I can think of three precise moments in my life when I felt like I was finally living in The Future. The first was walking through a Washington, D.C., Metro station, with its Kubrickian vaulted ceiling and whisper-quiet trains. The next was the first time I actually saw someone use a laptop computer on an airplane. The third was when I sat behind the wheel of Mercedes-Benz's new S-Class.
You have to understand, the new Mercedes is not just a car -- it may quite possibly be the definitive car. Granted, if some new trend develops where we demand that our automobiles also be able to press our slacks while driving, there may be a need to design such a vehicle, but if what you're looking for is the ability to go from one destination to another in speed, safety, and comfort, please put your pencils down and face front, because the exam is over.
My S430 loaner was equipped (as standard) with a truly Buck Rogers navigation system. By determining my location with the help of a dozen GPS satellites in low-Earth orbit (thank you, Cold War), and then plotting my position on a detailed map stored on the in-dash CD-rom, the S430 made it impossible to be lost. Punch in your desired destination and you will be clearly guided by map images on the 4.7-inch screen on the center console as well as by voice prompts. Traffic jam? Punch the detour button, and the little Ferdinand Magellan who lives under the hood will replot your course around the snag.
Now, beyond the golly-gee-ness of the navigation system lies the well-I'll-be-a-monkey's-uncle-ness of the mobile phone. Mercedes's voice-recognition software adds a measure of safety to that morally suspect act of trying to dial international-access codes while merging at 75 miles per hour. Push a small button on the steering wheel and just say "Dial number," and the car responds, "Number please." By speaking the number into the air, you can make the car dial for you and place the call on speaker phone.
While driving (yes, you still have to drive) the S-Class, you also now have the option of an automatic transmission, a manual, or both. The Solomon-like engineers at Mercedes have included a "Sportshift" transmission that can act as either a traditional five-speed automatic or a clutchless four-speed manual. For simple whee-ha fun, this feature is indispensable.
Though there are a number of other luxury automobiles that have many of the same features as this car, what sets apart the new S-Class from its competition is just how elegantly these functions have been integrated, as well as their ease of use. The S430 never overwhelms, and all controls and operations are laid out in a thankfully predictable and intuitive manner. Granted, for more than $70,000, that should probably be the case, but when you think about it, isn't $70,000 a reasonable price for The Future?