The Mercedes Benz S Class Road Test

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Whenever you see a shiny black Mercedes S-Class go by, the tendency of, as Leona Helmsley might say, the “Little People” is to gaze into the car to see who is driving it, or if the driver is wearing a chauffeur’s cap, who is sitting in the back seat.  As for me, I ask “what is it about these cars that make them look like they belong to the rich and famous?” It’s not the color. There are plenty of shiny black Chevy’s around and nobody gives them a second glance. Besides, the big Benz comes in lots of colors, not just black.  Maybe it’s the clean, graceful lines, or the tight-fitting body panels that make the car look like it was carved from a single block of polished granite. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that three-pointed star on the hood, one of the most recognized trademarks in the world.

But people of means want more than just looks.  They want substance, and many of them also want exclusivity.  Well, the exclusivity part is easy, just put the price out of reach of the masses and you’ve got it.  But that substance part? That’s the kicker. 

Building a car that is more expensive than most cars on the road, but making it worth the money in every respect is what Mercedes engineers do best.  And the S-Class is their pride and joy. More effort and engineering creativity is lavished on these motorcars than just about any other. There are more expensive production cars than the Mercedes S-Class, but you would be hard-pressed to find anything better — at any price.  Such is the reputation of these fine automobiles.


In general, when a manufacturer designs a vehicle, compromises are usually required to fit the car into a certain price class.  If you want a car that handles well, you may have to sacrifice a soft ride, or if you want good gas mileage, you would use a smaller engine with fewer cylinders, but that would mean slower acceleration, more noise and less smoothness.  But if money were no object, the manufacturer can resolve a problem by just throwing cash at it. 

For example:

How good can a car get when money is no object?  Let’s take a look.

Take a ride in an S-Class and you are immediately struck by the level of quality from the bank vault solidity to the expensive feel of the fine leather upholstery. The seats are exceptionally comfortable both front and back with tons of legroom for rear-seat passengers.

Category:      $70,000 to $120,000 Premium Luxury Sedan
Who should buy this car:    A person looking for the ultimate luxury sedan with all the status and class that goes with it
Comparable cars in this class:BMW 7 Series, Audi A8, Jaguar XJ
In a Nutshell:Dignified handling that borders on perfection, excellent, but composed ride, comfortable seats, brain-teaser navigation system, rear-seat legroom fit for a basketball all-star, lack of interior storage space, Plenty of smooth, effortless acceleration, imperceptible shifts from the 5-speed automatic, no wind noise to speak of, very little road noise, bank-vault solidity,

Door hardware feels like it will last forever and if you should close one of the doors with too light a hand, just wait a second and watch the door get sucked closed the rest of the way by the power door closers. 

The ignition key is made of plastic and doesn’t look like a key at all. There are no key cuts and one key looks exactly like another. When you put the narrow end of the plastic “key” in a matching slot on the dash, an infrared conversation takes place between the car and the key and, if they like each other, the car will start and everything else will come to life.  The art of lock picking is about to become a thing of the past.

The Mercedes Benz S-Class is a group of four distinct models, all of them 4-door sedans, that share the same body and, for the most part, look identical to the casual observer.  They are differentiated by a small badge on the trunk lid and in some cases, by different wheels and tires, but the primary difference separating these models is the engine.

The four models that make up the Mercedes Benz S-Class are:

The prices shown are for the base car without options or the required Gas Guzzler Tax and there are plenty of options to choose from, but we’ll touch on that later.

The instrument panel of the big Benz is a gadget lover’s dream come true, but it is also a technophobe’s worst nightmare.  This is one area where more engineering needs to be done, especially in ergonomics, the science of making technology easy to use.  Sure, given time all the buttons, switches and displays with the strange symbols and multiple purposes will make sense, but not until after a commitment is made to pour through a couple of hard cover books and spend some quality time parked in the driveway with the car running.  To some, myself included, this would be considered an enjoyable journey of discovery, but I know people who would rather tape a picture of their family over the COMMAND display screen in the center of the dash and crank up their Walkman for entertainment as they drive to work.

