hwy