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The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has been the sales leader in luxury sedans for four decades. The outgoing model remained the segment leader in sales even after seven years on the market. Indeed, half of all the cars priced over $100,000 sold in the U.S. are still S-Class Benzes. That tells you something about the reputation of Mercedes-Benz's most expensive, most elaborate sedan.
Now, Mercedes has introduced an all-new S-Class. The exterior design, the interior design, and the onboard controls systems are entirely new, and all of the safety systems have been upgraded and even further integrated. Only a few parts and systems carry over from the previous-generation models, such as the air suspension system, the seven-speed automatic transmission, and most of the safety systems.
Competition among the best of the mainstream luxury cars is tough, but Mercedes may have risen to the top of the class with this ninth generation of S-Class models.
The new Mercedes S-Class is longer, wider and taller than the outgoing models, with a wheelbase that is a full three inches longer. Although a short-wheelbase model is available in other markets, as is an S 320 V6 diesel and an S 350 gasoline V6 model, the U.S. market will get only the roomier long-wheelbase version with V8 or V12 power, at least for now.
The exterior features a completely new, more aerodynamically efficient shape. Most noticeable are the exaggerated fender flares front and rear. New design cues include a more upright grille, new headlamps and new tail lamps, the latter with thick body-colored horizontal bars running through them, all tied together with lower body molding. For the first time in the design history of the S-Class, the decklid opening is not contained within the rear fenders, but instead extends out to the side of the body, with a distinctly raised position that looks a bit like the rear end of a 7 Series BMW. That was done for exactly the same aerodynamic reasons as on the BMW, to give the air rushing over the long, long roof panel a good place to separate cleanly from the body without causing drag. A side benefit is a huge trunk opening for easy loading. Active bi-xenon headlamps which illuminate around corners, and cornering fog lamps that illuminate the front corner areas of the car, are standard equipment.
This is the sportiest-looking S-Class ever with this new shape. Despite its increased size, width and height, it has the best aerodynamic rating in the entire luxury class, a 0.26 coefficient of drag, a figure that is among the best in the world, regardless of vehicle size or class. To keep weight down, the hood, decklid, door skins, and much of the door interiors are all made of various aluminum alloys, while the main body shell is made of high-strength steel.
A wide variety of wheel designs and sizes is available to suit each model, with a number of optional wheel and tire combinations. The S550 will come with nine-spoke 18-inch wheels with an optional five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheel or a chrome version of the same wheel or a 19-inch 22-spoke alloy wheel with 255/40R19 front and 275/40R19 rear tires or a 19-inch split spoke design with the same staggered tires. The S600 starts with a beautiful five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheel with 255/45R18 front and 275/55R18 rear tires. An AMG alloy wheel is available for the staggered 255/275 19-inch tire combination as well.
An optional AMG Sport package adds the big AMG wheels, a new front bumper with lower intakes and lamps, a new rear bumper, exaggerated side sills, and twin dual-outlet chrome exhaust tips.
The new Mercedes S-Class boasts one of the most beautiful interior executions on the market today. Nothing in the interior of the outgoing car, absolutely nothing, was kept for this new S-Class. Every gauge, indicator, switch, lever, display and lamp has been changed.
The most striking change is in the COMAND system in the center of the dash that operates the radio, telephone, entertainment system, navigation system, and vehicle systems. Where the old system was sort of blue on gray, mounted low in the center stack of the console, the new system uses a large, deeply hooded and high-mounted 16:9 ratio full-color display screen, with a console-mounted knob that twists and pushes to change categories and change settings. Everything is done with the twist-and-push controller that operates like the BMW iDrive or Audi MMI systems, only better. It's far easier to use and understand, even without resorting to reading the manual, far more intuitive than the BMW and Audi systems or its predecessor. Select the vehicle systems and the display changes to a silhouette drawing of the car where you can customize 10 different settings to your preferences as easily as using a point-and-shoot camera.
Any item inside that was once black plastic with a white ideogram has been changed to a ridged matte silver button with a white-on-black ideogram above or below it that lights up when the lights go on to be visible in night driving. The driver's door panel is packed with controls for windows and mirrors, including a folding function, and in this case they fumbled. The switches that select the left or right mirror to be adjusted or folded are so tiny that the average driver will probably hit both at once until he or she is used to the change (they each light up with a red jewel to show you which side you're adjusting). The steering wheel has been redesigned to make the audio and other functions easier, with a pair of round controls in the spokes that can do up/down and left/right function selection and change, such as radio station, CD or MP3 track, volume, and muting.
