Forget what you thought you knew about luxury cars.
Your expectations are about to change.
As an automotive journalist and avid car nut, I view the introduction of a new Mercedes Benz S Class luxury sedan as a window into the future of the automobile, an opportunity to preview new technology that, with time, might trickle down to lesser cars: That's why, when a new S Class is about to be unveiled at a car show, I make sure to get a front row seat. And when I get my first chance to test drive one, I relish every moment. So here I sit, ready to pass along my experience with the 2007 Mercedes Benz S550 after living with it for a week and I'm sweating at the prospect of adequately describing the wild brilliance of technology that is packed into this awesome sedan.
This is going to be a long article because of the wealth of new features in this car that are unique and interesting. To make it easy for those of you who want your car talk in small doses, I have labeled each section so you can easily skip over the parts you don't find interesting.
The price tag on a big Benz continues to be an eyebrow raiser, begging the question "Is it worth it? Is it truly worth the price of four Toyota Camrys?" Well, that depends. Consider that there is not a more prestigious car this side of a $320,000 Rolls Royce or Bentley and probably no better engineered car for any money.
I have often said that buying any car over $60,000 gets you little more than exclusivity. An $85,000 Benz is not that much better than a $60,000 Lexus. Oh, it might feel a bit tighter and ride a bit smoother and have a more appealing presence than the current Lexus LS430, but is it worth $25,000 more? After spending a week with the S550, I have to say that it's all about the seats. Driving the S550 convinced me that these are the most comfortable seats of any vehicle I have driven. Ever! If I were in the market for a luxury car and paying that extra 25 grand for a car wouldn't dent my wallet or make a difference to my lifestyle, this might just be my next car.
So if you have the means and desire to own what some consider the best car on earth, or if you want to add it to your gotta-have list for when you hit the lottery, or you just want to peek through a window at the future of the automobile, then read on, my friend, read on.
Let's begin by discussing the new styling direction that Mercedes is taking with the S-class. The first thing that you notice are those front fender bulges that seem to be lifted from, of all things, the Mazda RX-8. Click here for a photo of the two cars and tell me what you think.
Fender humps aside, Mercedes did a great job giving this lavish automobile a unique and powerful style with a tastefully integrated design that looks good from any angle. They may have borrowed some styling cues here and there (the rear end was obviously influenced by the Maybach), but the overall design is substantial and looks like what it is, an expensive luxury car that befits the image of a captain of industry.
How Does it Ride?
The previous S Class was one of the best riding cars that I have ever driven, so it was no surprise that the new S550 impressed me as well. The air suspension system used on the S Class has a way of soaking up road irregularities as though they aren't there at all. Yet there is no wallowing or floating, things that you would expect from a softly sprung automobile. Your eyes tell you that there are ripples in the pavement and a few potholes thrown in for good measure, yet your other senses tell you that you are riding on perfectly smooth rails. The first impression is that you are driving a solid block of cast iron wrapped in foam rubber, but if you toss this big Benz into a corner, it feels light and almost nimble.
If you choose the optional Active Body Control, or ABC (a $3,900 option), you will be able to switch the suspension to a Sport Mode that almost totally eliminates body lean even on the most challenging roads. Once in Sport Mode, you do feel the ripples in the road about as much as you would in an ordinary luxury car. Switch back to comfort mode and the ripples disappear like magic.
With ABC set in sport mode, if you push the S550 hard into a series of turns, it responds like a much smaller sports sedan.
If this is the way that you like to drive, you will quickly find out that the standard H-rated tires will begin to protest as they struggle to keep the big sedan on track. These tires are designed for a luxury ride and quiet cruising, but if you want more byte and control, Mercedes has the answer for you. Simply opt for the 19 inch wheels with low profile, high performance tires, or you can go for the complete AMG sport package which includes these tires along with sporty lower body cladding and spoilers.
