Is it better to drive or be driven? Or, can you have your cake and eat it too?
Tim StevensFormer editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Watch this: Shootout: 7 Series vs. S-Class for luxury motoring
At some point in your life, should you have risen to what most would consider to be a financially envious position, you may find yourself having to make a rather important decision: Shall I continue to drive myself, or is it time for me to enjoy the luxury of being driven?
Play your cards right and you won't have to choose. There is a breed of luxury sedan that is meant to fulfill both destinies, cars as rewarding to drive as they are comfortable to be driven in. Loaded with the latest technology and the greatest automotive creature comforts in the land, these machines are quite impressive to behold -- and that's not just because they're absolutely huge.
But which is the best? To find out, we brought together two of the classiest the market has to offer: BMW's recently rebooted 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz's purposefully elegant S-Class. These two cars are incredibly similar in so many ways that it's absolutely fascinating to see just how very different they can be.
The S here might as well stand for Success, because arriving in one of these means you've probably done pretty well for yourself. All-new for the 2014 model year, the S550 is a big, imposing sedan that has it in all the right places -- including price. You'll look to spend about $96,000 to start, but of course, with just one or two ticks on the options sheet, you'll be comfortably into six-figure territory.
Ours was powered by a 449-horsepower, 4.7-liter, twin-turbo V-8 that delivers its torque to the ground with such a degree of civility that, without using some restraint, you'll be well into "Step out of the car, please" territory before you're halfway up the onramp.
Comfort is the name of the game, whether it be the gentle shifts from the seven-speed automatic, the pliant ride from the air suspension or the deeply plush seats. Slide into either the front or rear of this car and you will not want to get out -- even if the interior aesthetic doesn't quite match your tastes.
Brian Cooley calls the latest S-Class "Baroque," and that's right on the money. At least, it is with our car's quilted leather trim, wood inlays and silver highlights. You can certainly customize this thing eight ways from Sunday and make it look however you like, but you'll never be far from a fine piece of material to reach out and touch.
That continues to the rear seat, which of course has oodles of legroom and a pair of thrones that cuddle you in all the right ways. Mercedes-Benz offers a choice of rear-seat accommodations depending on your desires and your budget, but opt for the full-on $3,500 executive package and you'll add full massage plus the ability for the right-rear seat to recline to 43 degrees, pushing the front passenger seat up and out of the way.
BMW 7 Series
On the outside, the new 7 looks so understated that you'd be forgiven for thinking it's, well, just another iterative update in a long history of minor performance bumps and suspension tweaks. Not so. The conservative exterior is a false hand, hiding a radically reinvented car beneath.
Engine, suspension, tech, chassis, everything is fresh and new, and while I wouldn't normally waste your time talking about the chassis of the car, here it's quite important. The core of the new 7 is an aluminum and high-strength steel chassis girded with carbon fiber, stuff that's lighter and stronger than steel but notoriously difficult to use in a mass-produced car, thanks to a host of expensive logistical issues. BMW has applied its i3 and i8 learnings, and so the new 7 tips the scales nearly 200 pounds lighter than before.
The motor is new as well, a 445-horsepower, 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8. Its performance is understated like the exterior, but dip into the go pedal and the car responds. There's no massive kick of torque, no screaming to the rev limiter. It's a simple wave of power that ushers you comfortably forward -- at a very rapid pace.
While neither of these cars felt at home on the track, the 7 Series was far more composed. Fun, even. Its (still prodigious) weight felt reasonably nicely balanced. Understeer remains the name of the game, but not terminally so, and with a bit of finesse on the way into turns, you can power out of them cleanly without asking too much from the front tires.
On the road that responsiveness continues. Again, the 7 is the more engaging of the two cars, but it's also very civilized and composed in its Comfort Plus setting. The dynamic suspension does a fine job of isolating you from the worst that abused city streets have to offer. Still, it isn't quite as cosseting as the Merc, which has just a touch more civility and class about its body control.
2016 BMW 7 Series exudes luxury inside and out (pictures)
But when it comes to whiz-bang technology, the 7 is just dripping with the stuff. From the midair gesture control up front to the removable tablet in the back (from which you can do everything from change the radio station to select your massage type), there are examples of progressive techno-wizardry throughout. In fact, some might find it all a bit overwhelming. Indeed, being able to use buttons, gestures, voice control and a touchscreen means there's a lot to learn. But, it also means the car will let you control it the way you want to control it, and that's a good thing.
You can get into a 7 Series for as little as $81,000, but to compete with the S-Class, you'll need the 750i with xDrive AWD, which starts at just over $97,000 -- spitting distance from the Merc.
A difficult choice
This is a tough one. Unlike our previous Shootout, where the winner was painfully clear, here we can't give a straight-on recommendation. It's a bit more nuanced than that. To start, both are phenomenal cars. As they should be, given how much they cost. Both are immensely safe, powerful and modern machines.
Of the two, the Mercedes is slightly more comforting. The seats are softer, the ride is more compliant, and overall, it's the more isolating experience. The BMW is also plenty comfortable, amazingly so in fact, but it's slightly more aggressive in terms of feel and a bit more progressive in terms of technology.
For the driver's car -- and for a tech-lover's car -- we have to give the nod to the BMW. However, should you find yourself driving or being driven in either of these two machines, rest assured it will be a very nice ride indeed.