Mercedes-Benz S550: The Megalomaniac
As Michelle Pfeiffer's character says in the 1983 film Scarface, "Nothing exceeds like excess." That is the attitude of the redesigned Mercedes-Benz S-class, the very definition of five-figure automotive excess. The front seats, for example, can be adjusted to any of approximately one bazillion possible combinations of lumbar, firmness, temperature, bolstering, and, yes, even massage (we preferred the "fast and vigorous" setting despite its being moderately fast and only somewhat vigorous). Through the same screen and navigation wheel that controls the seats, one can also specify lighting and locking preferences, along with various navigation settings. The Mercedes COMAND system (a console-mounted dial to control computer functions), while still confusing to neophytes, is not as difficult to manage as BMW's iDrive, and we found ourselves becoming professionals in no time. The rear passengers are not ignored either; our test model featured optional reclining rear seats and power sunscreens. With the seats reclined and the full-glass roof open, clear, starry nights in the back of this Benz are an unforgettable experience.
Getting behind the wheel is rewarding as well. A whopping 382 horsepower brings the S550 up to highway speed in good time considering the car's 4377-pound heft. Mercedes suspension engineers have also done a wonderful job with this car, as it is much smoother on rough highways than the BMW 750Li and just as agile through the twisties. We enjoyed the steering feel of the big Benz, too, but many older buyers will find the wheel too weighty in slower city driving. The weakest point for this Merc actually makes a lot of sense when you think about the problem with excess. Too much is often too much, and the S550 just can't slow down, with brakes that are not on par with the massive plates hiding behind the wheels of the 750Li. At least they're better than the brake-by-wire system found on some other Benzes.
If extroverted Maybachian styling, gigabytes of technogadgetry, and plush opulence are for you, the Mercedes-Benz S550 is the perfect sedan. The many pieces of the car come together with the harmony of a world-class rowing team, and the result is a ride that is just as smooth and quick. Megalomania doesn't come cheap, though. The S550 is tagged with a base price of $86,175, or $11,000 more than the closest competitor. Our test model, outfitted with nearly every option other than night vision, broke the six-figure boundary, with a grand total cost over $102,000. But in this class of automobile, can you really put a price on one-upsmanship?
BMW 750Li: Its fifteen minutes are over.
Not long ago, the BMW 7-series was the center of attention in the automotive world. Sure, the Z4 roadster was the first with Chris Bangle's fiery styling cues, but that was on a small sports car, not the company flagship. Along with iDrive and the many jokes (can they please be over already?) brought on by that little dial, the car's styling made for plenty of water-cooler conversation. Nevertheless, it's always been fantastic to drive, enough so that we've given the car two Automobile All-Star awards since 2002. But times have changed, and Mercedes-Benz has improved upon the winning BMW formula. With the exception of the brakes (we'll leave the styling of these two up to you), the S550 outclasses the 750Li in every way. COMAND is far more manageable than iDrive, and the Merc is faster and more capable than the BMW. The massive brakes on the 750 are still best-in-class, but the Benz's capable chassis exposes the suspension flaws of the BMW. In sport mode, the big Bimmer rides too harshly over rougher surfaces, while comfort mode makes the car too soft. The Mercedes manages to find a happy medium. The 4.8-liter V-8 of the 750Li is new for 2006, and is also found in the 550i and 650i. We credit BMW for good foresight here; they had to assume that Mercedes-Benz would use the new S-class to continue the escalating power war, and 360 horsepower keeps the BMW close--the Audi A8L, unfortuntely, disappears in the rear-view.
Younger people will appreciate the 750Li's interior which, while not as drop-dead gorgeous as that of the A8L, is edgier and more modern than the flowing curves of the Mercedes. However, the seat adjustments, while half as intricate as those of the Benz, are twice as complicated to use. This group of cars is a tough bunch of lemmings to run with. Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz have been following each other's lead for years, each improving on ideas introduced by the other two. Right now, the BMW is the lone competitor not offering all-wheel drive, and it suffers as the originator of the wheel-controlled on-board computer, having the most primitive and complicated form of the concept. The Mercedes-Benz, with its wildly flared styling and more advanced computers, has rewritten the ostentatious luxury book BMW published a few years back, and for the time being, is at the top of the class. But rest assured, BMW is working late into the night with books full of visions and revisions to blow our minds again soon enough.
Audi A8L: The cool, quiet type
The Audi A8L is an automotive anomaly. It isn't as fast as the BMW 750Li or the Mercedes-Benz S550. The brakes are less vigorous--by quite a lot--and it certainly doesn't carve the curves with the same verve. It doesn't have as many gadgets, and the seats don't massage you, cool you, or hold you in place with powered bolsters. It doesn't do any of these exciting things, but at the same time, it doesn't do anything wrong either.
In our February 2005 issue, we asked whether anybody had "seen someone in an Armani suit running the 110-meter hurdles?" The A8L may not win that dash, but it does it with an understated elegance that the extroverted Sean Jean Mercedes-Benz and Polo Sport BMW can't match. It is for that reason that a good portion of our staff still dreams of an A8L in the garage. The $11,500 "Audi Exclusive" interior package (suede headliner, black piping on upgraded cream leather, wood inlays) on our test model didn't hurt either, and even led one staffer to proclaim it "the sexiest sedan interior in the world." Just as the butter-soft leather and custom wood dash inlays could be called smooth, so could everything else about the car. The sheetmetal--its Armani suit--that wraps around the car is the best representation of the current Audi styling language, and the huge full-length grille looks bold and luxurious. The steering, while too light to be truly sporty, is fluid and consistent, unlike the constantly changing Benz and BMW systems. The throttle and brakes are also easy to modulate, and although the Audi's 335-horsepower 4.2-liter V-8 is not world-beating, it is as smooth as ever.
It is hard to judge the A8L in terms of the S550 or the 750Li. While they're all similar in size, power, and price, the Audi has completely different intentions. It doesn't strive to be the most technological or the most powerful, but instead the easiest to live with day-in and day-out. The seats adjust with regular buttons as they have for years, and while Audi's MMI is similar to BMW iDrive and M-B COMAND, it is less intrusive and only used for stereo, navigation, and a few various lighting and car data commands. The A8L is for the affluent American who doesn't need to jump out and say "look at me!" and doesn't need to show off their computerized toys to their friends. It is a car whose goal is to stay out of your way and just sail along. If that's for you, hop in the back seat, open the optional champagne cooler, and let's toast to the Audi A8L and its bargain (we're talking relatively, here) base price of $72,090.