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NEW CAR REVIEW
Mercedes S-Class outdistances technical fantasies
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

PHOENIX, Ariz. (SNS) – A fellow escorting a woman was behind me in line at the Phoenix airport Thursday and said he noticed the tag on my suitcase, which identified me as having attended the Mercedes S-Class introduction.

 

He wanted to know what I thought of the car, because he was awaiting delivery of the first 2007 S550 coming to Minnesota.

That puts him on a particular plateau among millions of new-car buyers, because only about 25,000 people in the United States this year will buy a 2007 S-Class– the crème de la crème of Mercedes automobiles, and possibly the finest car available under $100,000 – and only one of them will obtain the first of them to reach his home state.

Or, at least, his home state for that half of the time he’s not at his OTHER home state, Arizona.

He said he got a chance to drive a preview S at a dealership in Scottsdale, a Phoenix suburb, and it just whetted his appetite for the car he had already ordered from a dealership in suburban St. Paul. "I always buy an S-Class when a new model comes out," he said.

"And as soon as I see the first picture in a magazine, with tape all over it to disguise it, I put in my order."

Having spent all that day driving a new S550, I told him I didn’t think he’d be disappointed. Yes, there is the BMW 7, the Audi A8, and the just unveiled Lexus LS460, but when Mercedes comes out with a new S about every seven years, it is an event worthy of notice by the entire world auto industry.

The 2007 model will be the ninth generation. Product manager Bernhard Glaser says: "For more than 50 years, each new S-Class has defined the benchmarks of safety, design, technology, and luxury."

Not just for Mercedes, but for appreciative buyers who demand the best, from Minnesota to Arizona, and all points east, west, north and south. And, oh yes, they also must be ready to plunk down $86,175 for their uncompromising choice.

  That is actually a reduction from the price of a comparably equipped 2006 S500, and it is less than the upcoming S600, which will be $140,675, or for a corporate hot-rod S65AMG, which will follow this summer, or a 4Matic all-wheel-drive version, which will be out just in time for next fall’s first snowfall.

The great thing about a Mercedes introduction is that there are always as large a fleet of engineers as cars, readily available to answer most questions before they can be asked, and to handle any follow-up questions promptly, and in their clipped, German accents.

For example, Glaser rode in the back seat in one of the first S550s I was in, and showed me how to adjust the COMAND control knob on the console, and how it is better than BMW’s "i-Drive" because it has redundant hard-button controls, and can be voice-controlled at the touch of a button on the steering wheel.

"It’s like you’re having a conversation with the navigation lady," Glaser said, referring to the pleasant voice that prompts you for upcoming maneuvers if you choose voice control for any operation, including a destination on the nav system.

The 14-way adjustable bucket seats have 15 pneumatic chambers, some of which automatically firm up the edge of your seat to hold you in place as you turn the opposite direction.

Driving through a slalom course provokes an interesting sequence of hip-support, and Glaser got me to connect to one of four available pulse modes – I chose the slow but vigorous full-back massage, and the irregular undulations are stimulating, not drowsiness-inducing.

The 600-watt,14-speaker Harmon Kardon audio system with its DVD player will even play your plugged-in card with a couple thousand of your own MP3 songs, and hear them through the system.

Dr. Peter Hille, the manager of the "short-range radar" development for Mercedes, took us out in waves after dinner the night before, to a darkened street where two S550s faced each other with the headlights on for what looked like a possible high-tech and high-buck game of chicken. Instead, it was a demonstration of the Night View system that is available as part of a $6,500 package for those who want to add every imaginable goody, and a few that are beyond imagination.  

The night-vision device on Cadillacs and some other vehicles is very good at detecting objects far beyond the reach of the headlights by thermal imaging, so warm bodies, and things like hot engines and exhausts, appear with an eerie glow.

Mercedes says the problem with thermal imaging is that things of similar temperature to the surroundings don’t show up.

Mercedes has gone far beyond, to infrared radar, which detects all objects.

To prove it, three people next to the car shining its lights at us, as if possibly changing a tire on a roadway, were invisible to a driver’s eye, but on the Night Vision screen, which takes the place of the large speedometer and immediately converts the analog speedometer to a thin bar graph at the bottom of the screen, you could see the people clearly and sharply.

