I’ve always been a fan of this generation S-class. The car looks elegant and has simple lines. There are luxury features most people haven’t even dreamt of and, generally speaking, they’re all easy to understand and use.
I particularly enjoy the S550 because there’s a decent exhaust note that doesn’t ruin the luxury experience and the seven-speed automatic transmission helps return respectable fuel economy. Power comes on very smoothly, and the normally aspirated engine doesn’t suffer from the turbo lag that can be quite frustrating in our Four Seasons BMW 750Li.
Although long-wheelbase cars in this class can be a bit ungainly around town, the Benz never feels as large during parking maneuvers as our BMW. The S-class is equipped with 4Matic, but it edges out the 7-series in turning radius by 1.7 feet. How is that possible? The BMW has an extra 1.8 inches of wheelbase. The longer wheelbase affords BMW a 2.0-inch advantage in rear legroom, but I can’t imagine anyone not being comfortable in the Benz’s enormous back seat.
A big, fast, quiet, and comfortable car like this is a spectacular reward for someone who has worked hard for the past few decades and wants to enjoy him or herself. For the rest of us, it’s just motivation to work harder.
Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor
As much as I love our Four Seasons BMW 750Li, and the 7-series in all its iterations, and as much as I have high hopes for the new Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ sedans, which I have not yet driven, there is no question in my mind that the Mercedes-Benz S-Class is still the king of this segment. In terms of comfort, drivability, presence, and prestige, this is still the one to beat, the car that most effectively communicates to the outside world that you have arrived.
Joe DeMatio, Executive Editor
I’d probably agree with the assertion that this Benz has a leg up on the 7-series, if only with the added reminder that in this premium segment, we’re really talking about varying degrees of excellence. As with any premium sedan, the highlight of the experience is the interior. I really hated Mercedes COMAND controller at first, but after a weekend, I’d say it’s better than iDrive and much, much better than Audi’s MMI. Phone pairing was a simple procedure-and actually worked. The primary controller on the center console is reasonably intuitive and has a nice tactile quality to it. Oh, and there’s a massage feature for the driver’s seat with four settings.
I’d agree with Phil that the S-class feels a bit smaller from behind the wheel than our long-wheelbase 7-series, but only slightly. There’s still that familiar, and indeed welcome sense of solidity, and presence. I haven’t had the privilege of taking this or any S-class on a long journey, but even a few short stints on the highway highlighted its tomblike silence. With its air suspension in a sport setting, the S-class sticks clearly to the German definition of a premium ride-firm yet never harsh.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I love a good luxury cruiser. Perhaps it’s because my commute is so long that I can just sit back, put some good tunes on, and relax; the massaging front seats on the Mercedes-Benz S550 aid the latter. Once situated, I prefer BMW’s iDrive system to this COMAND controller. Although there’s nothing wrong with the Mercedes unit, it just feels dated and sometimes confusing to navigate. Granted I use the 7-series iDrive more thanks to our Four Seasons example, so familiarity probably plays a roll in my preference.
On the road, the S550 feels more buttoned down than the 7-series. And with the S550’s tighter steering and smaller cabin, it’s easy to think you’re driving a much smaller car than a 4600-pound Mercedes. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive does a good job of keeping the car pointed straight ahead on snowy roads, and power delivery from the 382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8 is smooth and refined. The night-vision feature, while effective, reminds me too much of the bumper camera view on a racing video game and quite frankly, made me dizzy if I looked at it for more than two seconds. The screen is cool, however, as it appears where the speedometer usually is.
The Mercedes-Benz S-class continues to be a fantastic automobile in a segment that demands high-class perfection.
Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator
I know it’s getting pretty long in the tooth, but like my colleagues, I still love the Mercedes-Benz S-class. The newer BMW 7-Series has more gadgets and horsepower, but the S-class still easily holds its own. The big Benz’s steering feel is arguably equally as good as the Bimmer’s, too. But where the Mercedes really shines is in the intangibles, such as the warm, welcoming feel of the cabin; the superquiet door shuts; the smooth, refined powertrain; and the intuitive Comand system.
The massaging seats help, too. They’re everything my colleagues describe and more. They even helped me forget that I couldn’t get the seemingly infinitely adjusting seats to cant the seat cushion up high enough for my preferred level of thigh support.
I’d probably skip the 4Matic option because, even though I live in Michigan, I drive mostly on primary roads that are fairly well maintained, so I think that a rear-wheel-drive S-class with winter tires would suffice for me. However, 4Matic could be a priceless feature for those who live farther out in the sticks or in climes that get more snow than we do here.
