Clarkson on: the Mercedes S-Class
Last weekend, Andy Wilman, that human carpet you sometimes see on Top Gear, asked if he could borrow the keys to a Mercedes S-class I had on loan.
No surprises there. People who come to stay are always asking if they can try out whatever cars are parked in the drive. And the S-class is big news. Some say it's the best car in the world. Some say it's even better than that, so Andy wanted to get out there to see if the reality lives up to the legend.
Strange, then, that after just a few minutes, he was back inside the house having not driven the car at all.
"Why?" I asked him.
"Because there's no need," he said.
And he might be right. When you're presented with a new Mercedes S-class, you sort of know it's going to be utterly silent and effortlessly fast. You can be assured there will be no twist in the tale or, thanks to the traction control, the tail. So really, what's the point of actually driving the damn thing?
What you want, frankly, is to be amazed by the toys - and believe me, the S-class amazes, and then some. I mean, the seats come with a grand total of 40 motors apiece and small fans which cool or heat your buttocks as you move along.
And it gets better, because as you adjust the temperature a small bank of blue and red lights illuminate. That's great. You don't have to sit there thinking: ‘Is my arse hot or is it cold?' A simple glance will tell you.
And then your attention is drawn to the television, telephone, stereo and satellite navigation system, all of which are fitted into a six-by-six box which lives on the centre console.
Now, to those of us who are over 35 years old, this is deeply impressive - when we were growing up, your amp was the size of a washing machine, your TV was black and white, there were no satellites and your phone number was Darrowby 35.
Obviously, having been brought up in a pre-calculator age, I am completely baffled by computers. But that didn't stop me stabbing away at the various buttons, responding with an excitable shriek when the readout on the TV screen changed. Simply getting the radio to come on, and play music, gives hope to the world's old people that maybe one day they could buy an internet and make it mow the lawn.
"For all I know, the air-conditioning system in an S-class could mow the lawn and a whole lot more besides"
For all I know, the air-conditioning system in an S-class could mow the lawn and a whole lot more besides: bikini-wax your wife, make a pizza? Who knows? I certainly don't, because the controls made no sense to me at all.
In American cars, the function performed by a knob is written in English on the knob itself. The button to open the sunroof actually says ‘sunroof'. Now in the rest of the world, people recognise that there's such a thing as a language barrier, and as a result, they use symbols instead.
Again, this worked fine. Find a button with a drawing of a sunroof on it and, unless you're in an Alfa, it'll open the roof when pressed. But what happens when a car offers a new function you've never heard of before? The symbol on the switch will be meaningless.
There's one button on the S-class dashboard which appears to have a corn circle drawn on it. So you press it and guess what? A small red light comes on. There's no whirring noise, no soft whoosh such as you'd get when the doors open on the USS Enterprise, just that little red light.
And next to it is another button with what looks like a Breville snack and sandwich toaster stencilled on it. Again, when you press this, absolutely nothing happens. I would say that, of all the buttons in the S-class, and there are hundreds, 80 per cent appear to have no function whatsoever.
Obviously the solution can be found in the handbook, but look, it's the size of the Bible and makes even less sense. By the time you'd got to the chapter marked ‘How to Walk On Water', your car would have rusted away.
And anyway, I sort of know what all those buttons do. They change the driving characteristics slightly, making the car perhaps a little more lively in the bends or a little more prone to rear-end breakaway. And honestly, this is silly because you can't induce power oversteer when you're still at home, with all your friends in the back saying: "Hey, what does that one do?"
Certainly, you should attempt to drive an S-class by yourself. What with Maureen lunging at you from every side-road, and school children surfing on your back bumper, you have enough to worry about without having to translate ancient Egyptian hiero-glyphics every time you want to turn the radio up a bit.
Of course, no-one who buys an S-class ever actually does the driving. You have a driver, but from now on you're going to need two: one to drive the car and beat up pedestrians who want your autograph and another who must be computer-literate, skilled in satellite guidance and fully conversant with road-going avionics. So, that's Andy Wilman and me out then.