Sense and Sensuality

Modern luxury collides with post-opulence. 

W223 S-Class. Image: gtspirit

With summer now officially over, and perhaps more in the spirit of hope than confidence, OEM carmakers are gradually returning to the business of product. This week amid the sudden outpouring of new announcements, previously squeezed and distorted through the narrow pipette of PR drip-feed, we are presented with two super-luxury land-yachts from differing echelons of wealth, privilege and position. Let us first away to Baden-Württermburg where “automotive luxury experienced in a completely new way” awaits us.

The Mercedes’ S-Class, the flagbearer of a sector in retreat, nevertheless remains its top-selling exponent. Since the outgoing W222 model’s début in 2013, more than 500,000 S-Class Saloons have been sold, with over a third of those making their way to China. According to Daimler, 9 out of 10 S-Class customers across all markets opt for the long-wheelbase model, begging the question, why make anything else?

The arrival of a new S-Class was once an epochal event, one which in a more innocent era might have been deemed worthy of song. But bearing in mind that the last truly noteworthy Sonderklasse from Stuttgart-Sindelfingen emerged a good thirty years ago, it is hardly surprising that so little is now expected from the current custodians of the three pointed star.

Given such low expectations, you find your scribe somewhat ambivalent about the outward appearance of the W223, finally revealed in official form this week. Shorn of the somewhat ornamental surfacing of the outgoing car, the latest pinnacle of all things three-pointed is a good deal less sensual, but on the other hand, somewhat more pure.

What we see here is possibly something of a formal shift, not simply in visual application, but in influence between Carlsbad and Sindelfingen, with his blessedness it seems, amusing himself in the Californian heat-haze with highly amusing Maybach-branded flights of fancy, while his earthbound deputy gets on with the day to day drudgery now clearly some considerable distance beneath the sensual one’s dignity.

Resolutely unexciting, as is the Robert Lesnik way, there is nothing to thrill the eye, yet simultaneously, little to offend it either, which if blessings are to be sought, are to be found here, one might suggest.

When Mercedes initially made its name, its interiors were stark to the point of austerity. The luxury element was only truly apparent in the clarity of the architecture, the quality of the materials chosen and the features offered – many of which could not be found elsewhere. But in this latest S-Class cabin, while quite the technology-gang-bang, there are few genuine thrills to behold inside.

Modern luxury. Image: gtspirit

But we do see where Mr. Wagener enters the current equation. Today’s W223 combines the kind of brocaded and tufted analogue for Modern Luxury that reprises the gilded excesses of 1970s Detroit, mated to a Silicon Valley showcase of tacked on tat; inappropriate mood lighting, acres of shiny piano-black trim, said to evoke the finish of high end yachts (and dirigibles, one imagines), diamond stitched everything and an outbreak of touchscreens so virulent, it really ought to be brought to the attention of the WHO.

Hey Mercedes! is there an app for migraines buried in some MBUX sub-menu?

Woooo! Image:

The Rolls Royce Ghost was introduced in 2009 as a more compact, more driver-focused sibling to the patrician chauffeur-driven Phantom. Credited to Andreas Thurner (exterior) and Charles Coldham (interior) under the supervision of design director, Ian Cameron, the car was an elegant synthesis of imposition, classic proportions, visual restraint and elegance of line. Call it the latterday, more considered equivalent of the Silver Shadow/ Spirit/ Seraph and you would be there or thereabouts.

A decade later, it has been deemed time to refresh the format, and so Goodwood has been drawing up, (under previous design chief, Giles Taylor) not just a new Ghost story, but a framing device within which to house it, termed in RR parlance, Post-Opulence. Rolls Royce PR, in the lead up to Ghost II’s apparition, made much of this facet in the press, establishing the case that it redefines the idea of luxury – especially (as one could infer) now, in a world turned sideways.

It may well do, and certainly, it sounds like a good deal of time, effort, money and cutting edge technology has been poured into making it the quietest of its kind, but to these (untrained) eyes, it’s somewhat difficult to discern what the great leap forward is, given that from both an exterior and interior perspective, post-opulence looks an awful lot like pre-opulence or current-opulence for that matter. To me it’s all just opulence.

