There are several cars said to be the best in the world. There’s the new Audi A8 with a face to stop traffic. There’s the BMW 7 series, sleeker, maybe as clever. There are limousines from Bentley and Rolls-Royce, British offshoots from Volkswagen and BMW. Expensive and undeniably grand, but it’s a long time since I’ve crossed the stately threshold of either British marque. Rather shy-making, anyway.
Some say the best of the best is the car here, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It is so lovely that I wouldn’t be curious whether I’d made the wrong choice.
During the week we’d been up and down country twice. It reminds me of a first-class flight to Japan. I just wanted to be back in the days of silver service, champagne and posh canapés for Her Majesty’s Press Corps.
That was then, when “we” were treated like VIPs. As some contemporary wit said, we were living a millionaire’s lifestyle on pauper’s wages. Today, in the S-Class, I can be anything to anybody. Dress down, dress up, don’t matter. I’m in the best car in the world, say some.
I pulled into a motorway rest area for a freshen-up and decided to sit in the back – which had been split into two seats – recliners in leather the colour of toffee (officially, mahogany). In the middle, a suite of drawers and trays, sliding in frictionless silence. Behind and to the sides a band of purple haze glowed soothingly. In front, picnic trays and television screens. A switch made the seat recline and extend. I fell asleep. It was, indeed, some kind of wonderful.
Time to get in the front and drive. Facing me, a silk beige leather panel with cross-stitching, lots of visible stitching in fact, including around the old-style centre horn with the Mercedes logo. More stitching along the dashboard rim.
The week on the road was a delight. Everything was made effortless. The powerful diesel engine and nine automatic gears were a calm waft of efficiency. At 70 the six cylinders were being pumped at a just over 1,000 revs a minute. That’s relaxed. A family hatchback revs around three times as quickly – meaning more buzz and thrum and fuss. The long gearing also helps fuel economy. This was definitely first-class travel.
The in-line engine produces 282bhp (286ps in German reckoning) and 443lb ft of torque (600Nm in metric). The 0-62mph time is six seconds. The top speed is restricted to 155mph. The quoted figure for overall diesel consumption is 52.3 miles a gallon – with a corresponding carbon emissions rating of 139 grams per kilometre (or 224.4g per mile).
I know, we can’t expect to replicate this everyday, but it can nearly happen. The heaviest consumption was 37.5mpg on a trip into the dales of Derbyshire with congestion. On the way, on a trunk road somewhere near Sheffield, the car warned me to be ready for the end of a tailback. Forewarned…
There was 45.6mpg on a jaunt through flatter shires to meet Audi’s latest fleet. There was 51mpg on a straight trip south down the motorway, improving to 54mpg next day on the return north. It all felt easy. It was quiet, despite the massive tyres.
I am not an early adopter of autonomous driving. I’m not convinced I need it. The car had a lane-changing system on the motorway, responding to a nudge of the indicator – and wary of other traffic – but your instinct is to double-check. Of more appeal is its very smart ability to adapt speed to whatever is ahead: not just other vehicles and emergency interventions, but junctions, bends, the booth on toll roads. Your paid man at the wheel may appreciate these things. As an owner-driver you may, too.
These big black cars are, indeed, more commonly used for chauffeuring, ideally with window glass resistant to gunfire – like something in a TV thriller – eg the implausibly plotted McMafia, which was coming to a bloody finale when I had the Mercedes.
I once did a defensive driving course – where you reverse away from the peril, then spin the car 180 degrees in the road’s width and escape at full speed. I’ve never needed to repeat the move. It’s lost in my CV along with various other skills and instincts.
My demo car was an early model in the new series and had not been fitted with something called “energizing comfort control” and described as a world-first. It means the cars’ systems combine in “wellness to suit the mood and need” of the occupants, a combo of lighting, seat ventilation and massage, music, tra la di la etc. I can wait…
My grandsons will also have to wait to watch TV. They scrambled over the precious leather, pushed various buttons, made hopeful noises then abandoned the idea and decided to find a working TV elsewhere… I later found out that the TV tuner was inactive – another something about it being an early model.
With these ebullient cars there’s enough “stuff” to examine anyway. Mostly, I can say it was a breeze. Cameras covered every angle, even overhead – but much of it came at an extra price.
Verdict: It’ll do until the right thing comes along…