DIANA T. KURYLKO

New S class made for back-seat drivers

Diana T. Kurylko covers various U.S. import brands for Automotive News.
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Relaxed by a hot-stone massage, I opted for a targeted shoulder massage for neck tension that never seems to disappear.

A fragrant aroma called Freeside Mood, with hints of citrus, wafted through the ionized air. I wondered about the scents of the other choices: Nightlife Mood, Sports Mood and Downtown Mood. Ambient mood lighting was set at mandarin, but I was about to change that to a bluish hue, while music played through a high-end Burmester surround sound system.

Was it my turn to drive already?

I was having too much fun pushing buttons and changing settings on the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S500 (it will be called the S550 when it comes to the United States in September) during a press drive in Canada.

Usually I'm a terribly jittery passenger, scanning the road and making sure the driver isn't headed into trouble -- about to take a turn that will send me flying.

This time, I just wanted to dive into the rear plush leather reclining seat, lower the airplanelike tray, play with the video monitor and push an endless row of buttons that change the lighting and seat massage style, release different scents and adjust the cooling cupholder to keep my water at the perfect temperature.

The S class has front- and rear-seat amenities unlike anything I've seen in a luxury car.

That's because it's designed for two markets. The front seats were designed for the United States and the rear for China, where most people who can afford an S class want to be chauffeured.

It's also loaded with high-technology safety features packaged into what Mercedes calls Intelligent Drive and Magic Carpet Ride handling that automatically adjusts to road conditions. Before I could try them myself, I had to interview Dieter Zetsche, CEO of parent company Daimler AG. He was behind the wheel and I was in a rear passenger seat.

Zetsche took his hands off the steering wheel to demonstrate how Distronic Plus with Steering Assist automatically allowed the S class to follow the car in front at the same speed and even turn by itself. Ten seconds later, red hands began flashing above the steering wheel because regulators don't want drivers taking their hands off the wheel. Zetsche said if you don't put your hands back on the wheel, you get warning beeps and then the steering assist turns off.

Hands back on the wheel. I was relieved -- until Zetsche offered to show me how the car also automatically comes to a full stop if the vehicle in front stops or if there is a pedestrian or animal in its path. I shook my head from side-to-side.

"You don't trust me?" Zetsche asked.

I replied that it wasn't him I didn't trust, it was the technology. He laughed. I returned to asking Zetsche questions and jotting down answers when WHAM! The car stopped short. No collision. Zetsche grinned and professed he didn't do it on purpose; the car in front suddenly stopped, and the Distronic Plus system brought our car safely to a halt. My eyes popped wide open.

Just for that, my next question was going to be really hard. I demanded S-class sales forecasts. "Diana, you have been asking me that for 20 years and I never give you an answer," Zetsche said.

European pricing starts at 107,635 euros -- $140,996 at current exchange rates -- for the long-wheelbase model. U.S. pricing will be disclosed closer to launch. The 2013 S550 starts at $95,905, including shipping, in the United States. Zetsche said Mercedes-Benz already has 20,000 orders for the S class. The car went on sale in Europe this month. Last year in the run-out, Mercedes sold 65,128 S-class cars globally, keeping its leadership in a segment that includes the BMW 7 series and Audi A8.

And then I had to get out of the car and into another S class and follow Zetsche.

I didn't turn on the Distronic Plus.

You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at dkurylko@crain.com. -- Follow Diana on Twitter

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