As if on cue, the new S-class has taken the luxury car world by storm yet again. But is it really the best there is? And what really does ‘the best’ mean in this case? Is the best car in the world a combination of the best engineered, the best performing, the most refined and the most comfortable? It has to be all that, of course, but we think it also has to deliver the best luxury experience, take the art of car making forward and, as ever, be the pinnacle of technology. And, it’s not just frivolous technology we are talking about here, but ground-breaking stuff that enriches the experience of driving or being a passenger. It has to have tremendous presence, be put together with exacting taste, and it shouldn’t be unnecessarily expensive.
So to keep the new Mercedes-Benz S 500 honest, we decided to invite a couple of luxury cars from a class above. For those looking for a blend of sporty performance and old-world charm, we have the new Bentley Flying Spur. But these cars are also about being driven in, so we also invited Rolls-Royce’s Extended Wheelbase Ghost. Can the new S-class truly be as nice to drive as the Bentley and as comfortable to sit in as the Rolls, and simultaneously deliver the best of both worlds? And which ultimately is the best? In essence, this could also be deemed a tussle between Merc, BMW and Audi (via VW).
The car that almost certainly wins the hotel lobby test is the Rolls. It simply has immense presence. You just gape at it, eyeballs glued, as it glides in with the regal air of a battle cruiser, the right-angled prow, the length of the bonnet and the Flying Lady perched on the Parthenon grille setting it apart from other mortals. The S-class and the Flying Spur, in contrast, look almost subtle. Still, in isolation, the Bentley is stunning to look at too. The big grille and those quad headlamps set the tone, and the new, flowing lines that glide over the rear wheel arch look super. The S-class, though, is all about the present. Yes, it still has the traditional grille and star, thank God, but the way the flanks are sculpted, the manner in which the roof arcs back in a single sweep and the way the lines whip around the compacted rear make the Merc look like it is from another age. And it is!
The Merc’s brand-spanking-new chassis is clearly the best specified here. A smart blend of aluminum and steel, its modern construction makes it far lighter, stiffer and safer than the competition. Rolls-Royce’s Ghost is built on the same platform as the BMW 7-series, but this long-wheelbase version has an additional 17cm between the wheels for greater legroom. The basic chassis of the Bentley has even more humble origins – it shares it with the Volkswagen Phaeton – but here it has been thoroughly updated to make it stiffer and more suitable for use in a luxury car like a Bentley. All three cars use air suspension to take the weight of their heavy bodies, and all three use twin-turbocharged petrol engines too. The Rolls and the Bentley use 12-cylinder engines, whereas the Mercedes uses a V8. The Bentley, however, is the only one to use four-wheel-drive.
Drive for the driven
The Flying Spur is easily the sportiest to drive. It has the weightiest and most feelsome steering. Push the drilled accelerator pedal down hard and you are engulfed in an explosion of power, as the Bentley is shot down the road as if out of a cannon. It feels ideal for powering down long, open stretches and driving this car from city to city across India would be just great. It has plenty of grip when you place it in its sportiest settings and the world shrinks around you once you are behind the wheel for a bit. It’s so comforting and relaxing to drive over a long period – you can literally drive all day, sitting in that big saddle-like leather throne, feeling like you’re king of the road. What’s also nice is the fact that it has a well muted yet sporty burble that just sounds fantastic.
The only sound you hear in the Rolls is the creaking of leather as you shift in your seat. Getting in feels like you’ve put on a giant pair of ear muffs, as sound levels plummet the second you shut the doors. Gathering speed also feels as effortless as rolling downhill. The V12 is super smooth (just as you would expect), and it purrs and whirrs as you spin the engine faster, the performance only getting stronger as the turbos come in smoothly. Use more throttle and the Ghost has the ability to surprise you as well. It pushes forward with all the energy of a large turbine, all the while retaining its air of serene and tranquil calm. The driving experience is also totally unique and blends vintage and modern like no other. You are sat up high and stare down the length of the long, black bonnet, with the Spirit of Ecstasy emblem perched at the end. Your feet sit comfortably in the thick shag carpet and you hold the thin-rimmed leather wheel almost delicately; there’s really no need to get a firm grip. The Ghost, even with this extended wheelbase, darts this way and that with a mere flick of the wrist. It isn’t sporty to drive, as the single-mode suspension allows the car to flop around a bit, but it feels fast, totally effortless and silent. What a driving experience!
