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Perfection or excess? One of these words will sum up the Mercedes-Benz S-Class line with sufficient accuracy for most people.
Proponents of perfection will no doubt point out Mercedes' reputation for nth-degree engineering, bank-vault safety and zillion-mile reliability.
They will list the dozens - hundreds, for that matter - of amenities offered by the S-Class cars, many of which are exclusive Mercedes-Benz features. They also will describe the bewildering array of models (there are eight, by our count) in the S-Class range as a something-for-everyone lineup. And they will be correct in every respect.
Those who see the S-Class cars through jaundiced eyes - calling them excessive - will point to high curb weights, extravagant prices (anywhere from $62,000 to $133,000), unrelenting thirst (translation: poor fuel efficiency) and the cars' complexity as negatives, and are likely to suggest a host of alternative vehicles for the luxury-minded to consider. These people, too, will be correct.
As you can probably guess, class comparisons are difficult to make. The Mercedes S-Class line falls between BMW and Rolls-Royce/Bentley on the price scale, almost doubling in price from the base S320 sedan to the S600 coupe.
The 6-cylinder cars compete against the Jaguar XJ6, the V8s fall squarely in the BMW 740i category and the 12-cylinder sedans and coupes face the Jaguar XJ12 and BMW 750i. And yet these Mercedes Benz S-Class cars are as different from any of their rivals as apples are from oranges.
Let's line the S-Class entries up for inspection: At the entry-level end of the scale is the S320 model. The S320 is equipped with a 228-hp 6-cylinder engine and 5-speed automatic transmission.
Next up is the only luxury turbodiesel car sold in North America, the S350. Like its S320 sibling, the oil-burner has virtually every feature you might expect a luxury car to carry, including air conditioning, anti-lock brakes (ABS), traction control, power-controlled everything and a first-class sound system.
Three V8-powered S-Class cars are next. The S420 has a 275-hp engine; the S500 gets a rousing 40 hp more. With the more powerful engine comes a choice of coupe or sedan body styles.
The top-of-the-line S600 is also available in coupe or sedan form. A 6.0-liter V12 provides the power here. Both V12s, all V8s and the turbodiesel are fitted with 4-speed automatic transmissions.
Our test car was an S500 sedan that boasted burl walnut trim, heated seats, a Bose sound system and a tilt steering wheel, and was priced at $87,500.
Your first, second and third impressions of the S-Class cars are likely to relate to size. These are big automobiles, and look even more massive than they really are. Some styling tweaks have been applied for 1995 to lessen the appearance of bulk, including the addition of a new grille, headlights and a horizontal bodyside crease, but the look of substance remains.
On closer inspection, it quickly becomes apparent that size has its virtues. Huge doors with pneumatic closers that latch them silently and effortlessly promise easy access to the cavernous interior, and the large trunk lid makes loading luggage into the trunk - which measures in at a more than generous 15.6 cu. ft. - simple.
Flush glass windows (double glazed for noise isolation) and the rounded wedge of the body suggest aerodynamic efficiency as well.
Even without the 3-point star on the hood, the S-Class is an unmistakable product of the Mercedes-Benz design staff, whether you see it arriving, departing or simply standing still.
The sedans are smooth but formal; the coupes sleeker. That's tradition.
In essence, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class interior is a Mercedes-Benz S-Class interior, regardless of model or price. Leather upholstery is standard for the seats (firmly padded but comfortable in the European manner); glossy wood trim decorates doors, dashboard and center console; and knobs, buttons and switches feel substantial and work with unmatched precision.
Gauges are large analog dials, except for the trip and total odometers, which are digital. Also, the shift lever moves through a notched gate that eliminates the need for the clumsy lock buttons found on most automatic shift levers.
The large-diameter steering wheel is certainly a Mercedes fixture, adjusted electrically for both rake and reach.
Electric motors also control all three rearview mirrors. Front seats are adjusted by the seat-shaped switches pioneered so long ago by Mercedes-Benz; a 3-position memory feature allows adjustments made to seats, steering wheel and mirrors to be recalled at the touch of a button.
The seats themselves are typically Mercedes. Your initial contact says firm, but as the miles melt away the firmness feels more and more comfortable.
The manufacturer has maintained traditional appearances to the extent that you would not know that you are in the newest S-Class - instead of an older Mercedes - were it not for the recently added cupholders. As always, materials used are beyond criticism, from plush carpeting to the black dash top that eliminates windshield reflections.
On the road, the S-Class cars impress with their size and silence. You should be aware that these are not the easiest of automobiles to guide through traffic or to park. Mercedes-Benz, obviously aware of this problem, installed a pair of chrome-plated wands that rise from the rear fenders to mark the vehicle corners when the gear selector is put in reverse.
Sheer mass is much less of a factor in highway driving. Any S-Class vehicle will waft along with ease at legal speeds and above, protecting those inside from noise and temperature extremes. You can hear the powerplant (regardless of model) when the throttles are opened wide, but a steady cruise is a quiet cruise.
Despite their weight, the 8- and 12-cylinder cars are capable of impressive performance. The 4960-lb. S600 sedan is said to be capable of reaching 60 mph from rest in less than 7 seconds and will, when circumstances allow, crack the 150-mph barrier. Our experience showed that the S500 was only slightly slower than these numbers.
Weight did have an effect on our test model's superbly-engineered chassis. Though some critics might disagree with our observations, we found our S500 a less-than-ideal mount for twisty-road driving.
Body roll was very much evident, and getting through tight turns was a chore. Let it be said that the brake and throttle manipulations of the traction-control system (which cannot be disengaged) played a role in damping our enthusiasm for pushing the big sedan toward its limits.
On the other hand, it would be impossible to criticize ride quality. Smooth is too mild a word to describe the S-Class' silky progress over any kind of pavement.
There's no denying that the Mercedes-Benz S-Class line has unique appeal.
Some of that appeal has to do with tradition, some has to do with substance and safety (you get the impression that only a collision with a stray asteroid would hurt this car or its passengers), and some comes from Mercedes-Benz's well-earned reputation for turning out nothing but top-quality products.
Although companies such as Lexus have made inroads, Mercedes still enjoys unequaled prestige and very good resale performance - factors that may be enough to convince you to make a purchase, if you can raise the cash.