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The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has been on the road going on two years now, but the technology found in the these sedans remains the benchmark for the class. Under that understated skin lurks the heart of a robot. Microprocessors and onboard sensors instantaneously determine many of the forces acting upon the car, filter the data, and adjust the car's handling for you.
Starting with the S500, the S-Class was redesigned in the spring of 1999 for model year 2000. The car came out lower, sleeker (most aerodynamic efficiency in a passenger car), smaller, and roomier.
The S-Class cars are big, long, rich and luxurious looking, unmistakably Mercedes, with flagship rather than dramatic styling. If you can separate the styling from the image, it's not dramatically eye-catching. It says rich, at least as much as gorgeous. In the parking lot of our credit union, from the rear at least, it almost got lost among the common sedans.
The upswept window line is lovely, but the AMG Monobloc wheels seem too big and solid looking. On our S500 they housed massive 18-inch Michelin Pilot Sport tires-a two-inch jump over the standard 16-inch tires-as part of the optional Sport package ($4,900), which also includes the AMG aerodynamic bodywork.
From your throne behind the wheel, the S500 might make you feel like master of the universe. A long strip of burl walnut sweeps across the instrument panel from door to door, its bend and taper reminiscent of the graceful lines of an archer's bow. Leather doesn't get much lusher than the charcoal Nappa in our S500 (except for Exclusive Nappa in the S600), and the rear bench seat feels like an expensive sofa. There's a cavernous 40.3 inches of legroom back there, just one inch less than the front-and the rear seat reclines, too.
"The design goal was to reduce driving stress as much as technology and good design sense would allow," says Mercedes. Yes but ? watch out for the ambush by an oxymoron; technology and good design sense often fight for control. The S500 instrument panel includes about six dozen switches and controls, some of which have icons for German functions, and the translation into sign language sometimes comes out Greek. Press a switch, just for fun. "Airmatic Vehicle Car Rising," a message on the panel tells you. We never saw a "Car Falling" message, which may be evidence that Mercedes engineers truly believe they can defy gravity.
The car comes with its own video training course. The glovebox is crammed with operating manuals in black leather packets, including a separate one for the standard COMAND system (COckpit MANagement and Data). This includes the GPS navigation system and Tele Aid, which is basically a cellular help line for specific problem situations. For 2002, Tele Aid includes traffic reports and concierge services. Then there's the optional InfoServices, which provides web-based customized information including news, stock quotes, sports and weather.
Reduce driving stress? The sheer mass of the manuals is stress-inducing. It's daunting to think about all you have to learn to master the controls so you can feel like master of the universe. And even if you fully understand them, it would take so much attention to keep the car perfectly tuned and the potential for information optimized, that a co-pilot would be very helpful. Maybe that's where the voice command feature comes in. Some stuff you can just tell the car what to do, and hope it understands you. After you learn its language.
Silly us, we thought the trunk lid was stiff, until we realized it just doesn't like to be controlled by human hands. A fingertip maybe, then the Pneumatic Door and Trunk Closing Assist does the rest. For 2002, an interior trunk release has been added for safety.
Ergonomics-wise, the center console has great support for your right knee, bracing your throttle foot. But there's nothing on the left, no real dead pedal, and not enough seat support for your thighs, so your legs get pitched during aggressive cornering. We know, the S500 is a luxury car, not a sports car, but if you offer a suspension that boasts level cornering, the driver can be expected to use it.
The roofline, the C-pillar, creates a blind spot when you look over your right shoulder. But there's no blind spot through the windshield, not even in the spray of a truck in the rain, thanks to powerful wipers with no less than six nozzles to spray washer fluid.
Naturally, the Bose sound system is state of the art. More things that can be optimized, more programmable features. Soundstage positioning, it's called. According to Mercedes, "From a driver in the car alone, listening to talk radio, to a car full of people, listening to symphonic or vocal music, there is an audio setting to make the listening experience more enjoyable." But the quality of the rock 'n' roll we listened to didn't knock our socks off. Maybe we didn't have our soundstage positioned perfectly. Don't they have engineers for that, at concerts?
The S500, like other luxury Mercedes, is in its element on the Autobahn. If all that was ever asked of the car were to drive on smooth, straight roads at 120 mph, it would be unbeatable, great value for 85 grand. Set the cruise control by using big digital numbers displayed on the speedometer screen, then sit back and relax. You got your optional Adaptive Cruise Control which watches your tailgating, your ESP which helps control the car when you can't, your Brake Assist which slams them on when you don't hit them as hard as you should, your Adaptive Damping for the shocks, your traction control, your rain-sensing wipers, your 10 airbags (frontal, doors, and airbag curtains over the windows), your high-intensity xenon headlights, and your automatic Tele Aid emergency calling for that slim chance that you would need it.
The Airmatic suspension uses compressed air in bellows-like springs in each corner, to maintain constant ride height regardless of load. On the highway, the car is lowered by about an inch, which improves aerodynamics and thus fuel mileage. Airmatic also incorporates the adaptive damping system, which allows you to adjust the shock absorbers according to road conditions, load and speed. This is not the same as the more complex active suspension, which is optional on the S500 (standard on the S600 and S55 AMG), and which virtually eliminates body roll in cornering, squat under acceleration, and dive during braking.
We must say we were surprised that the suspension wasn't perfect. It rocked over shallow holes in the road at 10 mph, and we could feel it lift from side to side over rough or grooved surfaces, at the speed limit. We could feel a jiggling in the steering wheel, over bumps on an otherwise smooth road.
The Sport package on our test model didn't alter the shocks or springs, although it did increase the wheel size from 16 to 18 inches, fitted with very smooth-riding and grippy Michelin Pilots. The Airmatic suspension with Adaptive Damping has three settable positions for shock stiffness, and we found the firm setting to be quite livable even around town.
As expected, the ride itself is quiet, real quiet. But at idle the engine was a little noisier than expected. However, when the hammer is dropped the big V8 makes neat noises. The car is most fun when it's using its torque and growling. This big, elegant luxury car can feel like a hot rod.
The specs say the engine produces its full 339 foot-pounds of torque between 2700 and 4250 rpm, and we're not about to challenge a dynamometer with the seat of our pants, but it didn't feel like the V8 hit its sweet spot until nearly 4000 rpm. And when you floor it at 3000 rpm, it kicks down a gear, to get more power even if theoretically (and paradoxically) it loses torque. The five-speed electronic transmission is even mapped to downshift two gears at once, in some situations.
The car is super-smooth and quiet again as the revs increase into the 5000-rpm range, so it's easy to hit the 6000-rpm rev limiter in second or third gears when you're in the manual shift mode. One time we floored it in third gear to pass on a two-lane, it kicked down into second on its own, and hit the rev limiter on the way back up.
On a wet freeway, with cruise control set at 72 mph, the traction control got a workout. Whenever the tires hydroplaned in puddles that formed in the freeway grooves, you could feel the wheels spinning and biting, spinning and biting. It was interesting to blast through them like this, with no feet. A few times the cruise control deactivated because the brakes were automatically dabbed.
That traction control made us a little nervous once, pulling onto a two-lane from the side of the road. Truck suddenly comes barreling over the hill at us. Spun a little gravel to get out of there. Except, our traction was still being controlled even after our rear wheels were on pavement; for whatever reason, the car didn't believe we should be acceleratin
Mercedes S-Class offers a lot, as it should. It represents the state of the technological art of the high-performance luxury sedan. Its interior comfort is unsurpassed, its styling is aerodynamically efficient. It says Mercedes (spelled "status") all the way.
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