With these low profile performance tires, the sidewalls are much lower and the tires have a wider footprint, so they don't cushion as well when hitting road irregularities. But short sidewalls also means more precise control to steering inputs and lots more grip during high-speed cornering. Don't get me wrong. The standard tires do their job quite well, they just don't give the big sedan sports car-like handling qualities. If you are a conservative driver that rarely subjects your passengers to undue G-forces, you will be happier with the standard H-rated rubber.
You might think that trying to learn and control all the technology in this new Benz can be a daunting task, especially if you and computers don't see eye to eye. While that was certainly true of the previous S Class, I can tell you that the new COMMAND system is far easier to master with a larger display screen in the center of the dash and a Push-and-Turn Mouse, as Mercedes calls it, to control the various features this car has to offer.
While it will certainly take some time and effort to become familiar with all the features at your disposal (and the 1 inch thick manual full of dry techno-babble doesn't help), the great features in this car provide a good reason to get over any technophobia you may have.
Once you understand the concept of the Push-and-Turn Mouse, it becomes more a matter of exploring than learning. The "Mouse" is actually not the kind of computer mouse that you are familiar with (and are probably using right now to read this). It is more like a large knob that can move a bit in each direction. You use it by nudging it forward, back, left or right. You then rotate it or push it down in order to activate the desired functions. This knob is actually motorized so that it feels different depending on what you are trying to do.
When rotating the knob to select from a menu, you will feel a notch at each menu entry. Pressing the knob down selects the entry. When you reach the last item on the menu, the resistance to turning the knob tells you that you can't go any further. If you use the knob for other tasks, it may turn smoothly, or have a different feel depending on the task. The idea of this single, all purpose control is that you can operate the system with one hand on one control, by feel, with an occasional glance at the COMMAND screen to make sure you are in the right place.
This single knob controller with motorized feedback is, in concept, exactly like the system that has been so roundly criticized on the BMW 7 Series, but Mercedes' execution, is much more user friendly, and that makes all the difference.
As the week progressed, I became more comfortable with this method of control and actually began to prefer it to other systems. It was a far cry from my experience with the previous S Class, which challenged my logic each step of the way. The beauty of the new COMMAND system is that there are always a number of ways to achieve the same result. You can use the control knob, the steering wheel controls, conventional buttons or you can simply talk to the system and tell it what you want.
Behind and just above the control knob is a padded hand rest that flips up to reveal a telephone keypad for the cell phone. Mercedes offers cradle adaptors that are designed to interface with a number of different cell phones.
Our test car was equipped with the optional Dynamic Multicontour Front Seats with Massage. As I mentioned earlier, these seats were the most comfortable automobile seats I have ever experienced.
The first thing you notice is that they are adjustable in a gazillion ways. You have the normal Fore, Aft, Up, Down, Tilt and Seatback recline that is found in most cars. Added to that is the fact that you can lengthen or shorten the lower seat cushion for perfect thigh support. Another control allows you to power the headrest up or down,
Now comes the interesting part: Push a button on the console and a display of the driver's seat pops up on the center screen. You can then make all of the additional adjustments using the main control knob. You can adjust the firmness of the seat cushion or move the side bolsters toward or away from your legs. You can control the seatback bolsters in the same way to hold you in place during spirited cornering. You can, of course, adjust the lumbar support in, out, up or down. You can even adjust the top part of the seatback to match the curve of your back. All these adjustments are the result of Fifteen pneumatic chambers that can be individually inflated or deflated for a perfect fit.
Many of these adjustments are available on other high-end luxury cars, but so far, I haven't mentioned anything about the "Dynamic" part of the seats. You see, when you are driving along a winding road at any kind of speed that may impart some side-to-side G-forces, you will feel the seat change shape as the side bolsters quickly inflate on the appropriate side to hold you in place. If there is minimal G-forces, you will hardly feel any movement, but toss the car into a turn and the bolsters will rapidly respond with additional force to counteract any unpleasant jostling.
There's more. One of the selections on the seat adjust screen is the massage function. By selecting "Pulse Mode", you can choose one of 4 massage settings that will make you wish you had these seats in your living room. It feels like a series of rollers that randomly move up and down the length of your spine working out the tension in your muscles. The front passenger's seat has all the same adjustments as the driver's seat, including the massage function. My wife had it going every time she was in the car.
