On the Road Review: Mercedes Benz S550 4Matic Sedan

Before 2000, Mercedes Benz was widely recognized as the mass-market benchmark for premium sedans in the world. Sure, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Maserati made some pretty special cars, but their lofty price points pretty much eliminated them from real-world purchase decisions. And, Cadillac, once known as the engineering standard, had long fallen from its position as the luxury class leader — and not just in the USA.

Yet, in 2000, the luxury classes all changed. Asian automaker Toyota pushed its burgeoning Lexus brand to the top of the U.S. sales charts and forever changed how we think about luxury cars in this market. After only 11 years on the domestic sales charts, Lexus had done the unthinkable. More telling, Lexus held the top spot for the next 11 years in a row.

In 2012, BMW took top luxury sales honors, with Mercedes returning to its former glory in 2013. BMW edged out Mercedes for 2014, with Lexus gaining, but still in third place.

The Lexus success was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Mercedes and all of the German automakers. Forcing them to get better, rapidly, the Germans embraced new technologies faster, got more innovative with powertrains, and they all improved their styling, quality and dealer networks so that the big three German automakers — Audi, BMW and Mercedes — now enjoy unparalleled success in not only this market, but worldwide.

Hidden in the sales numbers during this tumultuous period — that included two small recessions plus one colossal recession that still plagues much of the free world — the Mercedes Benz S-class sedan continued to dominate the full-size luxury category. Once, and still, the benchmark for opulence and rolling competence, the S-class defines Mercedes.

Today, Mercedes assembles numerous S-class models, not all of which are available in the United States. Sold here now, or soon, are the stretched S550 sedan (the middle of three chassis lengths used on the world market), a new S-class coupe, plus a new S550 Cabriolet. We also get the S600 version of the S class — with a 6.0-liter twin-turbo V-12 engine, while AMG versions of the current 449-hp twin-turbo 4.6-liter V-8 and the V-12 may appear as market conditions warrant. By summer, there also will be a plug-in hybrid S-class that uses a 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 engine for power support. Pricing starts at $94,400 for rear drive S-class sedans; add $1,500 for 4MATIC four-wheel drive setup as our sample car featured. The V-12 model starts at $166,900 while the AMG version of that model — the S65 — starts at a sheik-like $222,000.

At 207 inches long, the S-class is only matched by the Audi A8 in exterior dimensions. Cruising on a mostly aluminum chassis that uses very sophisticated electronic controls to smooth the road ahead, the S-class wheelbase stretches out to 125 inches, while overall weight also leads the class at almost 4,900 pounds. The Audi uses even more aluminum and closely matches the Lexus for the lightweights here (if almost 2.5 tons is truly lightweight), with the BMW somewhere in the middle.

As configured, the S-class is really more of a four-passenger sedan than a five-passenger car, as the rear seats are designed to best satisfy two occupants rather than three.

And do they satisfy. Nothing ever before sampled matches the comfort and the accommodations found in the S-class. Both sides of the rear seats are powered, like the fronts, with four distinct switches on the door panel. Seat angle, seat bottom position, headrest and thigh support are all adjustable as the individually designed seats also recline, heat and cool you, as well as offer removable pillow covers for the headrests. Power privacy shades for the side windows and the rear window are also included, while individual mirrors and reading lamps as well as a multi-use console are standard. Options include personal DVD entertainment screens, plus fold down tray tables. Given the proclivity for rapid travel available from the Mercedes’ engine room, this jet is vastly more comfortable than anything we now experience in real flight.

Up front, the same cosseting efforts for occupants are supplemented by power seats that feature active side bolsters that move in and out as the car corners, subtlety holding you in place as the S-class turns. The Mercedes seat heaters are swift, warming rapidly on a sub-zero day. Once activated, the S-class also warms the center console lid and the door panel armrests so any surface that you might rest an arm is equally warmed. The elegant wood and leather steering wheel, with the posh antique-style script inscribed across the contoured bottom of the wheel, is power adjustable and heated.

If it were hot outside (oh, don’t we wish), the Mercedes’ seats would vacuum heat away from the seatpan for several minutes before blowing cooling air in your nether regions.

The S550’s trunk lid powers open and closes itself, while the passenger doors also can power themselves closed if you are not inclined to complete the exercise. Overhead, a dual-panel panoramic roof provides ample light, while two large (12.3 inches diagonally) rectangular digital screens on the instrument panel provide vehicle information and all of the car’s navigation, climate and entertainment information via the soft-touch mouse/central controller on the console. Navigation displays are huge, crisp, although some of the mapping data is outdated. Some redundant buttons on the IP panel help with simple climate functions while steering wheel buttons provide additional audio support for the superb Burmester audio system.

Recessed speakers twirl out of the A-pillars, with a plume of selectable accent lighting visible at night. Controls for the numerous air vents also recess in the dash in this finely crafted cabin.

While the S-class provides “an oasis of luxury,” this car also is a rolling technology display. It has to be considered the most athletic S-class ever built; maybe even the most athletic full-size sedan.

The twin-turbo V-8 brings hushed power to a new dimension; the car seamlessly accelerates and stops with numbers comparable to a Mustang GT or Camaro SS, but with none of the drama. Steering feel is remarkably poised, while the competence of the adaptable chassis is amazing. Using Mercedes’ patented Magic Body Control along with the heated Magic Vision Control, the S-class sees the road ahead and reacts to imperfections by adjusting the suspension. Big heave or bump ahead — no worry, the Mercedes adjusts accordingly and you glide over it as if it did not exist.

The S-class can park itself, remain in your selected lane, can automatically brake itself, it can see in the dark ahead and react, plus the LED headlights can look around corners. Add the latest 4MATIC four-wheel drive, which sends power to whichever wheels need it, and this may be the smartest S-class ever.

Several items were optional on our Obsidian Black S550 and raised the SRP to $128,545. Nappa leather, Ash wood trim, 3D surround sound stereo, plus the Premium Package, Sport Package, Warmth and Comfort Package, the Air Balance Package and the Driver Assist Package all offered luxury amenities that proved to be irresistible. Mentionable pieces include keyless access and ignition, 19-inch twin-spoke wheels, active rear seats, fragrance atomizer system, cabin purification, Steering Assist, Blind Spot detection, Lane Keeping Assist, Cross-Traffic assist, and even rear-impact protection.

EPA fuel economy estimates are 16/26-mpg on suggested premium fuel. SPG (smiles per gallon) data is hard to ascertain, but the comments from the passenger perches were always pleasantly positive, and frequently sentences with redundant superlatives.

No wonder sales of the newest S-class doubled in the USA last year. No wonder that sales of the S-class almost equaled the Audi A8, BMW 7-series, Jaguar XK, and the Lexus LS — combined. Currently, Porsche’s Panamera is making big noise, but there remains no doubt; this IS the benchmark sedan for the luxury segment.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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