The new S-Class replaces the old, much-maligned model, a car so corpulently vulgar that it could even draw disapproving tuts in Henley. The new car is smaller outside, yet roomier in. It's also faster, yet more economical, returning 25mpg in S320 3.2-litre V6 form (pounds 49,000 to pounds 54,000, but add another pounds 10,000 for extras), and 21mpg in the range-topping V8 S500 (pounds 74,000 to pounds smallcountryestate).
Aside from being elegant and safe there are three crucial areas in which the S-Class stomps all over its rivals: ride, technology and quality. Thanks to a terrifyingly complex pneumatic suspension system, the S-Class adjusts its dampers automatically depending on how hard it is being driven. Thus it swoops along all road surfaces up to a (limited) 145mph, but, miraculously, handles almost neutrally round corners. This is a luxury barge you can have some fun in.
Now that would usually be enough for most cars, but the S-Class is also the most technologically advanced car ever, boasting over 30 new inventions. To give you an idea, the handbook is larger than a Salman Rushdie hardback. There's a voice-activated navigation system, CD player, television, climate control, hands-free telephone facility and multi-adjustable electric seats (with memories for all four occupants and small fans to cool your buttocks). Next year there will be keyless entry and push-button starting, accessed by a credit-card sized gizmo; a cylinder cut-off thingy to reduce fuel consumption; a cruise-control oojamiflip to maintain a safe distance from the car in front; and a Linguatronic telephone dialling whatchamacallit. In future years your S-Class will be able to stabilise global warming and negotiate a peace settlement in over 100 dialects.
A full appreciation of the Merc's build quality will leave no space for how it actually drives. In brief, it is marginally less well made than the previous S-Class, with slightly cheaper materials used inside, but it's still, ahem, the best-built car in the world.
We tested the smaller of the options available but performance was still all-conquering. The Merc's five-speed automatic gearbox has an option which allows you to change up or down by nudging the lever left or right. This resulted in the fastest change of any car I've ever driven, and an involuntary shriek from me.
My only complaint centred on its steering, which was a little floppy on motorways and overassisted at low speeds - but professional chauffeurs will probably adore it. I have a suspicion, though, that once S-Class deliveries begin in earnest, chauffeurs are going to have far more time on their hands. "Will Sir be driving again today?" I think so, yes
Nicki Theokritoff, 45, consultant furniture designer, and his daughters Madeleine, 7, and Louise, 9, from Radcliffe-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire. Currently drives a Vauxhall Frontera
Nicki: "It's like driving an aircraft carrier or a rocket-powered lounge. My clients would get upset if they saw me in this. Mercedes are about very unemotional technical solutions on wheels, but this is very feminine, and there are some delightful details for such a chunk of metal. It's uncanny not to hear the engine noise. This whole car is an overstatement - it feels enormous, you're not aware where it begins or ends but the performance is absolutely brilliant. There's a lot of power and the suspension is very cosseting."
Louise: "It's quite posh, I'd definitely like one but I'd prefer it turquoise inside, I don't like the grey."
Madeleine: "It's comfortable but the wood is polished too much."
Suzan Joyce, 39, interior designer, and her daughter Alicia Joyce, 7, from Nottingham. Currently drives a Nissan Terrano
Suzan: "I've never driven anything like this before: it's very, very smooth. It's a lovely sleek shape but it wouldn't be at all practical for me. We've got a Border collie - I wouldn't want her romping about inside here. Also I prefer my car to be a workhorse. But I wouldn't be too worried about leaving this parked in town - it's quite discreet and not that 'in your face'. If I won the lottery I wouldn't buy something like this though, it's quite ordinary inside and I'm always dubious about wood inside cars. Driving wise, it seems a little slow to kick down."
Alicia: "It's nice and comfortable."
Ashley Long, 36, financial director, and Melissa Long, 35, delicatessen proprietor, from Nottingham. Currently drive a VW Corrado
Ashley: "It's a bit old-lady's-lavender inside - the matching seat belts are particularly horrid. I wouldn't spend this much on a car myself; and I'm a financial director. It doesn't feel too big to drive, and the looks are definitely an improvement over the Bismark look of the last S-Class. The dash is a bit 'videogame', and I hate the plasticky looking wood. The engine is exciting but feels a bit 'buzzy' and the steering is over assisted. I could imagine it as a wedding car, but it's also perfect for a First Division football manager."
Melissa: "It's not my kind of car at all, it's too gargantuan but a bit bland. I'd expect it to be driven by an arrogant, bullish person with an expense account."
Margaret Connolly, 49, headmistress, and Dr John Connolly, 48, lecturer, from Leicester. Currently drive an Audi A4
Margaret: "It's like sitting in the dentist's chair; it feels like driving a bus. It's huge and wide. I like the leather trim but it would be impractical if you had a family of Ribena drinkers. The instrument display is clear and the electric seats are natty, but I don't know anybody who would spend this much money on a car. It wouldn't be the thing for parking in the school car park, I'd be rather embarrassed. The in-car storage is really poor too - there's nowhere to put my handbag."
John: "It has the wrong vibe for me. It could be a bit cheaper. Parking would be a pain."Reuse content