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Luxury Car of the Year: Mercedes-Benz S-Class Sedan shakes up category

Editor's note: In the second annual CultureMap Auto Awards, our automotive correspondents Nic Phillips and Kevin McCauley bestow honors in 10 categories for the top cars and trucks of 2013/2014. Next up:

Luxury Car of the Year: 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Sedan

For several years, the very top of the luxury car segment has remained fairly static — with only minor improvements to longtime models, just enough to be dubbed "new" each year. Blame the recession for Mercedes-Benz's last overhaul of its flagship sedan, which happened way back in 2005, and the demise of the exotic Maybach brand in 2013, whose exclusive models were basically modified S-Classes that couldn't match superb competitors from Rolls Royce and Bentley.

 If the 2014 S-Class Sedan is any sort of economic barometer, Mercedes-Benz has declared the recession over in a thoroughly modern way.

Now, if the 2014 S-Class Sedan is any sort of economic barometer, Mercedes-Benz has declared the recession over in a thoroughly modern way. The exterior is sleeker and decidedly more distinct, with a larger, more characteristic front grille and a svelte body that now uses aluminum, saving weight while adding strength. 

It's the interior, though, that really blows us away, setting a new high bar for the class with an execution beyond that of even the old $450,000-plus Maybachs. The design is clean if not modern, successfully blending the old-world luxury of Bentley with leathers in three styles bearing names like Deep Sea Blue, Silk Beige and Sea Shell Gray matched to expansive wrapped Burl Walnut, Sunburst Myrtle, Black Poplar or even Metalized Ash Wood trim.

Unlike the Bentley, though, the big Benz has a more technologically advanced esthetic most apparent in the new enhanced COMAND system's two 12.3-inch HD screens covering nearly two-thirds of the dashboard. At night, some 300 LEDs illuminate the interior with color options to match customer preference. 

Technology is more than skin deep for the S-Class, with innovations like Intelligent Drive making use of new stereoscopic camera and radar sensors around the vehicle constantly looking 360 degrees to warn or even take autonomous evasive actions to improve safety and accident avoidance. That same multicamera system is also used in S-Class' MAGIC BODY CONTROL — the first ever air suspension system that can actually see the road ahead, identifying bumps and potholes before the reach the vehicle and preemptively responding to provide a luxe ride. No Bentley of Rolls Royce has that.

All of that makes admission to this VIP experience quite the value indeed. At just $92,900, the S-Class is a super-luxury game changer. Should the "base" 449-horsepower biturbo V8 not have the thrust you desire, a $140,000 AMG sport version is available with a handcrafted 5.5-liter 577-horsepower V8 getting you to 60 (and the fuel pump) in under four seconds.        

Luxury Car of the Year Runner-up: 2014 Hyundai Equus

Selling fewer than 12,000 Equus since coming Stateside in 2009 as a 2010 model, Hyundai's flagship luxury sedan is more of an exotic than the $100,000 S-Class. In 2013 alone, Mercedes sold more than 13,000 S-Class in the United States.)

However, it's not just the small number that makes it unlikely you've never noticed the Equus. Its understated styling is easily mistaken for the Lexus LS, which the Hyundai is directly targeting.

Despite low sales numbers, Equus has been a surprise hit among low-profile luxury sedan seekers, so much so that Hyundai has significantly upgraded the 2014 model with some similarities to our top-ranked S-Class. A newly improved interior and the refinement of driving dynamics — while keeping the price well below the $70,000 mark that ordinarily defines this segment — places the model on our picks list.

Throw in "White Glove Service" where you never see a dealership — the car is picked up and dropped off at your direction — and it becomes easy to see why smart luxury buyers have chosen Equus.

Hyundai has done a bang-up job of comparing the Equus to other luxury offerings, and it's well worth a look.

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