Perfection or excess? One of these words will sum up the Mercedes-Benz S-Class line with sufficient accuracy for most people.
Proponents of perfection will no doubt point out Mercedes' reputation for nth-degree engineering, bank-vault safety and zillion-mile reliability.
They will list the dozens - hundreds, for that matter - of amenities offered by the S-Class cars, many of which are exclusive Mercedes-Benz features. They also will describe the bewildering array of models (there are eight, by our count) in the S-Class range as a something-for-everyone lineup. And they will be correct in every respect.
Those who see the S-Class cars through jaundiced eyes - calling them excessive - will point to high curb weights, extravagant prices (anywhere from $62,000 to $133,000), unrelenting thirst (translation: poor fuel efficiency) and the cars' complexity as negatives, and are likely to suggest a host of alternative vehicles for the luxury-minded to consider. These people, too, will be correct.
As you can probably guess, class comparisons are difficult to make. The Mercedes S-Class line falls between BMW and Rolls-Royce/Bentley on the price scale, almost doubling in price from the base S320 sedan to the S600 coupe.
The 6-cylinder cars compete against the Jaguar XJ6, the V8s fall squarely in the BMW 740i category and the 12-cylinder sedans and coupes face the Jaguar XJ12 and BMW 750i. And yet these Mercedes Benz S-Class cars are as different from any of their rivals as apples are from oranges.
Let's line the S-Class entries up for inspection: At the entry-level end of the scale is the S320 model. The S320 is equipped with a 228-hp 6-cylinder engine and 5-speed automatic transmission.
Next up is the only luxury turbodiesel car sold in North America, the S350. Like its S320 sibling, the oil-burner has virtually every feature you might expect a luxury car to carry, including air conditioning, anti-lock brakes (ABS), traction control, power-controlled everything and a first-class sound system.
Three V8-powered S-Class cars are next. The S420 has a 275-hp engine; the S500 gets a rousing 40 hp more. With the more powerful engine comes a choice of coupe or sedan body styles.
The top-of-the-line S600 is also available in coupe or sedan form. A 6.0-liter V12 provides the power here. Both V12s, all V8s and the turbodiesel are fitted with 4-speed automatic transmissions.
Our test car was an S500 sedan that boasted burl walnut trim, heated seats, a Bose sound system and a tilt steering wheel, and was priced at $87,500.