SCOTTSDALE, Arizona - When it comes to European-style luxury, Mercedes-Benz and BMW rank as all-stars in the German category. Britain relies on its Jaguars, plus a handful of Bentleys and Rolls-Royces (though both brands are now German-owned). Sweden turns out a pair of near-luxury brands, a step below the German motorcars in posh attributes.
Mercedes-Benz gets the prize for longevity of a single model. Bernhard Glaser, general manager of product development, notes that the S-Class has been Mercedes' top-of-the-line model for more than 50 years. Now, as any early 2007 model, the S-Class has entered its ninth generation.
In its latest form, the plush sedan gets a "striking new design," according to Glaser, but one that's "instantly recognizable." Featuring a notably long hood and a short deck, the S-Class flaunts what Glaser calls "muscular wheel wells." The front end reaches well beyond the front wheels. Standard wheels hold 18-inch tires. Inside, wood wraps around the entire front compartment, and the dashboard has a sweeping look.
Dimensions haven't changed dramatically, but they make a difference. Length has grown by 1.7 inches (to 215). Wheelbase up 3.1 inches (to 124.5), adding 2 inches of passenger space in the rear compartment. This S-Class is 1.1 inches higher and 0.7 inches wider than its predecessor.
In its basic form, as the S550, the S-Class gets a 382-horsepower V-8 engine. A V-12 version, dubbed S600, joins a bit later, followed by a high-performance, supercar-level S65 AMG.
Mercedes' Pre-Safe collision detection system can now close the sunroof and side windows, raise the rear head restraints, and apply pre-tensioning to seatbelts if a crash appears imminent. Soon, the Pre-Safe system will advance to Stage 1, which includes automatic partial braking. Stage 2, set a "few more years" in the future, according to a Mercedes-Benz spokesperson, will add automatic emergency braking.
Park Assist now provides warning of objects up to 11 meters away. Night View Assist displays a unusually distinct video image of the road ahead in the instrument cluster, and operates so oncoming traffic is not dazzled. Two transmitters in the headlamps emit invisible infrared light. Asked about possible risk to the eyes of passersby from the infrared beams, a Mercedes-Benz engineering representative advised that the beam is active only at 8 mph or more. Also, having the lights on at the same time causes an onlooker's iris to close partially, and thus be less likely to allow damaging rays into the retina.
Not all safety features need to be high-tech. Body panels on the S-Class are marked "CUT" to help emergency crews that might have to cut the roof after a severe crash.
Technology reaches well beyond safety, too. With Mercedes-Benz's Keyless Go system, you "just touch the handle," Glaser explained. "Touch anywhere slightly and the car locks." A massage function is available for the seats.
With Park Assist installed, guidelines on the video screen can direct you into a parallel-parking place. Once you get used to the idea of trusting a computer to show you when and how much to turn the steering wheel to get perfectly positioned in a parking space, the process is simply amazing.
Yes, the S550 is really big; yet it doesn't feel so massive on the highway. This Mercedes' ride is deliciously smooth most of the time. When a rougher spot does appear, little trouble is evident to occupants. Even so, the sedan's Airmatic suspension feels relatively taut, permitting solid control and impressive steering; goes where you point without fuss.
Although the S550's 382-hp V-8 delivers plenty of exuberant energy, the seven-speed automatic transmission can run through several gears when passing/merging. Ultra-smooth shifts are a bonus, though, as the transmission simply slips from one gear to the next. As quiet as any car on the road, the S550 somehow doesn't feel eerily silent, like some posh motorcars.
Technology delivers a passel of benefits, but also qualifies as an annoyance, if not an all-out detriment. When fully equipped, the S-Class is simply overloaded with high-tech gadgetry. When the features work properly, they're great. But that's not always easy.
Getting the COMAND system to go to a desired starting-point can be an exercise in frustration. Remembering how to use the Return button and to proceed through various steps toward a goal can be taxing. Frankly, the system sometimes appears to get confused, failing to comply with instructions. This sedan just has too many controls, not always doing what you expect and sometimes not responding to what you thought was the correct procedure.
Back to the plus side, large electronic gauges, including a 160-mph speedometer and 7000-rpm tachometer, are easy to read. Long seat bottoms seem made for exceptional comfort and support. Available active seat bolsters push you outward through curves; one way or the other, depending on which way the car is turning. Some drivers will enjoy the feeling of security, though others might find those nudges to be annoying.
By fall, Mercedes will offer three S-Class versions:
+ S550, with a 5.5-liter V-8 that develops 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque.
+ S600, fitted with a 5.5-liter bi-turbo V-12 that churns out 510 horsepower.
+ S65 AMG, packing a 604 horsepower engine that generates a whopping 738 pound-feet of torque. Among other extras, the AMG edition will features 20-inch wheels and side skirts. An electronically-operated selector works with the seven-speed automatic transmission in the S550. Other models get a five-speed automatic. On sale since mid-February, the S550 stickers for $85,400 plus a $775 destinatition charge, for a total of $86,175. Scheduled for early April release, the S600 commands a total price of $140,675. Pricing has not yet been established for the S65 AMG, which debuts in the summer. Next fall, a variation with Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel drive will go on sale. P1, P2 and P3 option packages range from $1,250 to $6,500. Several of the most impressive high-tech features, including Night View, are available only in one of the option groups.