Once you learn the operation of all the wonderful gadgets at your disposal, this car becomes a pleasure to drive.  You will know how to electrically fold the outside mirrors for added clearance in tight places, lengthen or shorten the seat cushion for maximum comfort, remotely retract the rear headrests for added visibility when backing up, change the radio station by voice command, set the wipers and lights to come on automatically when needed, switch the vanity mirrors on the sun visors from normal to magnifying, have the navigation system find an address anywhere in the country and take you there turn by turn, and have the car come to you from the far side of the parking lot when you whistle for it (just kidding about that last one).

That was only a partial list of the standard features found on all S-Class models.  Some of the options are quite the jaw droppers, from 4 zone climate control with individual temperature adjustments for all passengers with a window seat, to the radar cruise control where you set a speed and give the car its head.  The system will maintain the set speed unless there is a slower moving car ahead in which case it will slow down, maintaining a set distance, even if the car ahead applies brakes to slow down. The Benz will apply up to 20% braking and will beep at you if more is required.  You can almost hear it say “Get back in the driver’s seat! You are the one that is supposed to be driving”

Another option is front and rear parking sonar to give you advance warning when bumpers are about to kiss, or if there is a child standing behind the car when you are about to back up.  Then there is the Keyless Go option where the key is replaced by a credit card like transmitter that you never remove from your pocket or purse. You simply walk up to your car and as you approach, the doors magically unlock.  Then you simply press a button on top of the gear shift selector to start the car (no, this is not the ejector seat button). The same button also serves to shut the car off. 

Aside from the gadget-type options, there are also options like designer interiors with matching paint treatments that can add close to $10,000 to the price of your Benz and allow you to carry royalty without them wrinkling their nose at their surroundings.

This is a connoisseur’s car of the first magnitude.  The ride is magical in its smoothness on uneven, poorly paved roads.  If you opt for the ABC (Active Body Control) system, the ride improves and you get handling that will keep pace with many sports cars.  When you switch the ABC system to Sport Mode, the ride stiffens up slightly and cornering becomes almost completely flat. Another switch allows you to increase ground clearance to let you negotiate bad or snow-covered roads.

I took an S600 equipped with standard ABC on some winding back country roads that were poorly paved and, in some cases, banked the wrong way on the curves.  I wanted to see how fast I could go before this car would exhibit any undignified moves, but no matter how fast I pushed the big V-12, the only undignified moves came from my passenger who was no longer interested in seeing where the handling limits of this car were.

Despite the performance potential of these cars, most will be driven at no more than 10% of their potential, so it is important that ride and overall comfort are equally as impressive as their awesome performance envelope.   They definitely are. Inputs of the throttle, brakes and steering are precise, accurate and smooth, giving the driver a sense of security and control that is as good as anything I have driven. Despite the compliant ride, there is no sense of float or instability no matter what kind of road surface I threw at it.

It doesn’t matter which of the four models that you choose, you will get that vault-like structure the Mercedes S-Class is famous for as well as a comfortable but stable ride with virtually no wind noise.  Road noise is dependant on which model you choose and the tires that come with the package. The S55-AMG comes with aggressive performance rubber that grips the road like the tires were dipped in Crazy Glue, but at the expense of road noise transmitted into the cabin.  The S55-AMG also has an exhaust note coming from the large chrome pipes protruding from under the rear bumper and they make no secret of this car’s adventurous nature.

The S-Class is very quiet overall, but not quite as silent as the benchmark Lexus LS430.  However, any sound that the big Benz emits has a rich, soothing quality that serves to enhance the owner’s experience rather than detract from it.