Interior environment is controlled by a new switch panel at the center of the dash, with four vents and a new air conditioning system that is both vertically layered and capable of focused, medium, or diffuse air distribution throughout the car, with two zones in front and two in the ear, each with its own controls. Oh, and that thing that looks like a folded-up wood-grained, chrome-edged cellular telephone, on the console just behind the COMAND interface, is exactly that: a telephone dialer.
Another brand new wrinkle is a strip of ambient lighting in the cockpit that starts on the left door, goes all the way across the lower part of the dash, under the wood trim panel, and all the way back on the right door, creating a continuous ribbon of light that can be adjusted through five brightness levels by using the Vehicle portion of the COMAND system. A beautiful touch in a beautifully organized, visually exciting interior.
The new transmission shifter operates like the one in the new M-Class and R-Class SUVs: A tiny stalk on the right side of the column features up, down and in positions for Reverse, Neutral, Drive and Park modes, and all models come with three-mode shifting including Manual, Sport and Comfort shifting using the steering wheel paddles on the reverse side of the spokes, left for downshifts, right for upshifts. While we liked the new metallic interior panels very much, we didn't like the chrome tip on the shifter handle, because it's bright chrome, and it glares like crazy on a sunny day, directly where the driver is looking. We'd prefer the matte metal finish.
The CD/DVD system loads behind a panel under the HVAC system, and contains a slot for loading a PCM/CIA memory card to an internal hard-drive that will play up to 1550 songs through the Harmon/Kardon 5.1 Logic 7 600-watt, 14-speaker surround sound system. The system is comp
Power (and money) have a lot to do with choosing among the new Mercedes S-Class models. The S550 comes with a 5.5-liter engine that has 80 horsepower more it did with the old 5.0-liter 3-valve V8, and it can sprint from 0-60 in 5.5 seconds. The 5.5-liter biturbo V12, lifted from the Maybach and bumped to 510 horsepower and 610 foot-pounds of torque, will do the sprint in a staggering 4.5 seconds. And, remember, this is a huge, heavy, fully equipped luxury car.
Both transmissions upshift and downshift with the speed of a lightning bolt, with no hesitation whatever, regardless of shift mode. The transmission is designed to upshift at redline to protect the engine.
The Airmatic air suspension system has been retuned to give a far sportier and yet flatter ride than the previous S-Class could offer. The Adaptive Damping System shock absorbers and the steering effort and feel have also been retuned toward the sporty end of the spectrum with no dartiness, just a nice, progressive feel. The Automatic Body Control active suspension option cuts body roll at a rate 60-percent higher than the first version, and you can really feel it working when you throw the car into a fast, sweeping downhill curve like those we experienced on our Swiss-Italian test drive.
The new Brake Assist Plus brakes are, in a word, spectacular in their stopping power and stopping distance performance. With the new system, the brake lights go to full brightness and pulsate in the event of a panic or ABS stop.
We solved all of the mysteries of a brand-new car with a completely new switch layout and control system without looking in the owner's manual. It's that easy to go from one of last year's models to the 2007 S-Class, and we think that counts for a lot for the older portion of Mercedes-Benz's clientele with this car. It may be inordinately quick and fast on its feet for a big luxury car, but it's also easy to use and easy to learn.
It's also quiet. Mercedes-Benz says they spent an inordinate amount of time and money using human volunteers on the quiet aspects of the car, and called in some of the experts from the Maybach ultra-luxury car team. There are 170 individual pieces of sound and noise control equipment in the new car, including a patented front floor panel that cuts both noise and vibration. At continuous cruising speeds up to 125 mph, the S-Class is very, very quiet.
Our final word on the subject of the new S-Class is that we think there isn't a better luxury car for the price produced anywhere in the world. It's monstrously quick, 155 mph fast (limited by electronics, not power), much sportier than we expected, quiet as a winter night in Wyoming, and comfortable enough for the famous Bangor to Tijuana run twice a week for a month. The safety achievements alone would be reason enough to buy this car, but when you throw in the dramatic new looks, the power and the performance, the case is made.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from the Swiss Alps.
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