In the life of every journalist, there are highlights. They may come in the form of a big scoop, or interviewing an overachiever in the field one reports on. For an automotive journalist, the ability to get up-close-and-personal – and downright intimate – with your field’s overachievers is unparalleled.
Roadfly had one such encounter this past week, when we were loaned a fresh example of the newest Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The S-Class is renowned as a car with few peers, and is the vehicle of choice for many of the world’s best and brightest, from the canyons of Wall Street to the deserts of the Gulf States.
Its main competitors are the BMW 7-Series and the Audi A8, but it’s also one of those cars that have no real competition. If you want an S-Class, nothing else will do. The BMW is a muscle car in a silk suit, and the Audi is a latecomer with a relatively short pedigree.
Our Benz was an S550, equipped with the company’s newest 5.5L V8. It’s truly a do-anything motor, apropos of the car’s mission to offer its driver a pleasing and trouble-free experience. It makes 382 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 391 lb.-ft. of torque. Peak torque is reached at 2,800 rpm and continues to 4,800 rpm, an outstanding achievement for a naturally aspirated small-block V8. What’s more, it makes a throaty snarl when winding towards its redline – not intrusive or noisy, just enough to tickle one’s ears.
Mercedes claims a 0-60 mph time of 5.4 seconds for their newest Q-ship. Taking into account the S550’s considerable curb weight of 4,270 lbs., it becomes clear just how efficient and flexible this V8 is. Top speed is unfortunately limited to 130 mph, a velocity at which the S550 isn’t even breathing hard.
Matters are helped greatly by the 7-speed automatic transmission. 382 hp is useless if it’s not being put to the ground properly, but that’s not a concern here. Seven ratios and brilliant electronic mapping deliver…well, we’ll skip all the flowery tech-speak and just say that whenever you want to go, the 550 will go. And go, and go all the way to its limiter. This car just charges, building speed in a linear and entirely sneaky fashion. You’ll probably get more tickets driving one of these than some racy Italian machine, simply because you never feel as though you’re approaching the limit – either the car’s, or your own.
The 550 handles as well as it accelerates – scarily good. Mercedes has had a few years and model cycles to tweak its air suspension, and it is now approaching perfection. In evasive and sporting maneuvers, the S550 seemed to shed its bulk. Body roll was minimal, despite our car’s lack of M-B’s optional Automatic Body Control (ABC). Capable cars usually require a somewhat delicate touch, but not this one. Ham-fisted maneuvers that would have lesser cars refusing to co-operate (or embarking on a kamikaze mission) don’t faze the S550’s steely nerves.
This really is a car for everyone. As car guys with a bias towards go-fast machines, we’ve spent the first half of the article talking about the 550’s sporting credentials. But that’s just half the story; maybe even less. So let’s back up a bit.
The S550 wears a new design aesthetic compared with its predecessor. This new S represents a return to the attitudes of old, with a more aggressive Teutonic look. There are massive creased fender flares, and a trunk bulge to augment the car’s burly haunches. No longer is the S-class ashamed to be the brawniest of German lead sleds. That was a criticism leveled at its predecessor’s styling, which looks almost playful next to the new car.
As imposing as the exterior is, the 550’s cabin could not have been more inviting. Our tester had a few upgrades, such as a premium leather package and a steering wheel made of leather and wood. Those two materials made up the majority of the car’s interior. It goes without saying that a top-of-the-range Mercedes sedan will offer levels of comfort and tactile precision comparable to a luxury yacht, but this car must be seen, felt, and smelt to be believed. It’s easy to get jaded in this profession in an age of unparalleled luxury and performance, but once in a while a car stuns even the most seasoned observers.
The features of the S550 made our heads spin – not just for their complexity and degree of advancement, but for how intuitive most of them were. The 550 was equipped with M-B’s COMAND, which, like BMW’s iDrive, controls most of the car’s functions via a clickable wheel within resting distance of the driver’s right hand. Enthusiasts, purists, and people of lesser intelligence have railed against such systems, arguing that they detract from the driving experience and make the operation of the car too tiresome. However, a few minutes spent with COMAND will have you more or less mastering it.
It’s the little things that make the difference when you get into this range of vehicle, and so it is with COMAND. You can play with just about any setting you want, from the audio and the navigation to the seat bolstering and trunk pop. However, it’s easy to get in and out of menus, and easy to see the adjustments you are making. If you have a working knowledge of home computers, you won’t even need your owner’s manual to figure this out.
The hand rest for the COMAND wheel opens up to reveal a control panel for the 550’s hands-free phone hookup. That’s just one of the many ingenuities of the 550’s array of storage and packaging touches. Door-mounted armrests open up to reveal multiple compartments, drawers pop out from underneath the front seats, and the center armrest has two levels of storage, each with their own handle.
All in all, the S550 is just flat-out stupendous. It trounces its competitors and predecessors in every conceivable way, and turns driving into little more than a plush video game (white knuckles optional). It doesn’t just coddle – it stimulates, and inspires. For under a hundred grand, it’s a steal. There aren’t many cars on the market that are this close to perfect, at any price.