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 S550 is powered by a completely new engine, the 5.5-liter V8 that has gone back to a 4-valve-per-cylinder design. The top-of-the-line S600 is powered by an upgraded version of the 6.0-liter 3-valve V12 twin-turbo engine currently used in the $350,000 Maybach sedans rated at 510 horsepower.
The S550 model offers extremely high levels of standard equipment, befitting its high market position. Virtually every comfort and convenience item is standard, with a huge option list to ease customization. The S600 adds Parktronic front and rear parking radar system, and the newly updated Distronic radar-controlled cruise control. The V8s come with the seven-speed automatic, while the V12 is equipped with a heavy-duty five-speed automatic.
Options include Active Body Control ($3900, standard on S600), Night View Assist ($1775), Parktronic park assist ($650), Distronic Plus cruise control ($2850), wood-and-leather steering wheel ($550), heated steering wheel ($450), dynamic multicontour front seats ($1800), Keyless Go ($950), power rear and side window shades ($700), Panorama glass roof ($1000), a reverse camera that displays on the COMAND screen ($1000), 19-inch wheels ($1200), 18-inch chromed wheels ($1000), and an electronic trunk closer ($500), Packages include the AMG Sport package of wheels, exhaust tips and body moldings ($5600), the P1A package of heated rear seats and Sirius satellite radio ($1250), and active ventilated rear heated power seat package ($2900). The S600 has a new designo Mystic White white-and-black interior and exterior design option for $9295, with only one other option, the 19-inch wheels for $1200.
The new S-Class safety package is unequalled in the class, with all the usual brake and airbag technology upgraded and Pre-Safe accident-readiness equipment made standard. The Brake Assist feature has been improved to Brake Assist Plus status, and is fully integrated with Parktronic and Distronic, respectively the radar-controlled parking and distance-controlling cruise control systems. The system now has two forward-facing radar systems, and can apply the brakes at any speed from zero up to about 125 mph and bring the car to a full stop without driver input. The company says the new system can reduce rear-end collisions in stop-and-go traffic by up to 75 percent. An added wrinkle to the revised PreSafe system that closes the sunroof, closes windows and repositions the seat in the event of an impending collision is that the air chambers in the backs of the multicountour bucket seats inflate to add support to the upper body in case of a rear-ender. The Electronic Stability Program, or ESP, which was introduced to the world on the S-Class two generations ago, is back as standard equipment, with two new features: trailer stabilization, and tire-pressure monitoring.
Another new offering is the optional Night View Assist. It uses infrared, not thermal imaging as the Cadillac's older systems. Using infrared headlamps, a tiny camera picks up and projects clear, sharp images of what's ahead of the car. The picture is displayed in the space normally occupied by the speedometer and tachometer, which change to bar graphs underneath the night vision display when it's activated. Unlike the thermal systems, the Mercedes system uses a sharper SIMOS display instead of a CCD, it does not depend on heat generated by engines or humans to create images, and can operate unaffected by temperature extremes. The system is a world first, and an exclusive S-Class option.
4Matic all-wheel drive is expected in the fourth quarter of 2006 for V8 models, but it is not available for the V12 version. A high-performance AMG model with a new 6.3-liter naturally aspirated V8 replacing the supercharged 5.
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.