I’m consistently gobsmacked by the evergreen popularity (as evinced by the ghastly swathe of reality television programmes currently blighting our soggy winter viewing) of eavesdropping on the idiotic. But if this really is your bag then, on the evidence of the last couple of days spent lolling about in the back of Mercedes’ new S-class, you could do a lot worse than become a chauffeur.
I should explain: So puffed is Mercedes about the quality of life in the back of their new flagship that the SClass recently delivered to me for review purposes came complete with Charlie, an ex-metropolitan Police Flying Squad driver so consummately polite and skilled in his craft that he even opened the door for the ruddy dog…
What impressed me most, however, was the way in which he so studiously pretended to pay no attention whatsoever to proceedings in the back. One of the very best things about being chauffeur driven is the potential it offers for long, liquid lunches; the risk being, of course (if you’ve been married for any length of time), that the impending LIB (Lecture in Bed) suddenly won’t keep and grumpily metamorphoses into an LIT (Lecture in Taxi). At least you can close the screen in a taxi.
Poor man; from the squealing tyres of the Sweeney to silent servility and relentless rear seat prattle… I don’t know how he does it. Still, after two days spent astern, albeit in abject luxury, it strikes me that he did at least, despite Mercedes’ best efforts, have the best seat in the house.
Back in the days when the soubriquet ‘Best Car in the World’ inevitably accompanied the S-Class on every voyage, the Mercedes flagship was an absolute battlecruiser of a behemoth. Palpably hewn from a single lump of granite, it relegated almost anything else on the road to the status of automotive riff-raff, cowering in its not inconsiderable wake.
Perhaps, then, it’s merely rose-tinted memories of that masterclass in the manufacturing of real road presence that makes me feel this newcomer simply isn’t imposing enough, with disappointingly inelegant couture.
The bows are notably clumsy, with over-heavy chrome round the grille and blobby, innocuous headlamp clusters inducing a wince at every visit with their perceptible failure to accurately mirror the curve of the adjacent grille.
If a car’s headlamps are the only exterior opportunity a designer has to hint at the technological marvels that await within, then I fully expect the S-class to be equipped, Flintstone-style, with holes in the floor to accommodate my flailing feet.
Panel gaps are all over the place, and Mercedes has now taken so much weight out of doors that once shut with stone sarcophagus finality that the hinges are damped to try and reintroduce at least a perception of mass. 18” wheels look tiny here, but do at least accommodate tyres boasting a side wall promising proper ride comfort.
The rear is just as uncomfortable to the eye. It’s all very well styling rear light clusters that artfully ape a reincarnating phoenix after dark but, lights outs, they’re just fat, Candy Crush blobs.
On board, we find an all-new, largely elegant interior that is immeasurably lifted by a lighter finish to its swathes of leather. Avoid black. Though some decry the new, two-spoke steering wheel, the driving position’s terrific and seat comfort nothing short of absolutely sensational. Though the annoying S-class switchgear inconsistency that crept in a few years back is still with us (where once you just pressed a lit icon, now you must work out whether to stab said icon or the unlit button below), the only major ocular clunk is the instrument binnacle; the un-mortared brickwork-clumsy collision of two enormous tablets.
I dislike intensely all faux analogue driver’s instruments – a cheapskate sop to gaming geeks who can’t handle the crisp focus of reality – and the left hand screen has become pointlessly oversized; the only possible benefit being that, in map mode, you may actually survey the postcodes of both of Katie Price’s ankles simultaneously.
This £65,650 S 350 BlueTEC L SE LINE is a long-wheelbase S–class; the car designed, first and foremost, in this format. And with the seat diagonally opposite the driver unfurling into the full ottoman (just one of the myriad options bumping the price to, ouch, £90,810), the back is a spectacularly comfortable place to reside, even if – amongst the extraordinary plethora of seat functions available – a ‘Hot-stone’ massage en route isn’t exactly your heart’s desire.
This seat’s control panel may be first used to fold the front seat out of the way and crush it against the dashboard. But the whole process is so agonisingly slow and, frankly, complex that – like shutting down a posh hotel bedroom for the night – you’ll have only just settled when it’s time to get up again.
Nonetheless, I cannot reiterate strongly enough how sublimely comfortable this rear seat environment is, my only niggle being that the window and blind motors are unacceptably noisy; the mechanised hum of an inferior world.
But the main reason why life aboard the S-class is little short of bliss, wherever you sit, is because of the car’s astonishing ride quality. Even without the mythical, radar-controlled ‘Magic Body Control’ reserved for V8 versions, the Mercedes’ adaptive suspension is in a league of its own.
Small road surface imperfections are simply washed away, whilst larger undulations are not so much absorbed as perfectly paralleled by the bodyshell with spectacular control of both pitch and roll. At last, a suspension set-up that properly compliments the quietness and comfort of the cabin it serves. It really is superb.
Now, I’ve always been slightly suspicious of anything but an appropriately arrogant V8 powerplant in a S-Class, but this 3.0 litre V6 turbodiesel still cuts the mustard with surprising alacrity. 254bhp and 475lb ft of torque equate to 0- 62mph in 6.8 seconds, a 7-speed automatic gearbox smearing the car seamlessly and almost silently on to the inevitably governed 155mph.
Once you’ve switched off the nanny lane-guidance system the handling’s something of a joy to boot. The S-class feels far less isolated from proceedings than most rivals, and, thanks to a nicely weighted helm allied to pleasing accuracy, will commit to even quick cornering with remarkably good-natured tolerance and not inconsiderable poise.
Indeed, given that I make a rotten passenger and that, no matter how comfortable the accommodations, the view out from the back seats of any car always feels somewhat second rate, there’s more than enough driving pleasure here to foment endless argument twixt executive and chauffeur over the front seat.
MERCEDES-BENZ S350 BLUE TEC L SE LINE TECHNICAL SPECIFICATION