Image: motor1

One has to hand it to RR’s marketers – they certainly realise how to underline a metaphor – after all, every self-respecting Ghost (those who know their onions at least) understands the necessity to be clad beneath a white sheet. The Ghost, in its clinical press photos is about as suitably amorphous a visual presence to qualify for the shapeless milky haze sobriquet.

Despite being on a version of the same RR spaceframe platform which has been employed on both Phantom and Cullinan, the new Ghost’s exterior instead comes across as a somewhat blunt reskin of the outgoing car, but of course it’s rather difficult to be sure of anything under these lighting conditions.

Certainly, before we can fully ascertain the full visual merits of the new Ghost (and first impressions are somewhat underwhelming), we will have to await more finely saturated images of a car shorn of its artificial (otherworldly even) hue. Only then can we know just how much of a fright it looks.

The luxury saloon as we recognise it is dying. For Mercedes and Rolls Royce, the format has not only been their bread and butter, but their defining products. Understandably then, reinvention is essential when faced with the existential threat both car lines ultimately face. However, is rearranging the deckchairs necessarily going to cut it, no matter how much tinsel, white noise (or lighting) you apply?

Don’t creep up from behind, you give it a fright! Image:

Both cars attempt to cloak a primarily technology-laden offer with iterative styling. Both hope the customer will be prepared to appreciate a shift towards a surface-level refinement of the visual offer which is presented with a metaphorical pat on the head. Modern Luxury: Post Opulence – it’s all rather contrived, and rather patronising. Neither car nails its brief – they fail because in essence, they lack an essential honesty. For the money, I’d want more – and a good deal less.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “Sense and Sensuality”

  1. Good morning Eóin, and thank you for your considered analysis of what has been and should remain two landmark new models. Even if the market segment is in retreat, the S-Class should embody the pinnacle of Mercedes-Benz design and engineering capabilities. While the Phantom is Rolls-Royce’s flagship, the Ghost should be in no way inferior, merely smaller.

    For all that, I can only feel a real sense of anticlimax. The exterior of the new S-Class is now bland to the point of anonymity, yet the details are either uncertain (headlamps) or downright ugly (tail lights). The interior is impractical, showy and vulgar, further proof that Mercedes-Benz cannot do luxury convincingly. I’m sure it’s a technical tour de force but, really, who cares when it is so lacking in grace and presence? I’m sure it will retain its market leadership but would you ever stop to look at one, to take in its details? I know I won’t.

    The new Ghost is no longer based on the architecture of the 7 Series and is said to be dynamically superb. The exterior, however, represents no advance over the outgoing model and is, like the Phantom, in some respects inferior: for example the positioning of the front wing to bumper shut-line is terrible and cannot be unseen. The interior looks as it should, but is again little different to the outgoing model. I wonder why white was chosen as the colour for the launch model? It may play well in California (and China?) but not in Northern Europe’s cold light (where it also screams ‘wedding hire’).

    There’s still, I think, life left in Rolls-Royce’s current style, but the original Phantom and Ghost were so good that they proved difficult to improve upon.

    Mercedes-Benz has gone in precisely the opposite direction to Audi and removed surplus ornamentation from its designs, but this has simply revealed the blandness of the underlying shapes.

  2. Here’s the aforementioned rear view of the new S-Class:

    It would look fine if it were a Hyundai Genesis, but not as an S-Class.

  3. Five minutes with the Rolls-Royce Ghost configurations leaves you bewildered. Excluding the ultra personalisation, one can interiors and exteriors as to not resemble a laboratory on wheels (only up to 21”), three different clocks, bespoke umbrella (my favourite) and an illuminated grille lending that cliff face a, ahem, more ghostly frontage. Would a solid silver or gold plated Sprit of Ecstasy improve this car? No. For as Eóin has presciently pointed out, it ain’t much different from the previous ghost story so why bother?

