Good as it was, much about the outgoing Mercedes-Benz S-class was a reaction to the criticism of its predecessor. That car was derided for its size and weight, so the S-class was shrunk and lightened. Competitive pressure, particularly from Lexus, brought cost considerations into the equation, which showed through in the subpar interior materials. And the styling, a huge departure from the slab-sided early '90s car, was almost pandering in its attempt to be fun and approachable.
The new 2007 S-class says to hell with all that. To start, it's larger than today's car in every dimension. The long-wheelbase model-the only one we'll get in the States-is 1.7 inches longer, 0.7 inch wider, and 1.1 inches taller. The already-huge cabin has grown even more spacious, and the trunk is roomier as well.
Rather than disguising the car's size, the exterior design is not afraid to play it up. Whereas the current model had soft, rounded forms, the new car's flanks are long stretches of creased sheetmetal, punctuated by gigantic wheel arches. Up front, there's a whole new attitude. As Mercedes-Benz design chief Hans-Dieter Futschik sees it, the old S-class "had a smiling face" that "looked at you and said, 'Come on, don't you love me?' " The new one dispenses with the puppy dog act and recaptures the S-class mojo with a more prominent grille that is larger and higher.
The interior-design team appears to have kicked out the cost accountants, judging from the richer environment. Supple leather covers not only the seats but also the doors and the in-strument panel. Mercedes has finally abandoned its black plastic buttons for ribbed chrome. Cool mood lighting emanates from under the wood strip that wraps around the cabin.
But of course, the German auto industry being what it is, Mercedes-Benz also has introduced its own iDrive-style control system into the S-class. (To paraphrase what your mother used to say, if one of the German luxury carmakers jumped off a bridge, the other two would surely follow.)
The knob controller itself works every bit as beautifully as BMW's, and it sits just below a padded handrest perched at the leading edge of the armrest. The handrest opens up to reveal a keypad for the mobile phone. Nice as it is ergonomically, sometimes you just don't want the distraction of wading through menus to operate frequently used devices. Mercedes does have separate climate controls and a few audio controls on the steering wheel, but too many functions require gazing at the screen.
The navigation system, which is standard, is contained within the Comand system. Ours has a course set for Saint Moritz, Switzerland, a scenic, 200-mile drive from our starting point in Milan. We roll out of the parking lot and set off.
Rolls-Royce makes much use of the word "waft" to describe its cars in motion. After only a few miles, it becomes apparent that the 2007 S-class wafts, too. The steering, which in previous generations was firm and purposeful, is now creamy, taking a split second to inject some polite resistance but never really requiring any more effort as you wind in more lock. Still, the system is very precise, reassuringly so as we thread our way through one tunnel after another, seemingly always alongside a semitruck or a car pulling a trailer.
The Italian autostrada moves quickly, but heavy traffic has us slowing repeatedly. The new V-8 engine, now with four valves per cylinder and displacing 5.5 liters, is turbine smooth and virtually silent, only finding its voice at the upper reaches of the rev range. The S550 gathers speed quickly, more quickly than before, but doesn't rocket forward with a vengeance (for that you need the twin-turbocharged V-12, which, according to the factory, sends the S600 from 0 to 62 mph in a supercar-like 4.6 seconds). The frequent braking gives us ample opportunity to appreciate the good, old-fashioned, mechanically applied hydraulic brakes, which are much easier to modulate than the much-maligned and trouble-prone SBC brake-by-wire system in the E-class. That system was originally planned for the S-class as well, but Mercedes is now phasing it out.