Ann Arbor - Whoever gets the Mercedes-Benz S500 that is the subject of this long-term Four Seasons test will be getting a very nice car. With about 30,000 miles on its odometer, it just seems to be coming into its own. If I were the buyer, I'd replace the tires, the brake pads, and the windshield wiper blades, check all the hoses and belts, then sit back and enjoy it for the next 150,000 miles or so. You could probably sit back and enjoy it for a while without doing all of those things, but we are car enthusiasts, and we have driven it for maximum daily pleasure. Caveat emptor. From the S500 logbook: "Love this engine. Just as wonderful today as it's been all year. Great, smooth, responsive to a big foot. Feeling of confidence passing those long lines of vacation traffic. Ride quality remains outstanding after 25,000 miles." Every passenger who ever clambered into the rear seat exclaimed over the available space and easy comfort.
This was a very important test car for Automobile Magazine. We were not fond of the very heavy, extremely complex car that preceded this one, and we said so, in no uncertain terms. Our position was a controversial one, and we were eager to learn if we could start enjoying Mercedes' S-class again. For years, members of Daimler-Benz management had speculated about the elasticity of the markets for their S-class flagships. How much would customers spend? What was the limit? Was there a stone wall out there somewhere, just over the horizon, waiting to be run into? As we now know, there was a stone wall, and the S-class sedan that was introduced in 1992 ran smack into it. Public statements were made from Stuttgart blaming the engineers for building cars to please themselves rather than the prospective buyers. Managers were sacked or reassigned. And, as the people behind Mercedes-Benz searched their souls and reexamined the way they did business, BMW--down the road in Munich--just seemed to go from strength to strength. What time the Stuttgarters could spare from looking over their shoulders at BMW they spent worrying about Lexus, a line of cars that could, apparently, do no wrong.
This S500 is Mercedes-Benz's answer to those multiple dilemmas, and a very good answer it is. It is clearly smaller and more efficient than its predecessor, and, while it may be more complex in terms of its electronic management systems, a lot of over-the-top features and componentry--answers to questions consumers never asked--have been eliminated. Net-net, it will seem less complicated to anyone who has spent time in the previous model. Such a person might also notice that he or she can now reach across the interior to open the glove box or find the cell phone that slid off the passenger's seat in the last corner--the overall width has been reduced from 74.3 to 73.1 inches. Wheelbase has been shortened from 123.6 inches to 121.5, overall length from 205.2 to 203.1, and height from 58.5 to 56.9. The tighter dimensions have been combined with a lot of hard development time to get the drag coefficient down to 0.27, which is far from the 0.25 that Lexus accomplished with the Ultra Luxury version of its new LS430 but a solid improvement nonetheless.
The S500 is special, even among other S-class models. The S430 is an entirely competent car but devoid of excitement. All S-class cars have Mercedes' Airmatic suspension, a sophisticated adaptive setup that reacts to road conditions via computer-controlled dampers and air springs at each wheel. The system also offers the driver an on-demand sport setting. Touch the button to call up the sport suspension mode on an S430, and it simply seems to increase harshness and perceived impacts. The S500 is quite different. The additional 27 horsepower and the way in which the bigger V-8 engine delivers that additional power make the S500 seem far more agile and athletic than its downmarket relation. Engage the sport suspension on the S500, and it immediately tells you that you have chosen the optimal setting for a car with such exhilarating performance. It becomes a true sport sedan, entirely equal to a BMW 740i but, at the same time, different, as a Mercedes-Benz should be. The twelve-cylinder engine in the S600 is more powerful, but its contribution is enhanced refinement and luxury, not exhilaration.
From the S500 logbook: "Watching the odometer roll past 10,000 miles, I find that this is an immensely likable high-performance sedan--neither better nor worse than an equivalent BMW, just different. Behavior in crosswinds does not measure up to this car's performance in other areas of highway dynamics. In going for a lower, sleeker silhouette, they created the first S-class in which I cannot wear a hat."
Two complaints were heard frequently during these twelve months: The S500 seems overly sensitive to crosswinds--much like the current E-class in this regard--and speculation around the halls at Automobile Magazine centers on the new aerodynamics. On a quick trip to New York from our offices in Michigan, we found ourselves driving through blinding thunderstorms, and the S500 was as sure-footed and reassuring as any car could be in such trying conditions. But when the roads dried and there was only wind with which to contend, the car seemed to be "hunting" or, as the Europeans say, "tramlining." Isolation within the cockpit is so effective that we were unable to hear the wind outside, and what we were feeling was a low level of crosswind instability, which is odd, because this is one area in which the previous S-class Mercedes excelled.
The second complaint concerned the Comand (Cockpit Management and Data) center, which dominates the center of the instrument panel and provides integrated access to the car's sound, telephone, and GPS-based navigation systems. Everybody hated it. For each driver who pored over the system's dedicated 208-page instruction manual and came to grips with the Comand center, there were four or five who fumed and cursed and resigned themselves to living with whatever settings were in place when they entered the car. From the S500 logbook: "The Comand center is a gimmick too far. Give me simplicity over half a day with the owner's manual any time." "The Comand center is ultimately annoying in that I can identify no performance bonus for all that incomprehensible complexity." "The GPS system is counterintuitive. I cannot sort it out, and I was sitting there when [the guy from Mercedes-Benz] explained it to us."
Robert Lutz, the great car enthusiast who was president and then vice chairman of Chrysler during those warmly remembered pre-Daimler days of the Nineties, has said: "When demands for increased sales volume begin to drive the engineering and design of a luxury car, the car begins to suffer, to lose its focus. The hard-to-justify trifles that make a luxury car luxurious have trouble surviving the demands for lower costs and reduced content that characterize any discussion of maximized volume." The Lutz point of view is borne out, to some degree, by the interior of our S500 test car. The instrument panel sounded hollow. The glove box door was chintzy, too much like the same component on the downmarket ML320. The interior suffered a variety of squeaks and rattles. All of the important stuff worked fine--engine, gearbox, suspension, structure--but all of the myriad materials and small components that are bolted, strapped, cemented, and stapled to that great platform show signs of cost cutting as the folks in Stuttgart begin to imagine a Mercedes-Benz in every garage.
Without exception, every staff member who drove this test car wanted to take it to Alaska or South America or the Outer Pleiades. Its charm is insidious--the more you drive it, the more you want to drive it. Like the Lexus LS430, it is a near-perfect compromise for most luxury-car buyers. A BMW 740iL might outhandle the S500, but at some cost in NVH performance. Of these three, the Mercedes is also the best looking. Its predecessor was big and imposing, but this one is beautiful. Beautiful, too, in the way our spirits soar when the brakes--massive drilled discs at each corner--turn out to be every bit as powerful and responsive as the engine, which is a paragon. The Mercedes-Benz S500 is not a perfect car, but it may well turn out to be the best-balanced set of attributes for most luxury-car buyers. Having driven this one to New York City twice, I just want to drive it to Buenos Aires.