Best Mercedes Ever, Best Car Ever (So Far)

Mercedes-Benz S550 Review: Best Mercedes Ever, Best Car Ever (So Far)

Bill Howard

With the arrival of the Mercedes-Benz S550, there’s no need to take a private jet for trips under 300 miles. Take der grosser Mercedes, and you’ll likely arrive more quickly (taking both airport transfers and air traffic delays into account), just as comfortably, and more affordably—because 24 highway miles per gallon works out to a lot less than $2,000 per flight hour. En route, the driver and passengers will be immersed in a wealth of technological marvels, ranging from dual LCDs to an in-dash PC Card slot for playing music. The new S-Class represents the pinnacle of automotive and technology achievement for anyone whose first reaction is more sophisticated than, “How much?”

Mercedes-Benz has assembled a broad array of groundbreaking performance, safety, communications, entertainment, and gee-whiz technologies in a muscular design that will not be mistaken for the previous, eighth-generation S-Class. Airplanes ride on a cushion of air, and so does the 2007 S-Class: Its 4,270 pounds are suspended by compressed air inside four special struts; there are no springs.

Add the Active Body Control option ($3,900), and there’s almost no body roll in corners and no body pitch forward or backwards when you brake or accelerate. If the body wants to lean left in a right-hand corner, the car twists itself back to a near-neutral attitude. Cornering forces that do get through to the driver and front passenger are mitigated by dynamic front seats (an $1,800 option) with a dozen air bladders that inflate nearly instantly on the outside edges to hold you in place. They also inflate and deflate slowly to massage your back on long trips (can your Gulfstream do that?), and inflate on both sides to hold you more firmly if an accident looms. Rear-seat passengers must make do with reclining, heated, ventilated seats and their own climate controls ($3,500).

Information at Your COMAND

All this wizardry is controlled by enough microprocessors to keep chip fabs worldwide humming for years to come. Rather than placing dozens of knobs and switches on the dash to control the controllers, Mercedes has followed the lead of the BMW iDrive in the competing and now aging 7 Series (as well as the Audi MMI) by relegating most of the secondary and tertiary functions to a force-feedback cockpit-control wheel called the COMAND (short for Cockpit Management and Data System). Technologists will rejoice; mere mortals may require a stiff drink.

Depending on your point of view, the COMAND is either twice as good or half as annoying as the iDrive. It should be easier to use, because labeled buttons around the controller let you choose the command you want before turning to the control knob. And in conjunction with the voice input system, if you speak a command, the next possible choices show up on the 8-inch LCD display on the center console; you can speak one or turn and select one with the controller. The COMAND system will annoy some people, but most should get the hang of it in a week or two.

The COMAND and voice input also run the Harman Becker navigation system; the quality is typical for a high-end European car, but not quite comparable with the best from Japan. As with the BMW and Audi controllers, the COMAND control knob quickly zooms maps, but a clockwise turn zooms out, not in. The map database is huge, residing not on a DVD disc but on an integrated, shock-protected 20GB hard drive. When the car weighs anchor and steams off, Mercedes keeps access to the nav system controls active; too many automakers fearful of litigation shut down most nav controls when the car is underway.

The COMAND is most useful in adjusting incidental controls, such as how much side support you want from the inflatable seat bolsters (three levels are available) or how long exterior lighting stays illuminated when you exit the car. In other words, stuff you adjust twice the first week, then may not touch for another six months.

For good measure, the steering wheel has a pair of four-way rocker buttons. If you’ve used a game controller, you’ll be right at home. The left rocker button navigates menus up, down, left, and right, and you press to select. The right rocker button controls the audio volume and phone. The only other buttons on the front of the wheel are a go-back button and a voice-command button.

Minimalist Dashboard, Lookalike Buttons, Electronic Switches.

The current iteration of the COMAND controller reduces the dashboard-button count significantly and makes the dash less confusing — until you try to use the remaining buttons. The 11 that survived are small, shaped alike, and side by side. Count over three dashboard buttons from the left to adjust the blower; count over four more, and you engage residual engine heat and ventilation, marked REST (that means something in German).