Another option for the seats is active heat and ventilation. Choose ventilation and a series of small fans draw the cool air from under the seat and send it through the perforations in the leather. In the winter, the air is heated before being sent up. And if it isn't enough to just warm your tush on a particularly cold day, there is a heated steering wheel available on the option list.
This is a big sedan with gobs of room in the back seat, and here as well, the option list will allow you to make the space a comfortable lounge that can rival a private jet. You can order 8 way power seats in the rear, which will allow rear seat passengers to recline or adjust the height and angle of the seat cushion. You can also order the rear seats with heat and active ventilation. Another option for rear seat passengers is the power side window sunblinds. These are operated by the rear power window controls. If the window is down, the switch will raise the glass normally. Pressing the window control again will raise a screen to shade you from the sun.
If you order this rear seat package, the right rear passenger has an additional switch available to move the front passenger seat forward in order to increase available rear legroom. Presumably, this is for when your chuffer is driving and there is no one else up front. Just make sure that if you and your spouse are sitting up front, you don't tell your attention-starved young ones about that switch.
While we are on the subject of the interior, at night there is a soft glow that stretches across the dash and around the front and rear doors just below the wood trim strip. This is called Halo Lighting and is adjustable for brightness.
There is a considerable amount of innovative technology in this car to keep things interesting. The standard GPS navigation system on the S550 is a vast improvement from the previous models. Detailed mapping data for all of North America is now stored on a 20-gigabyte hard drive that helps provide quicker processing time and trip planning. Also on the hard drive is a large database of gas stations, restaurants, hotels, points of interest, Mercedes-Benz dealerships and even ATMs.
The optional Radar Cruise Control, Mercedes calls it Distronic Plus, allows you to drive in stop & go traffic without having to touch either the gas or brake pedals. The system utilizes a couple of different radar systems to allow the car to keep pace with the car ahead up until your pre-set speed is reached. It works like this: You set the maximum speed for the cruise control as you would on any car. The Benz will then maintain that speed even if the road is going uphill or downhill. Still nothing special. Now you see a slower moving vehicle ahead of you, and as you close in, you notice that the car sees it too and even displays it on the dash as a graphic showing the distance between both cars. You then notice that you have slowed down to maintain a pre-set distance between you and the car ahead.
With traffic the way it is these days, it is just a matter of time before you run into some stop and go traffic. as the cars ahead slow to a crawl and finally stop, so do you. Remember, your feet have not touched the gas or the brake pedal yet. Once the traffic begins to move again, a tap on the control lever starts you moving as well, either pacing the car ahead or speeding up to your set speed.
I experimented with the system quite a bit and found that it was a great convenience, especially in stop and go driving, but it was hard to completely trust it, so my foot was always hovering over the brake pedal. To be fair, Mercedes warns that this system was never intended to take over the responsibility of driving. The system is only designed to apply about 30% braking force. If more braking is needed, the system will warn you with a series of beeps. Out here on Long Island where I live, stop and go driving is the order of the day, so for me, this system was worth its weight in gold. (and at $2,850, that is about what it costs)
As I was driving, I had this crazy image in my head of a procession of five or six S550s in a row, all with Distronic engaged, following a ratty old VW Beetle with a college student at the wheel who was totally unaware that he was single-handedly controlling the speed of a half million dollars worth of cars behind him.
Another piece of extra cost wizardry on the new S550 is Night View Assist. Before I describe this feature, I first need to tell you about the speedometer display on the S550. The speedometer is not what it appears at first glance. It looks like a normal gauge that matches the other gauges in the instrument cluster. But if you look close, you realize that it is not a gauge at all. It is a picture of a speedometer on a very high resolution TFT flat panel display. The directional indicators and gearshift position are also represented in the display screen. In the center of the speedometer, you can select the information you want to see like the trip computer, turn by turn instructions from the navigation system or the Distronic display showing the distance to the car ahead. At night, a tap of the night vision switch changes the speedometer into a video display of the road ahead with a ribbon speedometer at the bottom of the display.
