Big, fast in any of its variations, and exceptionally smooth. The solidity of a bank vault. Virtually every convenience imaginable, from massaging front seats to electric door-close assists, and the most sophisticated passenger-car safety technology money can buy. Yes, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has everything the world expects in a full-size luxury sedan, including a stratospheric price tag. It remains the ultra-luxury car against which other ultra-luxury aspirants are judged.
This is the flagship of the Mercedes line, and recognized as such in every corner of the globe. The S-Class is sleek and aerodynamic, right down to the polished Tri-Star hood ornament that symbolizes status from Beverly Hills to Boston to Berlin to Baghdad. Yet that gleaming star only hints at the engineering underneath. There's much technology here, and learning all of the features takes some time.
The S-Class is smaller, lighter and more efficient than those built in the 1990s, yet inside it is roomier. Microprocessors and onboard sensors instantaneously determine forces acting upon the car, filter the data, then adjust the handling, engine or transmission performance. The safety systems can actually anticipate a collision, and prepare the driver and passengers to get through it as safely as possible. Electric seat belt tensioners are activated, and the power seats adjust to a lower and more upright position. Mercedes-Benz calls this Pre-Safe, and says it is the only system in production that engages before the impact, when milliseconds can minimize the energy spikes that cause serious injuries.
The S-Class offers four engine choices and optional all-wheel drive. The S430, the most popular model, has plenty of power for quick passes, merging into fast freeway traffic or accelerating out of corners, and it exudes the presence buyers in this price range expect. The S500 delivers much more responsive performance, with crisp off-the-line acceleration that should please any closet hot-rodder. The V12 S600 represents the ultimate in Mercedes-Benz luxury and power, with thrust and acceleration that feels like a 747 approaching rotation speed. The S55 AMG is a limited-production high-performance model geared toward wealthy motorheads.
A year ago the S-Class benefited from a mild face-lift that freshened its styling around the edges. There are more updates for 2004, starting with the first seven-speed automatic offered in a passenger car. A new DVD-based navigation system eliminates the need to change CDs for movement between regions. Other updates include MP3 capability for the stereo and optional 18-inch wheels for the S430 and S500.
Is this the best ultra-luxury sedan available? The S-Class doesn't deliver the athletic feel of the new Audi A8L or the reflexes of the BMW 7 Series. Its control switches, all six dozen of them, can seem intimidating, and sport-minded enthusiast drivers can sometimes feel as if they're wrestling with all that electronic technology. Yet a certain arrogance of engineering has always been part of the Mercedes tradition, and a component of the brand's charm. Well-healed buyers seeking the classic big luxury sedan should start with the Mercedes S-Class.
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.
The S430 ($74,320) is powered by a 275-horsepower 4.3-liter V8. It comes standard with the Airmatic self-leveling air suspension, an Electronic Stability Program (ESP), an improved DVD-based GPS navigation system and Mercedes Tele Aid, which includes automatic accident notification, vehicle tracking and concierge services. The S430 also has leather upholstery, a Bose-developed 12-speaker audio system and electric door- and trunk-closing assists.
The S500 ($82,770) upgrades to a 302-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 (note that this powerful engine saddles the S500 with the federal Gas Guzzler Tax, a $1,000 fee the S430 barely avoids). The S500 also gets a more lavish interior with more leather trim, including glove-soft Nappa leather seating surfaces.
The S600 ($122, 820) is powered by an ultra-smooth, twin turbocharged 5.5-liter V12 with a whopping 469 horsepower (and 590 pounds-feet of torque). S600 also features the Active Body Control suspension, plus high-polish 18-inch alloy wheels, a still greater slathering of leather and wood, a suede-like Alcantara headliner, Parktronic obstacle warning, four heated and power-operated seats, four-zone climate control, CD changer and digital cellular phone with voice control.
The hot-rod S55 AMG ($106,500) is hotter than ever, powered by a hand-built supercharged 5.4-liter V8, delivering 493 horsepower and 516 pounds-feet of torque. Mercedes claims the S55 can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. SpeedShift buttons on the steering wheel allow manual control of the five-speed automatic transmission. The S55 AMG features a performance-calibrated version of the ABC active suspension, 18-inch AMG Monoblock wheels with high-performance tires, ventilated front seats, AMG aerodynamic enhancements and a trunk-mounted CD changer.
The S430 and S500 can be equipped with Mercedes' 4MATIC automatic all-wheel drive ($2,180). This full-time system splits engine power 40/60 front/rear, with electronic traction control adjusting that mix to the wheels (or wheel) with the best traction in slippery conditions.
S-Class model prices have increased from $1000 to $3000 for 2004, and they include scheduled maintenance for the duration of the 50,000-mile warranty. Mercedes offers a number of options, either in packages or individually, which allow even the S430 to be equipped with everything offered on the S600 (except the engine). One of the most popular choices for the S430, S500 and S600 is the Sport Package ($5,210), which sharpens handling and includes many of the sport tweaks on the S55 AMG. The Sport Package adds an AMG front air dam, rear apron and side skirts, 8.5x18-inch front and 9.5x18-inch rear AMG Monoblock alloy wheels and tires rated for safe performance to 155 mph.
Other options: voice-controlled CD changer and cell phone ($1,995); power-adjustable rear seats ($1,825); four-zone air conditioning ($2,800); ABC active suspension ($3,090). Also available: adaptive cruise control ($3,010), a programmable system that uses radar to maintain distance between your car and the car ahead of you. It won't do panic stops for you, so you need to keep your foot near the brake pedal. An option called Keyless Go ($1,040) allows the owner to unlock the car simply by pulling the door handle, then start the engine by pushing a button.
All of the high-tech safety equipment is standard on every model, including Mercedes' exclusive PRE-SAFE system. This technology tightens seatbelts and positions the seats in their optimal positions for crash safety before an impact occurs. Other passive safety features include front airbags that deploy at variable rates depending on the weight of the occupants and the severity of the impact, front and rear side-impact airbags, a