The passenger doors have 12 buttons just below the window for door locks, seat ventilation and heating, and seat adjustment; these are small, shaped mostly alike, and slippery. The driver door has 13 additional buttons, plus a circular rocker, for vehicle-wide windows, locks, and outside mirrors. One driver-side button controls the front passenger seat, which is useful if you want to help a technology-challenged passenger get comfortable — though Mercedes seat controls, shaped like a seat in miniature, are nearly idiot-proof — and also useful if you’ve never outgrown a youthful penchant for playing pranks on sleeping passengers. (An S-Class owner should have outgrown such pranks long ago: The average buyer is 61, just four years younger than noted outdoorsman and statesman Dick Cheney.)

Why Won’t It Stay Down, in Drive?

Since many controls are electronic rather than mechanical, when you move a lever such as the transmission selector, it doesn’t stay up (Reverse) or down (Drive), but pops back into the centered position. You may be used to return-to-center joysticks, but in a car, they’re confusing, at least initially. To shift to neutral, you press the opposite direction, but only halfway, and to shift into park, you press in on a button on the tip. The S550 has a seven-speed automatic transmission, and to shift yourself, there are buttons on the back of the leather-wrapped steering wheel — left-side downshift, right-side upshift. Thankfully, the turn signal stays up or down when you press it, unlike BMW’s. We mention BMW so often because its hatched-in-2002 luxury liner is Mercedes’ closest competitor, even though the newer Audi A8L (2003) has an equally wide array of cost-is-of-little-concern options plus the MMI interface that represents, to us, prior art for COMAND. For more detail, read Car Controllers Evolve .

Infrared Lights, Camera, Action

The coolest high-tech S-Class feature? We’d vote for the active infrared night-vision system called Night View Assist, which at $1,150 is one of the few options that isn’t breathtakingly priced. The few other cars with night vision charge $2,000-plus; they use passive infrared that picks up heat from objects in a grille-mounted camera and projects a ghostly (but simplified) negative image onto a dashboard screen (take a look at Return of See-in-the-Dark Cars .

The Mercedes camera, mounted in the center mirror, uses two infrared grille lights for illumination, and while the range is less than that of passive IR (500 feet max versus 1,000), what you see resembles a black-and-white image of what the road looks like at midday. Time will tell if this is a short-term fad, a useful tool for everyone, or an aid for boomers who don’t see as well as they did at Woodstock.

The Night View image displays in an 8-inch LCD panel in the middle of the instrument cluster, requiring just a quick, downward glance. Most of the time, the driver’s panel is a big color speedometer (flanked by traditional gauges on either side), but when you flip on night vision, the speedometer becomes a small ribbon at the bottom of the LCD. We think this could be the start of configurable LCD instrument panels. The center-console LCD panel is used for navigation, entertainment, climate control, and secondary adjustments. A button on the dash actually tilts the panel left or right for optimal viewing.

Another breakthrough technology is a combination of the Distronic Plus active cruise control (a $2,850 option) and Brake Assist Plus, a standard feature which brakes harder for wimpy drivers. Using a 77-GHz radar for straight-ahead coverage 160 yards out and a newer 24-GHz radar covering a wide swath out to 33 yards, the car maintains a pre-set following distance, as do many other ACC (active cruise control) cars. The ACC on most cars cuts out at around 20 mph, but the S550’s follows you to a dead stop and then starts up again, a real benefit in stop-and-go freeway traffic.

Also, if your foot is already on the brake, the radar sensors allow for more precise and, if necessary, more forceful stops to keep you from rear-ending another car. Acura has a similar ACC technology standard in its flagship RL: the collision mitigation braking system, which doesn’t even require you to be on the brakes. But it also doesn’t take you below 20 mph.

Safety and More Safety

At Mercedes, safety comes first. The only things likely to kill you are the payments. It offers anti-lock braking (a technology found for 20 years in Mercedes-Benz cars), traction control, stability control, and brake assist, plus the optional ACC. If you’ve got your foot on the brakes already, you get radar assisted braking (if needed). Mercedes keeps refining its vaunted Pre-Safe system, which watches for signs of an impending accident (heavy braking, skidding, or spinning): If an accident looms, the PreSafe system tugs on the seatbelts, brings reclined seats upright, closes an open sunroof, inflates the front seats’ optional side air chambers, and tugs some more on the seat belts.

