WHAT'S THE BEST CAR in the world? Growing up in 1950s England, it was an article of faith – not to mention one's patriotic duty – to reply: “Rolls-Royce.” Stately, elegant and grand, Rollers were the default transport for royals and aristocrats, oligarchs and movie stars, which alone made them monarchs of the motoring universe. Plus, of course, they were British.
Truth be told, though, Rolls occupied that elevated perch simply through the absence of any meaningful competition, other equally worthy contenders for the title, such as Bugatti, Cord, Delahaye, Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza and Horch, having all been killed off by the Great Depression, the Second World War or a combination of both. So when the regal Mercedes-Benz 600 appeared in 1963 – a car so monumental that it soon became nicknamed Grosser (great), and with air suspension and complex hydraulic systems way more advanced than on any Rolls-Royce – the UK company lost its stranglehold on luxury-car superlatives almost in an instant.
The 600 always remained a niche automobile, and the fact that fewer than 2,700 examples were built during an 18-year production run doubtless enhances its now near-legendary status. It also confirmed Mercedes' reputation for engineering excellence, which by the early 1970s had been passed on to the first-generation S-Class. More than 40 years and six iterations later, Benz's flagship saloon is still a byword for innovation.
It may not be put together by hand, and thus not as fabulously expensive and bespoken as a Rolls or a Bentley, but technologically it's so far ahead of either that today it's universally accepted that the S-Class has no peers. Want to know which bells and whistles are likely to feature on family cars a decade or so from now? Take a look at today's big Merc and you'll get a pretty good idea.
Introduced in May 2013, the current S – the factory designation is W222 for the saloon and C217 for the coupé – bristles, like its predecessors, with all manner of trick tech. This includes optional Magic Body Control that uses cameras to scan the road surface and adjust the active suspension accordingly, and Distronic Plus, which in partnership with Steering Assist can virtually drive the S-Class by itself. Even now, some two years after its launch, the car is a revelation, conveying its occupants so smoothly that it feels as if its wheels were shod with feather pillows rather than rubber, and with astonishing attention to detail paid to almost every area of the cabin.
And yet for all its leading-edge brilliance and refinement, there are some potential clients – mostly, one imagines, those who prefer to do their motoring in the back seat – for whom the regular S-Class is neither luxurious nor exclusive enough. For this pampered demographic Benz has resuscitated the Maybach badge, though this time not as the stand-alone marque that spawned the ill-fated 57 and 62 limousines, but instead as an extra-luxurious sub-brand within the Mercedes line-up that faces off against the likes of Bentley's Flying Spur and Rolls-Royce's Ghost.
Aimed at being the most lavishly finished, comprehensively equipped and passenger-focused S-Class ever built, the Mercedes-Maybach S600 is the car the late and unlamented Maybach should have been from the outset – which is exactly what I discover during a chauffered test “ride” (I only get to drive it myself for 30 minutes) around the countryside behind the affluent coastal California community of Santa Barbara. Although resembling a normal S from the front, its grille topped by the familiar three-pointed star, this S600's chassis and body have been substantially revised to offer rear passengers even greater legroom and headroom than longer-wheel-base versions of the standard saloon, while the reworked aft doors and broader C-pillars – adorned with the Maybach Manufaktur logo and incorporating quarter lights – clearly differentiate this über-Merc from its lesser brethren.
As every properly exceptional motorcar should be, the Maybach S600 is powered by a V12 engine, one that in this case displaces 6 litres and, partly thanks to a brace of turbochargers, produces power and torque of 523bhp and 830Nm respectively. Of course that means it offers awesome kilometre-crunching performance on the highway, but it also guarantees exceptionally smooth progress, with imperceptible shifts from the seven-speed automatic transmission – and such is the impressive sound deadening in the cabin (achieved by special door and window seals, and enhanced insulation in every area imaginable and some that aren't) that those in the back won't hear a thing. I have no means of verifying whether, as Mercedes says, it's the quietest car in the world, but after being wafted almost noiselessly on the 120km journey back to my hotel I wouldn't take issue with the claim.
I do, as I said, get to drive the Mercedes-Maybach S600 for 30km or so, and can report that it's utterly refined and almost as well balanced and predictable as an S-Class saloon, in spite of carrying around 400kg more than a V6-engined 350 BlueTEC. But the existence of all that real estate behind me is a constant reminder I'm occupying the wrong seat – and it's not often I'll say that about a car. I will add, however, that James is going to love his new workplace, whether it's the virtual instrument display, the IWC-branded analogue dashboard clock and the discreet voice amplification that subtly aids communication between front and rear occupants, or the plethora of active safety systems that make this such a reassuring vehicle to be in charge of.
So on this occasion I'm perfectly happy to be sitting comfortably in the back – if “sitting” accurately describes the degree of recline I've dialled into my right-hand seat. With the front passenger chair moved to its furthest forward position and its backrest folded forward, I can recline my seat and extend my footrest so far I'm almost horizontal. Naturally there's a massage function to knead out the knots of stress acquired during a long day on the road, while the central console includes a pair of folding tables and thermo cup holders, as well as the controls for the Thermotronic climate control that individually modulates temperature and air distribution for each rear passenger. Something called Air Balance ionises, filters and gently puffs an exclusive agarwood scent through the compartment, and even the seat belts are “intelligent”.
While the old Maybach was beloved by rappers and other urban bad boys (but sadly few others), this new ultra-S600 is no bling machine but a cocoon of subtlety and contemporary good taste. Polished wood adorns the seat-back and door caps, the hand-stitched nappa leather covering the seats, doors and even removable pillows is so supple and creamy I want to eat it, electrically operated blinds filter the through the rear side windows, fibre-optic cables provide soft ambient lighting – and you can even order a matched pair of silver-plated champagne flutes. The speaker grilles of the optional 1,540-watt, 24-speaker 3D Burmester sound system are exquisitely finished with chrome plating, though crank up the volume and it'll bump your sounds so radically your ears will bleed.
Not that I think of doing anything quite so vulgar as that, as James – though he looks more like a Chuck to me – whisks me down towards the coast through the Santa Barbara Hills. “So how do you like the car?” I ask him as we bowl south along US101. “Beautiful,” he says, his voice coming crisp and clear from the front of the cabin, amplified ever so slightly through the sound system. “Best I've ever driven.”
Which is certainly one way of saying that this time around with the Maybach badge, Daimler-Benz has got it absolutely spot-on. Stretched out here in the back, gazing up at a cloudless blue sky through the panoramic roof, I can only agree.