You are sat much lower down in the S 500, but it too feels totally effortless to drive and takes off with just a hint of throttle. There’s a nice wad of torque at 2,500rpm as the turbos spool up, use more right foot and it just shoots down the road with a nonchalance that’s the preserve of these big cars. And it’s really, really silent and refined as well; not as hushed as the Rolls for sure, but then what is? It has the ability to keep up with the Bentley too. Extend the motor further up the powerband and the Mercedes leaps forward instantly, the motor spinning up to the redline with a sporty snarl. Bury the throttle on an empty stretch of road and the S-class displays a jaw-dropping turn of foot too. There are no sudden Gs and you are not pushed back in the seat hard, but one glance at the speedo and you’ll jump off the throttle in a flash. The S-class also has the ability to tighten up its act. In S mode, the car crouches lower, the air springs firm up and the ABC (Active Body Control) prevents the car rolling from side to side. You can even carry a lot of speed through your favourite set of corners without it feeling like a complete barge.
Compared to the other two, the Bentley seems to have the least impressive rear seat. It’s the most car-like and the least sofa -like, and so you don’t expect much when you climb in. A mistake, because with its acres of red-stitched leather, wall-to-wall wood panelling and myriad chrome highlights, you instantly go ‘wow’. The seat is really supportive and comfortable, you can recline it like you can in every car here, and there’s more than sufficient legroom. There are four adjustable settings for the suspension system, and on the softest, this car does a really good job of soaking up the road. Still, it could have been better. There’s a bit of pitch and float, and sharp bumps register as soft ‘thwacks’ as well. The dials, dash, chrome vents and gear lever are impressive, and there’s a lot of old world charm in the solid build of the car, but the screen-based control system feels ancient. What also feels distinctly unwelcome on a car of this price is what looks like off-the-shelf black plastic bits, quite a few of them.
You have to contend with some ordinary plastics on the Rolls too; shock, horror! The door pockets feel flimsy, as does the bottom of the centre console, and there are some not-so-luxurious looking bits in other places too. It’s a bit disconcerting, because you’d never, ever see anything like this on a Phantom. Still, the drama and comfort associated with sitting in the back of this extended-wheelbase Rolls are second to none. The suicide doors open wide, you glide into the rear and settle on the sofa in a upright seating position that feels just perfect. Your thighs, back, shoulders and arms feel perfectly relaxed, and a century of experience also means the Rolls all but shuts out the world outside. In fact, sitting in the back of the Ghost gives you the feeling of being sat in the comfort of a train, on your own private set of tracks, as the world flashes past. There’s almost no sensation of speed unless you look out of the window, the long-travel suspension, high-profile tyres and supple air springs make the wheels glide over all but the worst bumps. And acoustic isolation is easily the best here.
The Maybach-like back seat of the S-class isn’t too far behind either. The ‘Executive’ seat can be reclined like the one in Business Class, you can stretch out and doze off with the suspension set to Comfort, and the seat is brilliant when you want to sit back up as well. There’s a host of electronic goodies to play with, you can opt for the top-end Burmester audio system that delivers concert-hall levels of audio performance, and Merc has got its rear-seat fundamentals right too. You sit lower down than in the Ghost, so stepping in needs a bit more effort, but the seat is super supportive, perfectly angled, broad and big. The Rolls is a bit more pliant and a bit better insulated from noises on the outside, but the S-class is oh so close. Where the Merc trounces its rivals soundly is in areas you wouldn’t expect. The design and quality of the dash is just stellar. The chrome vents, large swatches of criss-crossed leather and high-grain wood and chrome have a real old-world charm about them. And there are no poorly built bits, no cheap plastics. Okay, the stalks are pretty standard and are the same as on an E-class, but otherwise... nothing. There’s plenty to delight you too. The twin screens on the dash give you the feeling you are in a glass cockpit, you can change the colour of the LED highlights in the cabin, and there’s onboard Wi-Fi too.
The S-class also comes with a raft of next-gen safety systems, but the surprising thing that it comes with only eight airbags; European versions get 14.
The Bentley Flying Spur is a fantastic and unique combination of driver appeal and luxury. The 616bhp W12 makes it brutally fast, it is surprisingly handy around corners and the interiors reek of old-world charm; wood, leather and chrome. It’s also surprisingly comfortable in the back, even compared to this lot here; specially configured seats and all.
The extended wheelbase Ghost bows deeply to tradition too; in many ways it’s the embodiment of the modern-day horseless carriage, built to carry royalty and dignitaries. Its regal, upright stance is quite unique and there’s little doubt, for sheer presence, cabin insulation and ride quality, it is the best here. And it’s the little things too – the flying lady on the bonnet, that majestic grille and the beautifully fluid and light handling – clearly this car is extra special.
The S-class, as ever, managed to do everything really well. It’s as fast and as stable as the Bentley, as comfortable in the back as the Rolls, and its thoroughly modern construction and next-gen safety systems push it so far ahead, the competition feels – whisper it – old. It’s pretty clear, when you add it all up, look at what you get and figure what you need to pay, the new S-class feels the most complete; it’s as simple as that.