One more note: I know several people who aren’t huge fans of the S-class’s styling, what with its sculpted fenders and such, but it’s hard not to stare at an S-class painted lovely Capri Blue like our test car.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
The S550 is a fabulous way to travel with style, comfort, and power. It possesses a positively confident air that it can do anything you ask of it. And it largely delivers. Mindlessly drive home after a long day at the office? Switch on the lane-keep assist, blind-spot warning, and adaptive cruise control. Oh, and of course you’ll want to click on the seat heaters and excellent massage feature. But if you’re in the mood to drive, switch from Comfort to Sport mode and allow the 382-hp engine launch you down any road at any speed.
Still, the S-class has its shortcomings. Steering is lackadaisical in returning to center. That the night-vision display appears in the instrument cluster is a neat concept, but I actually think it requires you to take your eyes off the road more so than a system that uses the navigation screen. Using a screen that’s over, rather than down, allows you to use more peripheral vision to keep track of things through the windshield. I have very few complaints about the control setup for the COMAND infotainment system, but I do think the display interface looks more and more dated every day.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
Mercedes-Benz has always promised quality and luxury and this S550 makes good on that promise. From a styling perspective, the exterior looks totally modern but because it is such a thoughtful evolution there is never a question of whether it’s a Mercedes, even from a distance. The interior is just as well done. Unlike our 7-series’ cabin which uses mostly black and cream tones making it feel slightly cold, the S550’s is covered in rich brown tones giving it a warm, old-school gentleman’s lounge ambience. Lovely. The central console is a little too busy, though. The large keypad mounted behind the COMAND controller makes for an uncomfortable armrest while accessing the COMAND system. It also visually blocks the quick-access buttons positioned on the passenger side of the controller.
Jennifer Misaros, Production Editor
As several of my colleagues have pointed out, the S-class and the 7-series are both first-class full-size sedans. One thing the S-class has going for it that the 7-series lacks, however, is its optional 4Matic all-wheel-drive system. This was especially apparent when I drove the 7-series on snow-covered roads day or so after I had driven the S-class. Count me as one who would opt for the added traction of the 4Matic S-class over the rear-wheel-drive 7-series, which, even though shod with snow tires, had to work overtime to keep itself pointed in a straight line on the slick roads.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
The first S-class I ever drove was this magazine’s 4-Seasons 1992 400SE. That car blew my mind, for reasons big and small. One of its more subtle qualities was that every moving part on the car-steering, brakes, accelerator, switchgear-had a uniformity of feel. This current S-class is the same way. I also love how the torque converter and throttle mapping combine to provide a liquid-smooth takeoff from a stop. Lesser Benz models do not work this same way.
Early iterations of Mercedes’ Comand system were a disaster, but I find the current one to be quite easy to use. I only wish that more audio information were available when you have the navigation screen up (as Ford does); you shouldn’t have to toggle between navigation and audio. The array of silver buttons looks great, but some separation of function would be a bit more practical. Also, I agree with Eric that having the night vision display in the instrument cluster forces you to take your eyes too far off the road. Projecting the image in a head-up display on the windshield would be a better solution.
I realize that this car is for the money-is-no-object crowd, but $5800 for a set of wheels and a bit of rather cheesy-looking lower body cladding strikes me as Porsche-style highway robbery.
I agree also with Phil that a fairly tight turning circle helps this huge car feel not quite so huge when parking. Very helpful.
Although the S550’s regal nature seeps into the driver’s subconscious and makes one want to drive chauffeur smooth, I was curious to see how the big Benz would handle a high-energy blast down a tight, backwoods two-lane. So I found a quiet piece of road with plenty of lumps, bumps, sudden elevation changes, and quick turns. I popped the active body control into Sport and let ‘er rip. The car just glided from turn to turn, and crest to drop, with the grace of an Olympic skier. An impressive performance.
Joe Lorio, Senior Editor
2010 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic
Base price (with destination and gas guzzler tax): $96,475
Price as tested: $113,475
Airmatic air suspension with adaptive damping
Torque vectoring brake system
Drilled front brake rotors
40GB hard drive GPS navigation
15-speaker Harman/Kardon surround sound
8-inch display screen
Power rear window shade
Active Bi-Xenon headlamps
Full leather interior
Heated front seats
Dual zone climate control
Options on this vehicle:
Premium package – $3570
– Multi-contour front seats with massage
– Rear-view camera
Driver assistance package – $2900
– Adaptive cruise control
– Blind spot assist
– Lane keeping assist
Sport package – $5800
– 19-inch AMG 5-spoke wheels
– Sport body styling
Rear seat package – $2990
– Power adjustable rear seats
– Four-zone climate control
– Heated and ventilated rear seats
Night view assist with pedestrian detection – $1740
Key options not on vehicle:
Rear seat entertainment package – $2450
– Two LCD monitors in front seats headrests
– Two wireless headsets and remotes
14 / 21 / 17 mpg
Size: 5.5L 32-valve V-8
Horsepower: 382 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 391 lb-ft @ 2800-4800 rpm
Weight: 4630 lb
19-inch 5-spoke AMG aluminum wheels
235/40R19 Continental ContiProContact all-season tires