If you do hit something, the car holds enough airbags for a sorority-house pillow fight, eight in all. And after an accident, the TeleAid system can make an unassisted Mayday call — although we’re still trying to sort out the statistically provable benefits of TeleAid, OnStar, or BMW Assist compared with the anecdotal stories. Here’s why: If you’re on a typical highway, someone with a cell phone will call 911 in a few seconds anyway. If you’re in the middle of nowhere, there may be no cell service for TeleAid or good Samaritans.

We were impressed by the combination of parking sonar (Parktronic, $500 worth of the $2,850 Premium 2 package) or parking radar (Park Assist, part of the $2,850 Distronic Plus package) and the optional backup camera ($750) with lines indicating the path directly behind you, the path you’d take as the steering is now, and the path into a parking space. That’s the most we’ve seen an automaker charge for a camera technology that wholesales for around $100, but it’s also cheaper than the cost of your collision deductible and lost time getting to and from the body shop. Another nicety: If you stop on a hill for a traffic light, a hill-holder feature keeps the two tons of mass from rolling backward, even if your foot isn’t on the brake.

First-Class Entertainment, Communications

On this car, the premium audio system is also the standard audio system, with no upgrade possible or needed: a 14-channel, 600-watt Harman/Kardon Logic7 surround-sound system, and a six-disc MP3/WMA/CD changer that plays DVD audio. Flip open the CD changer panel; inside the poorly-lighted recess (it’s hard to see well enough to change CDs) and you’ll also see a PC Card slot, allowing you to transfer music files from your PC.

The Mercedes display shows full track and song information, compared with BMW’s, which is truncated to a handful of characters. Music control is more reliant on the COMAND controller than some might like, but there is a separate volume wheel on the console and a rocker button on the steering wheel to switch channels or tracks. We found it odd that the PC Card is treated as a seventh CD in the command structure. Our preference would have been Windows-like music discovery: Pop the card in, and the display asks, “Play music?”

By mid-to-late 2006, a line-in music adapter will be added. An iPod connector will be $299, and there may or may not be back-seat DVD entertainment. Mercedes showed S-class cars with rear-seat entertainment (take a look at our slideshow) but now says it’s uncertain if this will come to the S550 or to the all-options-are-standard V12 S600 variant, due in spring, 2006.

Bluetooth is a $350 option; we think it should be standard, given the surge in Bluetooth phone sales. Inside the padded COMAND wrist rest is a dial pad, for those who use a hardwired cell phone, a Bluetooth phone, or the TeleAid cellular calling feature.

More Power, Same MPG

No big Mercedes is going to win a Sierra Club Car of the Year award. This one gets 16 mpg in the city, 24 mpg on the highway, and carries a $1,000 gas-guzzler surcharge. But the newly designed 5.5-liter V8 engine puts out 382 hp:26 percent more, with essentially the same fuel economy, as the previous 5.0-liter V8 in the outgoing S500.

Some buyers may find the ability to dash to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds more speed than they need; the baby V8 would have saved them about $7,500 and a couple miles per gallon. In November 2006, you’ll be able to get the optional 4Matic all-wheel-drive system that was a no-cost option on the 2005 model year S-Class (there was no model year 2006 S-Class). Mercedes says it’s not sure yet how this car will be priced. Or you can go the other way, with a twin-turbo V12 S600 good for 510 hp and costing an estimated $130,000, all inclusive (every S550 option comes standard). And to the credit of Mercedes-Benz, as well as other German makers, the company has made a lot of effort (prodded by Europe’s Greens) to make the car recyclable.

Online: Another Good but Not Great Site

The Mercedes-Benz Web site is adequate. But then, there are few, if any, outstanding car sites. You’ll find the typical build-your-own area, with a few glitches: It didn’t always lock out conflicting or duplicating options (you can be charged twice for Distronic Plus, by itself and in a premium package), some options were listed but not priced, and options combos available on a test car were not on the site.

