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200 Mercedes-Benz

200 Mercedes-Benz

Mark Phelan

Mercedes’ sleek new flagship looks to make a light lunch out of competing luxury cars.

Mark Phelan

There’s a sleek and dangerous ne shark cruising the school of luxury cars. Purposeful and predatory, the 2000 Mercedes-Benz S-Class completes the redefinition of the Mercedes brand. No longer immune to price or the actions of competitors, the strategists of Stuttgart have for the first time premeditatedly set out to steal sales from other marques. The car just bowed in Europe. U.S. sales begin in the spring.

In the past, it was enough for Mercedes to build the safest, most technically sophisticated car and allow buyers to come to it. No more. As the aggressively priced M-Class hinted, Mercedes is on the prowl, targeting other luxury cars, ready to swoop in and snatch their buyers. Mercedes-Benz North America (MBNA) expects the S-Class to raise its share of the high-luxury segment to 30%, from 24% with the old model.

‘The only way to do that is with a very aggressive conquest strategy,’ says Bill Usery, MBNA S-Class brand manager. ‘We are going to take sales from BMW, Audi, Lexus and Cadillac. There’s a large body of Lexus LS400 and Cadillac Seville Touring Sedan owners who are ready for the S-Class.’

The old S-Class, which debuted in 1991, was a monument to engineering, luxury and technology, but a monument more in the sense of a slab-sided gravestone than the elegance and grace of the Roman Coliseum or the Eiffel Tower. The last S-Class, developed in the high-flying ’80s but launched in a more repressed era, was so outsized and overweight that it eventually cost Mercedes car-development chief Wolfgang Peter his job. The new car remedies that, making the S-Class ‘more relevant’ to people, Usery says. That means providing what customers said its predecessor lacked – performance, styling and value.

Performance comes from a new 302-hp 5.0L twin-spark V-8. The V-8, which features the company’s new three-valves-per-cylinder head architecture, blasts the car to 60 mph in a claimed 6.1 seconds, quicker than the current V-12. Mercedes hopes to avoid the gas-guzzler tax with EPA mileage of 17 city/24 highway. Electronic controls will shut off four cylinders in steady-state driving, boosting fuel economy further.

A V-12 is in the works from Mercedes’ new engine family, but it win not bow before 2002. A common-rail direct-injection diesel V-8 producing 240 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque bows in Germany next year. It should reach the U.S. late in 2000.

Other technical innovations include a five-speed automatic transmission with ‘Tipshift,’ Mercedes’ variation on the manual-automatic transmission. The S-Class also features ‘Distronic,’ an active cruise control system that uses Doppler radar to maintain a constant distance in traffic (see feature, p. 113). Bosch provides standard ESP stability control. An electronically controlled air suspension with active damping and variable ride height – essentially the optional system available on the current S600 – is responsible for most of the cars stunning 600-pound weight reduction.

The S-Class addresses the question of styling with an athletic, wide-footed stance, graceful character lines throughout the side and hood panels, and a clever variation on the E-Class’ four-eyed headlight design. Another attractive innovation is the incorporation of signal lights in the front housing of the side mirrors. Coefficient of drag is 0.27.

Perhaps most impressive of all, Mercedes promises distinctly predatory pricing. ‘We’ll be in the heart of the market,’ with a small premium, because the S-Class is the newest and best car in the segment, Usery says. That pricing should lower the median owner age to 50, from 56 for the old model. Median household annual income will fall to $200,000, compared to $236,000 today.

So cue the theme music from ‘Jaws,’ and try not to get trampled as other luxury cars rush for the safety of shore when the S-Class schools into view.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cahners Publishing Company

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group