This is not the type of night vision where the camera picks up heat instead of light causing everything to look strange. No, this image looks just like a very high resolution black and white TV image. This is because there are two infra-red high-beam headlamps beside the regular lamps that light up the area in front of the car with infra-red light. You can't see the light when looking out the windshield, but the IR sensitive camera can see it and display the view on the dash. This system allows you to see ahead the same distance that you would with your high beams, but without dazzling oncoming drivers.
I spent some time trying it out on dark country roads and it works quite well, however I am not sure that it can be very useful since you have to continually move your focus from the windshield to the display. Unless you are constantly scanning the monitor for possible problems beyond your headlight range, chances are that you will miss the problem until it appears in your low beam field of view. The temptation is to try to drive using the display alone and I was able to do it for a while, but it is not easy and certainly not safe to drive without looking out the windshield. For one thing, the screen is a 2D image, so there is no depth perception. It is hard to judge how close you are to anything. You also have no peripheral vision. In other words, you can't see to the side. Perhaps, if they used a head-up display and projected the infra-red view on the windshield (like the Cadillac Night Vision system that I tied a few years ago) it would be more useful.
How would you like help parallel parking? With the optional Park Assist, you simply place the car in reverse and look at the center display, which projects a video image of the view to the rear of the car. If you want to back into a parking lot stall, you will see guide lines on the screen that show the path that the car will take while backing up. As you turn the wheel, the guide lines curve so you can be sure that the path is clear. There are additional lines that show the distance you are from any objects.
While the system I just described is not new and is currently available on a number of cars, the Park Assist on the S550 has an additional function that makes it even more interesting. This new feature will help you with parallel parking so that you will get it right the first time, every time. Simply switch the display to parallel parking mode and pull up next to the car you wish to park behind. When you put the car in reverse, you will see the rear view monitor showing a video image of the area behind the car along with a box that represents the footprint of your car. As you turn the wheel towards the curb, the box moves towards the curb. You move the steering wheel until the box is exactly where you want the car to end up. Once you have the box where you want it, you hold the steering wheel in that position and start backing up. The display will change to show a curved line. Continue backing until the line just touches the curb. As soon as that happens, turn the wheel all the way to the other side and continue backing up. That will put you within a foot of the curb every time.
Some additional Upscale Conveniences
Our test car had just about every feature on the option list. One of those features was Keyless Go. With this feature, the key stays in your pocket or purse. To unlock the door, just grab the door handle. If the key is on your person, the door will unlock and let you in. To start the car, simply step on the brake pedal and tap the big Start-Stop button. The engine springs to life. This feature is nothing new (though Mercedes was one of the first to make it available). It is a feature that is available on cars costing a third the price of the S550. What I am wondering is, why is it still an extra cost option on the Benz?
Here are a few additional upscale features that are not normally found on lesser cars:
- The automatic climate control on the new S Class includes a sun sensor that measures the angle of the sun and directs air where it is most needed. The system can tell how many passengers are in the vehicle and where they are sitting through seatbelt buckle sensors and will adjust the air flow automatically. If the optional rear climate control system is ordered, there will be separate controls for each passenger seated by a window so they can set the temperature and air flow in their little corner of the world
- A large particle filter in the climate control system removes dust, diesel particulates, pollen and allergens down to five microns. Two other filters use activated charcoal to absorb odors like cigarette smoke and heavy perfume from the air flow. A pollution sensor measures outside air quality and can automatically turn on recirculate when air quality is poor.
- The side window glass is double pane, just like the insulated windows in your house. They are designed to better keep outside noises outside.
- Windshield washer jets are built into the edge of the hood facing the windshield and are almost invisible. They send heated washer fluid to quickly dissolve frost or ice on the windshield.
- A tilt and slide glass sunroof is standard on the S550, but you will want to order the optional Panorama Sunroof instead. With this feature, the entire roof is glass and looks black from the outside. Inside, you have a power sliding sunshade that is separately controllable for the front and rear compartments. The rear glass is stationary, but the front can tilt open or slide back.
