The Mercedes-Benz S-Class remains the ultra-luxury car against which other ultra-luxury aspirants are judged. That's impressive given that it was last redesigned for model-year 2000. The S-Class has been mildly face-lifted for 2003.
The Mercedes S-Class is a beautiful line of cars, sleek and aerodynamic. They are smaller yet roomier than the bulky pre-2000 models they replaced. And they are extremely sophisticated. Microprocessors and onboard sensors instantaneously determine forces acting upon the car, filter the data, and adjust the handling. There's much technology here and learning all of the features takes some time.
The Mercedes-Benz S430, the most popular model, offers plenty of power for quick passes, merging into fast freeway traffic, and accelerating out of corners. It exudes the tremendous presence of a Mercedes S-Class. The S500 delivers much more responsive performance, with crisp acceleration that should please any closet hot-rodder. The top-level S600 and the high-performance S55 AMG get even more power for 2003. A lot more power. As if they needed it. Fast traffic is a description fits an S600 and an S55 AMG. The S600 represents the ultimate in Mercedes-Benz luxury and power. The S55 AMG is a limited-production high-performance model.
For 2003, the S-Class comes with new safety systems that can actually anticipate a collision, and prepare driver and passengers to get through it as safely as they possibly can. Electric seat belt tensioners are activated, and the power seats adjust to a lower and more upright position. Mercedes-Benz calls this system Pre-Safe, and points out that it is the only system in production today that engages before the impact, when milliseconds can minimize the energy spikes that cause serious injuries. Also new for 2003 is the availability of 4Matic all-wheel drive.
Four distinct models comprise the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. All are four-door sedans, powered by single-overhead-cam engines breathing through three valves per cylinder. All come with a very high level of standard equipment.
S430 ($72,600) comes with a 275-horsepower 4.3-liter V8. S430 and S500 both come with Airmatic air suspension, GPS navigation, Tele Aid with enhanced functions, leather upholstery, Bose audio system, ESP Electronic Stability Program, and a sunroof.
S500 ($81,000) comes with a 302-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 and larger, 18-inch wheels and tires. The S500 also gets a more lavish interior, with more leather trim, including glove-soft Nappa leather seating surfaces. (The more powerful engine saddles the S500 with the federal Gas Guzzler Tax, a $1000 fee the S430 barely avoids.)
S600 ($120,540) is powered by a 5.5-liter V12 that made 362 horsepower last year. For 2003, Mercedes-Benz has added twin turbochargers with intercoolers, raising that figure dramatically to 469 horsepower (and 590 pounds-feet of torque). S600 also has the active suspension, plus high-polish 17-inch alloy wheels, greater levels of wood and leather trim, a suede-like Alcantara headliner, Parktronic, four heated and power-operated seats, four-zone climate control, CD changer and digital cellular phone with voice control.
Even the hot-rod S55 AMG ($106,500) is hotter for 2003. It is still powered by a hand-built 5.4-liter V8, but now a positive-displacement Lysholm supercharger increases its output (from 354 horsepower and 391 pounds-feet) to 493 horsepower and 516 pounds-feet. With the new engine, claims Mercedes, the S55 can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. New SpeedShift buttons on the steering wheel provide manual control of the five-speed automatic transmission. New brakes with eight-piston calipers up front provide appropriate stopping power. As before, the S55 AMG features an active suspension, 18-inch AMG Monoblock alloy wheels with high-performance tires, ventilated front seats, AMG aerodynamic enhancements, and a trunk-mounted CD changer.
For 2003, Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC automatic all-wheel drive is now available on S430 ($75,500) and S500 ($83,900). A planetary differential splits the power 40/60 front/rear, and advanced electronic traction control distributes it to the appropriate wheels (or wheel) in slippery conditions.
S430, S500, and S600 can be equipped with a Sport Package ($4975) that sharpens styling and handling. It includes an AMG front air dam, rear apron and side skirts, plus 8.5x18-inch front and 9.5x18-inch rear AMG Monoblock alloy wheels with 245/45YR18 front and 275/40YR18 rear high-performance tires.
Other options include: voice-controlled CD changer and cell phone ($2190); power-adjustable rear seats ($1825); four-zone air conditioning ($1880); active suspension ($2960). Also available is adaptive cruise control ($2875), a programmable system that uses radar to maintain distance between your car and the car ahead of you. Mercedes-Benz was the first to offer this technology, although others now offer it (Lexus and Infiniti, for example). It won't do panic stops for you, so you need to keep your foot near the brake pedal. Another option called Keyless Go ($995) uses a small card instead of a key, as well as a button on the shift lever, which shuts off the engine.