A more astounding use of short-range radar is in Distronic Plus, the Star-Wars-ish Mercedes adaptive cruise control. Numerous high-level cars have adaptive cruise, which slows you automatically if the car ahead slows. Distronic Plus holds the same interval, up and down, and to a complete stop. At Firebird Raceway in Phoenix, we ran some drills to prove it.

We also ran a drill on Brake Assist, proving that you could run an S500 right up ‘way too close to an object, brake gently, and too late, and then stop with a surprisingly safe margin because the car’s short-range radar read the fact that you were too close to the object, that your brake pedal force was insufficient, and it simply intensified the brake pressure that you should have summoned to stop.

Those devices also worked well in real-world highway driving, where I followed cars at a distance preset by a stalk on the steering column, and it even worked as we went around corners. It could be discontinued at the touch of the brakes.

I suggested to Glaser that if you were paying more attention to following the car ahead than to your route, you could be fascinated enough to follow the car home safely – but to their home, not yours.

The backup camera that used to be ultrasonic now uses short-range radar to map out gridlines on the dash navigation screen, with the blue grid showing the car’s trajectory, the red line simulating the rear bumper, and yellow gridlines to indicate the proper trajectory for backing into a parallel parking spot.

You could look at the screen, get the blue grid to line up with the yellow grid, and park perfectly without ever looking out the rear window.

But enough of the fabulous features. The ordinary stuff is extraordinary on the S550 as well. On the exterior, the S is less zoomy than the mid-range E-Class, and some may even prefer the simpler C-Class. But the S has a more traditional stance, with a very sleek roofline, and it looks lower than its spacious interior might imply. It’s not mandatory that you own homes in both Minnesota and Arizona to afford one, but it might help.

The interior surrounds occupants with a prominent strip of real walnut and real leather. A thin row of fiber-optic ambient lighting welcomes occupants. The keyless entry has been refined so that you use a push-button starter without the key, and when you get out, touch the door handle anywhere and you lock all four doors. But driving remains the most magnificent part of the S-Class.

Mercedes had earlier changed over its V6 engine design from three valves to four, and it unveils a new 5.5-liter V8 in the S550 that has chain-driven dual overhead cams running four valves per cylinder, and variable valve-timing.

Those who still maintain that pushrod engines are the way to go must consider that this sophisticated powerplant actually converts to 333 cubic inches, and turns out 382 horsepower at 6,000 RPMs, with 391 foot-pounds of torque steadily peaking from 2,800-4,000 RPMs.

A seven-speed automatic transmission is simply engaged by pushing the steering-column shift lever down into "D," and all is well. But if you want more performance, fingertip paddles on either backside of the steering wheel let you upshift or downshift any time.

A switch on the console engages either C or S, for comfort, or sport, and the sport setting not only adapts to higher shifting rev points, it stiffens the suspension commensurately too.

While enlarged from its predecessor to 205 inches of length and a 124.6 inch wheelbase, and 4,270 pounds, the S has a 19.8 cubic foot trunk, but will turn, lock to lock, with 2.8 turns of the steering wheel, and will turn in a 40-foot radius.

Mercedes designed a holistic approach to safety, with Brake Assist, Distolic Plus. and Night Vision new upgrades in active accident avoidance; computer detection of an imminent and unavoidable crash that raises seat bolsters, closes windows and sunroof and tensions seatbelts as pre-safety; eight airbags surrounding all in the high-strength steel body as passive safety; and post-crash features that autodial emergency responders if the airbags deploy, while also shutting off fuel supply, turning on emergency blinkers, and even displaying markers on the windshield that indicate to safety crews where it’s easiest to cut off the roof to quickly extricate occupants.

The S550 is fast, powerful, and yet poised in all conditions. On a rural two-lane, you want to pass a slow-moving pickup ahead, and you hit the gas, swerve out and back in, and you learn a new definition of "triple digit inflation," even though the independent air suspension’s adaptive damping and level control keep the car low and flat throughout the sudden maneuver.

Speed is governed at 130 miles per hour (no autobahns here, after all), and 0-60 sprints take only 5.4 seconds.

If you want more, wait for the costlier S600, which has a twin-turbocharged V12, with 510 horsepower, or the S65AMG rocket, with 604 horses.

Me?

I’d gladly join the guy in the airport line and settle for the S550.

Not only is it plenty fast, but if it’s less swift than its coming brothers, it also gives you more of a comfortable margin for having a conversation with the lady from the navigation department.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.