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The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is the benchmark for luxury sedans. Completely redesigned just a year ago, the Mercedes S550 and S600 are superb automobiles. The S-Class cabins are among the most beautiful interior executions on the market today. These cars are loaded with technology yet the COMAND system is easier to operate than the systems from BMW and Audi. Underway, the S-Class cars are smooth, quiet, and powerful.
The S-Class is made up of the S550 models, which come with a V8 engine, and the S600, which comes with a turbocharged V12. The S550 4MATIC adds the all-weather capability of all-wheel drive. Two AMG versions bring racecar performance to this big luxury sedan.
All of them boast quick acceleration and are comfortable and stable at high speeds. Performance goes up with the more powerful engines, of course. The S600 can accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, according to Mercedes, which is very quick indeed.
These cars handle remarkably well for big luxury sedans. They are responsive but not darty. The Airmatic air suspension system is tuned toward the sportier end of the spectrum. The Automatic Body Control active suspension option cuts body roll significantly, and you can really feel it working when you throw the car into a fast, sweeping downhill curve. And we found the Brake Assist Plus brakes spectacular in their stopping power and stopping distance performance.
Completely redesigned for 2007, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class is unchanged for the 2008 model year except for the inclusion of satellite radio as a standard feature. This latest generation of S-Class are longer, wider and taller than pre-2007 models, with aggressive fender flares that give the big Benz an exotic look.
The current generation S-Class was launched for the 2007 model year. It's longer, wider and taller than previous models.
The exterior's most noticeable features are the exaggerated fender flares front and rear. Additional design cues include an upright grille, headlamps and tail lamps, the latter with thick body-colored horizontal bars running through them and tied together with lower body molding. 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.
To keep weight down, the hood, decklid, door skins, and much of the door interiors are made of 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 comes with nine-spoke 18-inch wheels with an optional five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheel or a chrome version of the same wheel; 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. Those looking for a more aggressive style may wish to add the optional AMG Sport package and get the big AMG wheels, a revised front bumper with lower intakes and lamps, a restyled rear bumper, exaggerated side sills, and twin dual-outlet chrome exhaust tips.
The Mercedes S-Class boasts one of the most beautiful interior executions on the market today. Got Maybach envy? S-Class buyers can order special designo editions with lavish materials that make these truly sumptuous cars.
And it's relatively easy to learn how to operate. We solved all of the mysteries of a complicated luxury car's switch layout and control system without looking in the owner's manual. It's that easy. The COMAND system, located at the center of the dash, is used to operate the radio, telephone, entertainment system, navigation system, and vehicle systems.
The COMAND 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, and far more intuitive than the BMW and Audi systems. 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.
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 it (they each light up with a red jewel to show you which side you're adjusting). The steering wheel makes the audio and other functions easy to use, 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 switch panel at the center of the dash, with four vents and an air conditioning system that is 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 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 transmission shifter operates like the one in the 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 brushed metallic interior panels very much, we didn't like the chrome tip on the shifter handle, because it's bright and glares like crazy on a sunny day. We prefer the brushed metal finish.
The CD/DVD system loads behind a panel under the environmental controls, and contains a slot for loading a PCM/CIA memory card to an internal hard-drive that will play up to 1,550 songs through the Harmon/Kardon 5.1 Logic 7 600-watt, 14-speaker surround sound system. The system is compatible with Apple iPod. And finally, the clock is placed at the epicenter of the instrument panel so that it's classic analog design that looks like a fine wristwatch, with bright trim and bright hands, can be seen by everyone in the car.
Power (and money) have a lot to do with choosing among the Mercedes S-Class models. The S550 comes with a 5.5-liter V8 engine that comes alive to the tune of 382 horsepower at 6000 rpm, with torque rated at 391 lb.-ft. at 2800 rpm. The 5.5-liter biturbo V12 that powers the S600 is rated at 510 horsepower at 5100 rpm and 612 lb.-ft of torque at 1800 rpm. All that power shows up in a staggering 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds for the S600. And, remember, this is a huge, heavy, fully-equipped luxury car.
The AMG lineup starts with the S63 AMG with a 6.2-liter V8 that makes 518 horsepower at 6800 rpm and 465 lb.-ft. of torque at 5200 rpm. The S65 AMG features a 6.0-liter version of the S600's V12 and significantly more power, to the tune of 604 horsepower at 4800 rpm and 738 lb.-ft. of torque at 2000 rpm.
Both five and-seven-speed 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 is tuned 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 are also tuned 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 significantly, 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 Brake Assist Plus brakes are, in a word, spectacular in their stopping power and stopping distance performance. With this system, the brake lights go to full brightness and pulsate in the event of a panic stop.
It's also quiet. Mercedes-Benz officials say 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, 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.
There isn't a better luxury car for the price produced anywhere in the world. It's lightning 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 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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