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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be
reached at email@example.com.