The S600 interior is a bit more upscale than the rest with surfaces like the dash, rear package tray, console, and door armrests, typically covered in molded vinyl, are instead covered in finely stitched leather.  Even the headliner is special with a suede-like material called Alcantara, that feels, looks and is expensive. And there is still the optional “designo” interior package that will add over $7,000 to the S600’s six-figure price tag.

There are actually two designo packages and they are available on all S-Class models.  The designo Espresso Edition and the designo Silver Edition. The Expresso Edition features a special Mocha Black paint and brown Napa Leather seats and hand-shaped and finished natural elmwood trim, while the SilverEdition uses a special Silver paint treatment with Shell Leather seats and Natural Maple wood.

However you option an S-Class out, these cars are a class act that will give new appreciation for the state of the art in automotive design, engineering and craftsmanship.  They also will make an unmistakable statement about your station in life. For better or worse, this car tells the world that you have arrived. 

How would I improve this car?

How does the S-Class fit your driving style? 

Conservative drivers This is as good as it gets.  Smooth absolute control, all the power you’ll ever need even on the S430   A comfortable back seat with a ballroom floor 

Sporty drivers Handling and stopping power is as good as it gets for a sedan, (or any car for that matter)   Opt for the Sport Package if the best is still not good enough.

Fast drivers will think they died and went to heaven (assuming they are sensible drivers and don’t actually wind up there).  The S55 AMG is the ultimate car for this driver and will give you near Corvette like performance without sacrificing the comfort of a luxury sedan.


 S430S500S55 AMGS600
Engine Type4.3-liter V8,5.0-liter V8,5.5-liter V8,5.8-liter V12,
SOHC 24-valve. (3 Valve per cylinder) dual spark plugs & dual coils per cylinder, high-pressure die-cast alloy cylinder block, alloy heads.
Horsepower275 @ 5,500 RPM302 @ 5,500 RPM355 @ 5,500 RPM362 @ 5,500 RPM
Torque295 lb-ft @ 3,000-4,000 RPM339 lb-ft @ 3,000-4,000 RPM391 @ 3000 RPM391 @ 4100 RPM
Fuel Recommended       Premium 91 Octane Unleaded.
TransmissionElectronic 5-speed automatic with driver-adaptive control.
Tires – Standard225/60R16 98H, all-season, front & rear225/60R16 98H, all-season, front & rear245/45RYR18 Front & 275/40 YR18 rear225/55R17 97H front & rear
Tires – Sport245/45RYR18 Front & 275/40 YR18 rear245/45RYR18 Front & 275/40 YR18 rear 245/45RYR18 Front & 275/40 YR18 rear
Overall Length    203.1″
Turning Diameter37.7 ft Curb to Curb37.7 ft Curb to Curb39.7 ft Curb to Curb37.7 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight4,133 lbs.4,133 lbs.4,186 lbs.4,488 lbs.
Fuel Tank22.2 Gals.
Miles Per GallonEPA city 17,

hwy 24. 

EPA city 16,

hwy 23. 

EPA city 16,

hwy 23. 

EPA city 15,

hwy 22. 

Acceleration 0 to 606.9 Seconds6.1 Seconds5.7 Seconds5.9 Seconds
Base Sticker Price$71,850 plus $645 destination charge$80,200 plus $645 destination charge & $1,000 gas guzzler tax$99,500 plus $645 destination charge  & $1,000 gas guzzler tax$115,200 plus $645 destination charge & $1,700 gas guzzler tax

Mercedes Benz S-Class Rear Wheel Drive Premium Luxury Sedan

Standard Equipment – All Models

The S500 Adds:


The S55 AMG Adds:

The S600 Adds:

Major Available Options

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Charles Ofria

Automotive Expert

Charles Ofria was an automotive journalist who was active in the automotive industry for over 40 years. During the '70s, he was owner-operator of Ofria Automotive, a thriving auto repair shop in Brooklyn, NY. During that time he became involved with auto mechanic training when he set up courses to help prepare mechanics to take the then new A.S.E. (Automotive Service Excellence) mechanic certification exams.

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