Once we leave the highway, we begin rolling through the Swiss countryside. On fast two-lanes, we give a couple of taps to the downshift button on the back of the steering wheel to expedite passes. As introduced on the M-class, Mercedes is now using a BMW-style electronic stalk gear lever, which feels just as weird and insubstantial here as it does in the 7-series and the M-class. The absence of a center gearshift means that manual gear selection is now done via the steering-wheel buttons. Unlike the BMW7-series, you don't have to first switch into Manual mode to get a manual downshift. Manual downshifts (and upshifts) are available any time, via the buttons on the back of the steering-wheel spokes.
There is a switch on the console to select from Sport, Comfort, and Manual modes. Comfort is the standard program, while Sport holds gears longer and downshifts more readily. Manual prevents automatic downshifts, while Sport and Comfort still allow kickdown shifts even if you've selected a gear yourself with the buttons. U.S. cars, however, will offer only Sport and Comfort-no Manual.
The Sport and Manual modes have two other effects: they quicken the throttle response and stiffen the air-spring suspension. The S-class again uses Mercedes's Airmatic air suspension and adaptive damping. The setup delivers a plush ride overall, but when cornering on bad pavement, we can feel bumps transmitted through to the steering column, which strikes us as rather un-Mercedes-like.
As we get closer to Saint Moritz, the postcard-perfect houses and green pastures give way to a rockier landscape. In the falling darkness, we can no longer see the cattle grazing at the roadside, though we can still hear the clank of their cowbells when we slow for the hairpin corners.
Inside, a soft glow of light has begun to emanate from behind the wood trim strip that wraps the cabin. Outside, bixenon headlamps that turn slightly to follow the steering wheel help illuminate the road ahead, even as it becomes more tightly coiled, switching direction constantly. But to see the S-class really defy the darkness, hit the button to the left of the headlight switch to activate the optional night vision assist. Like other manufacturers' systems, Mercedes uses an infrared camera to see in the darkness. Unlike other systems, however, Mercedes uses infrared light sources to provide a sharper picture that is not dependent on contrast in temperatures. What you see in a rectangle in the center of the gauge cluster is a sharp, black-and-white picture of the road ahead. The only weird part is that because the night vision screen is where the speedometer ordinarily is, your speed is rendered in a bar graph toward the bottom of the image. Still, this is the most useful n! ight vision system we've ever experienced.
We're several hours into our drive, and the seat, although comfortable, is providing a bit too much lumbar support. Don't think about adjusting it with the seat switches; those are only for positioning the seat. For anything more, one must delve into Comand. One of the menus is devoted entirely to seats. Different parts of the seat can be selected and then made firmer or softer. It sounds flaky, but switching the seat cushion from cushy to firm for this run up the mountains actually is a useful change. But we find both the dynamic seat selection (where the car firms up or softens parts of the seat in reaction to cornering forces) and the massage function more gimmicky than worthwhile.
In the morning, as we wend our way down from Saint Moritz, the road repeatedly folds back on itself down the sheer mountainside. The drive requires a near-constant winding and unwinding of the wheel and by any rights should have photographer Tom Salt barfing up his breakfast in the front passenger seat, but Salt gives not a word of complaint. Automatic Body Control (ABC), which is optional on the S550 and standard on the S600, has eliminated all trace of body roll-Hans-Dieter Multhaupt, who headed up development of the S-class, claims the system snuffs out 60 percent more roll than the previous ABC-equipped car-leaving only g-forces and tire squeal. Interestingly, it also effectively eliminates any handling difference between the Comfort and the Sport or Manual modes. In non-ABC cars, the latter two engage a firmer setting for the Airmatic suspension, but with ABC that's not an issue. Multhaupt allows that, when pushed to its limits, the ABC-equipped S-class in Sport mode will give a bit more of a feeling of oversteer at speeds up to 60 mph, then become neutral, and finally switch to understeer above 80 mph. In Comfort, the suspension is programmed to deliver understeer from the get-go. These differences might be discernable at a racetrack, but the real-road reality is that ABC allows a driver to push the S-class as hard as he can with very little discomfort to his passengers.
Unbowed by darkness, stoically refusing to lean in corners, the iron-willed S-class also has its own way of dealing with traffic jams. Does it vaporize lesser cars with a grille-mounted death ray? Perhaps in the next-generation S-class. For the 2007 car, there is a new, more clever version of Distronic. The latest edition of Mercedes's radar-guided cruise control (which is optional on the S550 and standard on the S600) can now work not only at cruising speeds, but even in stop-and-go traffic. The automatic braking can bring the car all the way down to a complete stop, then start up again when traffic begins moving. So as we cross back into Italy and make our way slowly through the resort towns along the western shore of Lake Como, we set the cruise at 60 mph and plod through town in a line of traffic. Pretty neat stuff. As with any thought-saving device, however, the hardest part is not letting yourself get dependent on it. If you forget that you've shut it off (by applying the brakes yourself, for example) and then expect it to brake for you, you set yourself up for a rude lesson in over-reliance on electronic driving aides. The new S-class is a pretty amazing car, but one that still requires a driver-at least for now.
It's also a car that, more so than its predecessor, exudes the kind of confidence, even smugness, one expects from a big Mercedes.