- On normal cars, when you open the doors, they will stay open in a couple of positions because of the door checks. On some of the better cars, you might have 3 door check positions, but on the S550, the door will stay in place wherever you put it. When you close the door, if you didn't close it with enough force, a helping hand will magically pull the door closed the rest of the way.
- A 14-speaker harman/kardon LOGIC7 surround-sound audio system is standard equipment on the S-Class. The new system features the first 5.1 surround sound with MOST a fiber-optic interface that faithfully recreates signals taken directly from original studio master recordings without the usual loss of fidelity. It has a 600-watt 13-channel DSP amplifier with discrete LOGIC7 processing
The Mechanical Details
The new engine in the S550 is larger than before and considerably more powerful with 382 horsepower on tap, up from 302 in the previous S500. The new engine also has more torque (391 lb. ft., up from 339) which means the big Benz will launch with gusto and a fair amount of muscle car tire spin, that is until the traction control takes things in hand to preserve the dignity of the driver. What's even more important is that it gives you this additional 26 Percent More Power with the same fuel economy numbers as last year's S500. All this chest-thumping power is good for a standing start to 60 miles per hour acceleration blast in 5.4 seconds. Definitely muscle-car territory. The engine uses 4 valves and two spark plugs per cylinder along with continuously variable intake and exhaust valve timing.
The transmission on the S550 is a 7-speed automatic with manual shift control. This is essentially the same ultra-smooth unit found in previous S Class models with one big difference. The console mounted shifter has been replaced by a small stalk on the right side of the steering column. To put the transmission in drive, you simply nudge the spring-loaded lever down while your foot is on the brake and you're ready to go. For reverse, push the lever up. As soon as you let it go, it pops back to the center. To put the transmission back into Park, push the button on the end of the lever.
If you want manual control, there are rocker switches on the back of the steering wheel, one on each side. They allow you to select which gear you want.
Suspension and other underpinnings
The standard suspension system for the S550 utilizes air springs and computer controls to give the big Benz a ride that some consider to be the best in the world. While driving, you can see the road irregularities, but you can rarely feel them. Electronics are used to adjust the shock absorber stiffness and the riding height of the air springs so that the car never feels like it is floating or burdened with too much weight in the trunk. The system is also self leveling. Load the back seat with a couple of sumo wrestlers and watch as the ride height quickly restores itself. Need to drive on a deeply rutted dirt road? Push a button on the dash to lift the car up for additional ground clearance, sort of like a debutant lifting her gown to walk up a flight of stairs. At highway speeds, the car will lower a bit in order to reduce aerodynamic drag.
There is also an optional suspension system available called Active Body Control (ABC) that improves the ride and handling to the point where there is no longer the need to compromise a suspension design for optimal ride or optimal handling. With ABC, you can have both a great ride and great handling in the same car. Instead of using air springs, ABC uses four high pressure hydraulic pistons, one on top of each steel coil spring. The hydraulic pressure is an extremely high 2,840 pounds per square inch for lightning fast response to road conditions. The computer receives signals from 13 sensors that monitor body movement and vehicle level and can make adjustments in thousandths of a second to counteract undesirable body movements before you ever feel them. This system can be set to comfort mode where some body lean is allowed during cornering, or sport mode, where the system keeps the car virtually flat during aggressive driving maneuvers. The end result of this $3,900 option is a combination of fabulous ride and superb handling that simply cannot be beat.
There are two types of safety systems built into cars these days. They are broken down into Active features and Passive features. Active features are those systems that help a driver avoid a crash in the first place. These systems include anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control among other things. Passive features are the ones that limit injury if an accident does occur. These items include air bags, seat belts and an energy-absorbing car body.
The four-wheel disk brakes on the S550 are up to the task of bringing this 4,500 pound sedan to a stop in short order. The front disks are a composite of aluminum and steel and measure over 13 inches in diameter. They are also cross drilled for better heat dissipation. Front calipers are the 4 piston type for better pedal feel and control. Rear rotors are vented internally and measure over 12 inches. The parking brake is now an electrical switch on the dash. Push the control in to set the parking brake, pull it out to release it. The parking brake will also automatically release if you touch the gas pedal with the car in drive.
