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Mercedes-Benz S-Class - First Drive

Look Ma, no hands

Nov 30, 2005
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0601_01z+Mercedes_Benz_S_Class+Front_Drivers_Side_View Photo 1/2   |   Mercedes-Benz S-Class - First Drive

Twenty years from now, the 2005 Frankfurt Autoshow will be remembered primarily for two things: Porsche's brand-new Cayman and the Mercedes S Class. Amidst the champagne and palm pressing, it was in essence a fairly boring show; in hindsight, I would not have traveled 7,000 miles to walk another 50 in the massive Frankfurt complex.

But I would walk 50 miles to have another shot at driving the new S Class. Hell, maybe 75 even.

The New S Class is good, really good. Great even. Like a celebrity emerging from a sabbatical, the new S has been remade into an even greater image of its former self. It's bigger, stronger, sexier. It's smarter too, containing an interface and features like something from a James Bond film.

0601_02z+Mercedes_Benz_S_Class+Interior_View_Steering_Wheel Photo 2/2   |   Mercedes-Benz S-Class - First Drive

The most visible component of the S-Class makeover is its body. It's been sculpted and toned into a more assertive shape. You can see shades of both the previous 500E in the front and 190 Evo out back. Apparently those bulges over the rear fenders were a source of much contention within the Mercedes group and subjected to many questions. Hans-Dieter Futschik, M-B lead designer, was quick defend his actions and pooh-poohed the question as though he'd answered it a million times before.

"Look, we gave the new S-Class those fender blisters because it looks good. Next question," Futschik said.Wow. Discussion over.

I must agree with him on this point. The new S-Class has been given a much braver, athletic stance. If the previous car was a cricket player, the new S is a football star. Where the previous version hid under smooth sheet metal, the new S fairly bulges under its aluminum skin and ripples with muscles. Both the overall length and wheelbase have been lengthened and the height expanded, although the car appears to have the same overall dimensions. There are also hints of Maybach in the S-Class' two-tiered rear. It all conspires to lend a familiar yet very new look to the new S.

The former S-Class always struck me as a car geared for people who were above mere driving. They had to "arrive." The S provided a superb conveyance, both comfortable and well insulated from the environment. Not especially invigorating but proficient nonetheless.

Mercedes appears to have put emphasis on grounding the new S-Class, making it more in touch with the road. Ultimately, it feels much sportier than before although it is still the quietest car I have ever experienced. At 140 mph the only audible noise comes from the tires, and it's minimal at best. Mercedes developed a special multi-layered glass that provides a superior insulating effect (one of several dozen S-Class improvements). I learned this after screaming at the driver during a photography session. Despite yelling at the top of my lungs, all he could see was some crazy person with his mouth open.

Weighing in at some 4,800 pounds, the new S is a definitely big. Despite extensive use of aluminum throughout the body and chassis, it has been given so many new features that it has gained a little around its midsection. That said, I was not prepared for sports-car-like maneuverability. I should have been. Yeah, the S-Class is big but it doesn't know it. It behaves with downright amazing dexterity, something you expect from a much smaller car. Mercedes' Airmatic and Adaptive Damping System work in conjunction with a variable ride quality setting. Depending on your mood you can choose either "sporty" or "comfortable" and the car responds accordingly. While I regarded this as more of a gimmick, there is a substantial difference between the two modes. And the optional Active Body Control essentially multiplies the car's agility.

Push the S hard in a turn and there's a sensation that it is pushing back, like a linebacker bracing for impact. Despite its size, the new S remains poised even after successive tight corners. It's something you don't expect from a car with its sizable dimensions. Mercedes has wisely maintained both its hydraulically activated brakes and steering (rather than electronic versions) and believes they currently offer better feedback and response. I'm in complete agreement here. Both the steering and brakes feel like they're designed by someone who likes refined yet visceral feedback.

North America will see two versions of the new S-Class: the S500 with a 388 bhp V8 and the S600 with a twin-turbo 517 bhp V12. Plan on spending $89,000 and $130,000 respectively. There was also talk of a more modest S450 version arriving in April 2006. Prices start in the 70k range.

All the new S models share the same basic cabin layout, a design that will either be cherished or despised. It is both elegant and minimalist as most of the functions are accessed through a center-mounted dial similar to the much-maligned BMW iDrive. Plan on spending a good hour with the instruction manual just getting the S-Class to go. Luckily, my co-driver was Mercedes proficient-I couldn't figure out how to get it in gear. Rumor has it that there are several European websites that essentially recreate the cabin and let you scroll over its various functions. Apparently it is very popular with new car buyers. If you get a new S-Class, go there, like now. Do I like the idea of having to "learn" how to operate a new car? Not really. But it seems more manufacturers are going that way.

I spent equal time in both the S600 and the S500. No, that's a lie. I spent more time in the S600. I can't remember having so much fun in such a big, luxurious car. Fitted with the optional multi-contour seats, they both countered cornering stresses and massaged your backside. It also featured Mercedes' Night View Assist comprised of infrared headlamps linked to the cockpit display. Basically, it allows you to see in the dark like Arnold in T2."I see all."

There is so much new content in the new S-Class it's impossible to fit it into this small space. My overall impression of the new S-Class is that Mercedes is hell-bent on making it the car in its segment. As it now stands, Mercedes has succeeded.

2006 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Base Price: $89,000 (est.)

Drivetrain

Longitudinal front engine,rear-wheel drive

Engine

5.5-liter V8, sohc, four valves per cylinder
(S500)5.5-liter V12, sohc, three valves per cylinder (S600)

Transmission

Seven-speed automatic(S500)
Five-speed automatic (S600)

Suspension

Four-link, anti-lift control, Airmatic air suspension, gas shocks, stabilizer bar,multi-link rear with anti-squat and anti-dive

Brakes

Four-wheel disc brakes, internally vented, dual circuit, ABS, Brake Assist, ESP

Dimensions

Length x Width x Height (in.): 199.8 x 73.6 x 58 (205-in. long for long wheelbase)
Wheelbase: 119.5 (124.6 long wheelbase)
Curb Weight: 4,277 lb (4,376 lb long wheelbase)

Performance

Peak Power: 388 bhp @ 5800 rpm (S600 517 bhp)
Peak Torque: 391 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm (S600 612 lb-ft)
0-62 mph: 5.4 sec (S600 4.6 sec)
Top Speed: 155 mph (electronically limited)

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