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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.
S500 ($80,200) comes with a 302-horsepower 5.0-liter V8.
S430 ($71,850) uses a 275-horsepower 4.3-liter V8.
The new S600 ($115,200) marks the debut of the newest Mercedes engine, a 362-horsepower 5.8-liter V12.
And the hot-rod S55 AMG ($99,500) is powered by a hand-built 5.4-liter V8 producing 354 horsepower with 391 foot-pounds of torque. Standard equipment on the S55 AMG (classified as a Low Emissions Vehicle, even with all that power) includes an active suspension, 18-inch AMG Monoblock alloy wheels with high-performance tires, ventilated front seats, AMG aerodynamic enhancements, and a trunk-mounted CD changer.
S600 features the active suspension, high-polish 17-inch alloy wheels, greater levels of wood and leather trim, a suede-like Alcantara headliner, Parktronic, four heated and power-operated seats, four-zone climate control, CD changer and digital cellular phone with voice control.
S430 and S500 both come with Airmatic air suspension, GPS navigation, Tele Aid with enhanced functions, full leather upholstery, Bose audio system, ESP Electronic Stability Program, and a sunroof.
S430, S500, and S600 can be equipped with a Sport package that sharpens styling and handling. It includes an AMG front air dam, rear apron and side skirts, plus 8.5x18-inch front and 9.5x18-inch rear AMG Monoblock alloy wheels with 245/45YR18 front and 275/40YR18 rear high-performance tires.
Our S500 did not include any of the other many thousands of dollars in available options. Among them: $2190 for a CD changer and cellphone; $5770 for all four power seats; $1880 for four-zone air conditioning; $2960 for active suspension; and $2875 for adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to maintain the distance you program between your car and the car ahead of you. Mercedes was the first to offer this technology, although others are coming (INFINITI Q45, for one). It won't do panic stops for you, so you need to keep your foot near the brake pedal. And because it works with cruise control, presumably your S500 won't make you a captive in a car chase, if the car ahead suddenly accelerates.
For 2002, there is an option Mercedes calls Keyless Go, which uses a small card instead of a keyfob, as well as a button on the shift lever, which shuts off the engine. Among the very few other 2002 changes are standard Daytime Running Lights (sigh), and a semantics change on one climate-control button: a simple, unmistakable "AC OFF" finally replaces the mysterious "EC" (hip-hip-hooray!). Of course, now there's a new button called "ERGO" (therefore?), which replaces the third seating/mirrors memory position.
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.