How Mercedes Became the Most Compelling Car on the Road

The boys of Benz build the sexiest cars using the smartest technology, and have the intangibles that leave other companies drooling.

Growing up in blue-collar Detroit, I spent a lot of time in Mercedes. (And you thought I was going to say “Camaros.”) In fact, my father, an electrician and autoworker, loved diesels. He would buy smoke-belching, gleefully carcinogenic Benzes and drive them until we could see rushing pavement through rust-eaten floorboards.

Newer Mercedes sedans were certainly expensive, but there was nothing flashy about them. Even the rare sporty model, the SL-Class convertible, upheld tradition like a Mormon elder.

I thought of my late father while I rolled Mercedes’ newest S-Class Coupe through Tuscany, luxuriating like a sultan; and again while hustling the Porsche-baiting Mercedes AMG GT around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. He wouldn’t recognize those bodacious Benzes, or the outpouring of design, performance and innovation that’s made Mercedes the best-selling luxury brand in America.

Every luxury automaker has their moment, and Mercedes’ moment is now. The Germans are spanking the Japanese in general. Lexus, after a long free-fall from the top of the luxury heap, is finally figuring out that big spenders don’t want cars blander than hospital tofu—no matter how reliable. The less said about Acura right now, the better.

While some complacency has crept in, BMW still makes some irresistible rides, including 2014’s most significant car, the futuristic i8 plug-in hybrid sports car. Audi has masterfully positioned itself as a younger, hipper luxury alternative.

But it’s Mercedes whose three-pointed star has risen atop the luxury tree. Aside from an expanding flotilla of suburb-loving SUVs, Mercedes has done it by shedding its conservative cocoon and emerging with more striking designs and wing-flapping power than seemed possible. Mercedes remains the blue-chip German brand, but now with BMW-esque performance and a dose of shelter-magazine design as in Audi. That’s a wicked three-way combo, and buyers are responding from Long Island to Laguna Beach.

Who could have imagined that Mercedes would build a  straight-up, sweetly curvaceous rival to the Porsche 911, as it has with the AMG GT? Scorching around Laguna Seca’s roller-coaster circuit, the 503-horsepower GT S version – which slays 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and peaks at 193 mph – proves the equal of any car in its class, and prettier than most. (The AMG GT reaches showrooms in April for around $112,000 to start). Credit that on-fire AMG division, which designs and builds power-crazed versions of more than 20 Mercedes models, with helping to transform not just Mercedes’ once-cautious performance, but the very image of the brand.

In town squares in Tuscany, old men in hats practically genuflected before the roughly $120,000 to $220,000 S-Class Coupe – at least before we cranked the Beastie Boys through 24 speakers and 1,540 watts of Burmester sound system.

Coupe or sedan, the S-Class’ interior is Koch Brothers-rich. Forty-seven Swarovski crystals adorn each Coupe headlamp like pricey jewelry brandished to a mistress. That cabin and technology – from hot-stone massaging seats to a perfume-wafting cabin and semi-autonomous driving functions – may even win over Bentley or Aston Martin aficionados. Those British chariots offer handcrafted exclusivity, but they cost roughly twice the price and are less user-friendly and technically advanced. (It’s telling that Aston Martin has hooked up with Mercedes in a tech partnership that will see Benz’ infotainment systems and other gizmos in Aston cars).

Even people of more-modest means are invited. The CLA-Class sedan made waves with its slinky design and $29,995 starting price. The all-new C-Class sedan, starting around $37,000, makes its own persuasive statement: More deluxe inside than a BMW 3-Series or Audi A4, yet with an available bi-turbo V6 whose 329 horsepower tops its field. That C-Class also shows Mercedes setting the pace in affordable autonomy: Like pricier Benzes, the C-Class can actually steer itself along gentle curves, while managing its own speed and brakes, as cameras and radar monitor the whole shebang. Drivers enjoy 360-degree in-car camera views, a drowsy-driver monitor and fully automated braking at up to 124 mph to avoid pedestrians and collisions. Just don’t start texting humble brags to your pals.

The most left-field arrival from Stuttgart has to be the GLA-Class. Mercedes calls it a compact AWD crossover, but it’s basically a fantasy hot hatch, seemingly aimed at spoiled adolescents: Expect to see Jaden and Willow Smith rocking a matched pair any day now. The AMG version, the GLA45, features merely the most powerful four-cylinder engine in the history of automobiles, with 355 horses from 2.0 liters of bi-turbo might.

If that’s not enough, the company is wrapping a historic Formula One racing season that saw it smash records and rivals like so many Whac-a-Moles. Mercedes ran away with the constructor’s title, and its drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, finished one-two in the Driver’s Championship.

The embarrassment of riches continued during the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. The company unveiled the Mercedes-Maybach S-Class, a limo-style, ultra-luxury sedan to compete directly with Rolls-Royce and Bentley. The reborn Maybach may be aimed at Communist-connected Chinese, but its sybaritic, dentist-style recliners look straight from a German bondage haus.

Like Berlin ravers at 5 a.m., Mercedes shows no signs of slowing down or grabbing some shuteye. Whatever’s gotten into Benz’ traditional beer stein, its competitors might want to bottle it, before Mercedes can speed further into the lead.

Photos by Mercedes-Benz USA