The owner area is mercifully free of credit-card teasers, but there are plenty of low-key pitches for Mercedes accessories and cars. You can request a service appointment online, link to MB Financial to check on your lease, e-mail a question, or, should you forget, see the name of the dealer who sold you the car. You can download two of the glovebox manuals, the 704-page owner manual and the 75-page maintenance manual, and all page references in the owner manual are hot-linked. As at other owner sites, you can maintain your service records by keying in the information manually, but you can’t get Mercedes or the dealership to transfer even a summary to your PC. That strikes us as owner-unfriendly.

Non-Technology Issues

Our brief thoughts on the non-technology aspects of the S-Class center on design. One way of describing it is rounded and muscular; critics would call it bulbous, especially the high trunk line. This is one more car that looks as if it came from the pen of Chris Bangle, BMW’s polarizing design chief, but in this case it’s equally reminiscent of Mercedes’ upscale cousin, the $315,000 Maybach 57. Most likely, the look will grow on you after a year or so, and it definitely will make the outgoing S-Class models look older.

The center of the dash projects a bit, with a pregnant bulge; that’s another acquired taste. The outside mirrors could be bigger. The 14 speakers are nicely color keyed to match the interior, and the grilles at eye level don’t have a distracting Harman/Kardon logo. The back seat is roomy; this is the extended wheelbase S-Class, the only version coming stateside. Under virtually any driving condition, the car is nearly silent inside.

Every Mercedes has a four-year warranty. But last year, Mercedes inexplicably abandoned its free scheduled-maintenance plan, much to the delight of Audi and BMW, who maintain free plans. The majority of high-end cars are leased rather than owned, and leaseholders, even the S-Class demographics crowd with $300,000 incomes, may slack off if they’re facing a $500 service visit. Deferred maintenance may affect the cars’ condition and reputation in 2009, when they get turned in and become certified preowned cars.

Buying Advice: Can You Keep It Under $100,000?

If you love technology, there’s hardly an option on the list you wouldn’t want to have. The base price of $87,175 can climb past $100,000 without much effort, capping at somewhere around $110,000, depending on whether you pop for, say, level-two leather upholstery.

If that sounds pricy, perhaps the three-year lease would work better, at $1,500 a month after a $10,000 upfront payment. When you build a low-volume car (Mercedes sold 16,036 S models here last year and hopes to sell 20,000 to 25,000 of the new model), it’s harder to amortize costs. Still, we suspect the wizards of Stuttgart will eventually have to rethink pricing on items that are near-commodity, such as satellite radios, Bluetooth modules, backup cameras, keyless entry fobs ($1,100), and side blinds ($700). Mercedes notes that a similarly equipped, outgoing S500 cost $650 more.

Our must-have list would include the technical wizardry of Distronic Plus, Active Body Control, Night View Assist, Multicontour Front Seats with the hot and cold option, and Dynamic Rear View Monitor (the backup camera). We’d add Sirius radio for long trips and the iPod adapter. We’re not sure keyless entry is worth $1,100 on its own, but you need it to get parking sonar, in case you don’t go for Distronic Plus with its parking radar. Mercedes says buyer interest focuses on the Premium 2 package (heated and cooled front seats, satellite radio, Parktronic sonar parking, and Keyless Go, $2,850), along with Night View Assist).

If the back seat occupants are important or self-important, add the panorama sunroof, individual rear climate control, side window sun blinds, maybe the premium rear seats, and, if available, back-seat DVD. We could pass on the wood/leather steering wheel (northerners should get the heated wheel instead) and the ultra-premium leather (the base leather is awesome enough). If you’re carrying around anyone but responsible adults, think twice about the savanna/cashmere interior (a color, not a fabric), because it shows dirt in about an hour. Otherwise, you’ll need a second carpet mat to protect your carpet mat.

As to the “should I buy” question, here’s the simple answer: If you love technology, love a great car, and took home $200K-plus last year, the S-Class trumps the competition. It’s a great car and, not surprisingly for a technology-laden device, the advantage often accrues to the most recent product to ship. That’s the 2006 S-Class. Go ahead, write the check.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in TechnoRide.