If the S550 is equipped with the optional Distronic Cruise control system, it will also have Brake Assist Plus. This system is designed to reduce rear end collisions by as much as 75%. It uses the Distronic's radar sensors to watch the traffic ahead and, if it sees that you are gaining too quickly on the car in front of you, it will react by beeping and placing the system in Pre-Safe mode. With the system in Pre-Safe, as soon as the driver touches the brake pedal, the system will calculate how much braking force is necessary and provide it. I experimented a bit with this system and found it to be almost as effective as my wife at warning me that I was getting too close to the car ahead. At one point, both my wife and the S550 warned me at the same time. In all seriousness, this is a very effective system and should be made available in other cars.
Safety has always been a number one priority for Mercedes Benz. Much of the safety technology that you see on cars today had their roots in technology that was first developed and patented by Mercedes engineers. These features include:
- The energy-absorbing car body (1951)
- Electronic anti-lock brake system (1978)
- Electronic Stability Program (1995)
- side airbags for driver and front passenger (1996)
- Brake Assist system (1997)
- Side curtain airbags (1998)
- PRE-SAFE system (2002)
PRE-SAFE is a system that can anticipate an impending accident and brace itself (and you) to reduce the chance of injury to the driver and passengers. It does this by monitoring things like oversteer, understeer and emergency braking. If the car is equipped with Distronic radar cruise control, PRE-SAFE will also use the radar sensors to detect an unavoidable collision. The system then reacts by tightening seat belts, moving seats to a more favorable position for a crash and moving the brake pads closer to the rotors for faster reaction time when the driver hits the brake pedal.
If PRE-SAFE detects an impending roll over, it will close the side windows to help the curtain airbags work better. It will also close the sunroof If the car is equipped with Dynamic Multicontour Front Seats, the air chambers in the sides of the seat will inflate to better position the driver and front passenger in the seat for the impending collision. At this point, if the collision is averted, the system resets itself so that you can continue driving normally.
Another safety system that is new for 2007 is Adaptive Brake Lights. Under heavy brake application, or when the antilock brakes are activated, the brake lights will flash at about 4 times the rate of the emergency flashers. Research by Mercedes engineers has shown that driver reaction times are shortened by up to 0.2 seconds if a flashing red warning signal is given instead of the conventional brake light during emergency braking.
The Wrap Up
The 2007 Mercedes Benz S550 is a class act. A car with everything you could ever want, for a price. And a hefty one at that. Our test car started out at $85,400, which is a kings ransom to most people. In New York, the sales tax alone can buy a pretty nice used car. But then the S550 test car that I had the pleasure of driving for a week had a whopping $18,500 worth of options! And that doesn't include a $1000 surcharge for the gas guzzler tax. Add it all up and you wind up with a sticker price that totals $104,915. Plus Tax. On the bright side, it comes with a full tank of gas.
Here is another little tidbit for you. At this time, the S550 is the lowest priced S Class in the Mercedes Benz lineup. The next model up is the S600, which replaces the 382 horsepower V8 engine with a 510 horsepower twin turbocharged V12.
The S600 takes smooth, breathtaking performance to the stratosphere with a 0 to 60 time of 4.5 seconds. That's Elephant-on-your-chest acceleration with all the smoothness and quietness that the S-Class is famous for. The S600 lists for $140,675, but to be fair, all the options available for the S550 are standard on the S600, plus the addition of Multi-contour seats in the rear to match the front seats. So I guess for some people, it's a bargain.
Wait, I'm not finished. There is another S Class model above the S600. It is the S65 AMG and it is equipped with a hand built 604 horsepower V12. That's 94 horsepower more that the S600! I wonder if they will require a physical exam before they let me drive it. Still not enough? Buy an F16.
Prices have not been announced yet for the S65 AMG, but then if you have to ask...