1992-2000 Mercedes-Benz S500

David E. Davis, Jr.
Glenn Paulina
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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.

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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."

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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.

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