    This was the straw that broke the camel’s back

    1. That appears to be HALLMARKED. Is this a subtle in-joke at the expense of Royce’s ex-stablemate in Crewe?

  4. At least Mercedes-Benz have dropped the ‘sagging dashboard’ design theme, which is something.

    As one reviewer pointed out, if you want real luxury, you’ll go for the equivalent luxury SUV, with its captain’s chairs, etc. These saloons are a bit tight on space, in comparison. Both are no longer where the real action, or interest is.

    1. I can’t agree with this.

      I’ve yet to sit in an SUV that’s as comfortable as a sedan… certainly not in the back seats. The S class sits the rear passengers low, almost between the rear wheels, and has enough drop between seat and floor to allow even longer legs to be properly comfortable.

      Most SUVs do not, and the higher centre of gravity means that your body moves slightly out of sync with the car. This is perhaps magnified by air springs, which are more necessary in an SUV because steel springs need to be firmer to keep the body masses in check.

      We can all pile on here, but the format is spot on. It’s just the execution that’s becoming more vulgar.

  5. I am definitely not a potential customer of these two cars. I don’t have the money to do this and above all I don’t have enough bad taste to make a order. I feel sorry for all the rich people who have to buy this.

    If I had the money, I would get the best-preserved example of a Lancia Flavia Zagato* and still have enough money to buy gasoline for the rest of my life – even if the price for the liter should increase tenfold – and I would have more luxury and less gimmicks.
    (Presumably there would still be enough money left over to buy an Alfa Zagato Junior, exclusively to get bread on Sunday mornings in the neighboring town just for fun. Ha, and to get any kind of an old Bentley Saloon just to take out the relatives for afternoon coffee once a month; oh, do I have relatives? Let´s skip the Bentley…)

    * When we, the-best-wives-of-all and I, saw this car in real for the first time, she said spontaneously “I think, I just fell in love”, I mean I was standing next to her, you can’t say more about a car…

  6. Well, I think I understand this: the EQS is due next year.

    No surprise that the S-Class appears staid, it wants to be a Maybach when it grows up.

  7. Why is Mercedes trying to make their grille look more like an Audi?

    And why wouldn’t RR wait until they have a real car to photograph? Looking at the interior shot can the side mirrors really be 30% the size of the window, and larger than the steering wheel airbag?

    1. Good point, that cannot be real, surely? If so, it would create a significant blind spot when combined with the A-pillar. Hopefully it is just a strange angle, or bad rendering. Now that the Honda E has opened that particular Pandora’s box, I expect that more cars will appear with camera-feeds rather than actual mirrors anyway.

      Without something for scale, would you recognise that as an S-class, rather than an E, C, or even A-saloon?

    2. John, I’m pretty sure that’s not the real grille. I mean it can’t be, right? It’s some sort of bulbous covering to disguise the final design… not sure why Mercedes left it on for the reveal, but maybe this is just the way of new car launches these days?

      I had thought that Sensual Purity had hit upon a fairly nice design motif – more upright, ‘formal’ tail lights for the traditional Mercedes sedans, and horizontal tail lights for the wagons, coupes and SUVs. Obviously I was wrong – there is no strategy.

  8. Very nasty and ill-fitting plastic ‘fang’ filling the gap between the Ghost’s headlamp and grille

    1. Somehow I had overlooked that, but now you have mentioned it, the front of the Ghost has a certain resemblance to those Guy Fawkes “Anonymous” masks.

  9. Here’s something interesting. A Russian automotive website thought that the new S-Class needed to look more formal, more like the W140, so mocked this up:

    It needs further refinement, but I think they’re on the right track, taking away some of the more clichéd or ersatz elements of the design (huge openings in front valance, upswept body side crease, strange triangular tail lights, parallelogram-shaped exhausts in rear valance ) in favour of cleaner, more linear look.

    It’s a forlorn hope that Mercedes-Benz might consider something like this, certainly not while Gorden is at the design helm.

    1. Very well done.

      Obviously some people in their ivory towers have become so far off the way, that the (bling-bling) Russians have to show the Germans how good design for a luxury sedan should look like.
      A pathetic award for Untertürkheim – and that is where the lads in Munich should feel addressed too.

      (Of course, I’ll never be a customer of this kind of vehicles, which is why I shouldn’t care. But I have to look at this misery when I go out on the street.)

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