Find an open stretch of highway, floor the Mercedes S55 and you'll soon know what it means to kompress the time/space continuum. There's a small pause and a gentle jerking sensation– as the five-speed gearbox kicks down and the supercharger spools up. And then the AMG-fettled sedan launches itself at the horizon with a single, seamless blast of forward thrust. Any doubt that the massive S55 can obliterate time with acceleration dissipates the moment you watch the speedo arc gracefully past 140 miles per hour, and keep on going.
I guess that's what happens when the Württemberg Wirbelwinds stuff 493 horses and 516ft.-lbs. of torque under the hood of an S-Class sedan. Even in these horsepower mad times, when a stock pickup truck can out-drag a 60's Ferrari, that's a lot of grunt. It's enough shove to put Mercedes' 5.5-liter V8-powered leviathan on a par with a Porsche 911. (Both sprint from 0 to 60 in 4.6 seconds.) No wonder the technician who builds the S55's supercharged powerplant signs his name on the engine; Guido Nordheim wants you to know who owns your adrenal glands.
Of course, anything that powerful requires a good-sized leash. No surprise then that AMG gives the uber-S uber-brakes: perforated 14.2" discs with 8-piston calipers at the front, and 13" rear discs with 4-piston calipers at the rear. The set-up is so savage that a healthy shove on the left pedal activates the seat belt pretensioners. Although the device was designed to protect occupants during a crash, it also stops passengers from ripping through the belts and flying out the window during emergency stops.
PRE-SAFE exemplifies Mercedes' current engineering philosophy: if it moves, computerize it. While I admire the technological prowess required, I'm not sure anyone really needs a sports seat with "intelligent" self-inflating side bolsters and a fly-by-wire four-way butt massager. More importantly for the brand, it's clear that the electronic fripperies account for many of the S-Class' lamentable reliability problems. But hey, the digital genie is out of the CPU, and there's no denying the efficacy of some of Merc's driver-oriented gizmology.
Case in point: Active Body Control (ABC). Not to put too fine a point on it, ABC senses body movement and strangles it at birth. The PRE-ALPHABETIZED electro-hydraulic doohickey makes a 4300lbs. sports sedan handle like a 3000lbs. sports sedan. In other words, as long as you drive the car with the finesse of a waiter carrying a tray full of drinks running through a crowded restaurant, the 55 provides perfectly flat, sure-footed cornering, at monumental speeds. Start sawing away at the wheel mid-corner and it's an entirely different story. The safety acronyms will try to write you a happy ending, but you may not live to tell the tale…
Of course, all this assumes that you'll drive the Mercedes S55 AMG like you stole it. Such spirited motoring is highly recommended, but not strictly necessary. Although the gearbox offers a Sports setting and Speedshift (a button-activated, wheel-mounted cog swapper that's 35% faster than the gas pedal), most 55 drivers will probably spend at least 65% of their time in Comfort mode, wafting from place to place in climate-controlled serenity; pressing button after button after button in an endless search for lost and/or undiscovered sybaritic pleasures.
In the US, the S-Class is only sold in long wheelbase form. One wonders how a shorter and lighter S55 would handle– until you jump in the back, nestle into Nappa leather, stretch your legs, hit the recline button and drive past a family of five crammed into a Ford Focus. In fact, the 55 is so luxe that anyone looking at purchasing a Maybach should consider opting for an S55 and using the money saved to buy three more 55's for their friends. If image matters, the 55 is certainly the sexier, svelter of the two.
Did I say svelte? I meant to say subtle. Or invisible. While the 55's badges alert the cognoscenti that something wicked this way comes, the AMG-specific lower bodywork is about as eye-catching as a pair of designer socks. If it weren't for the natty five-spoke wheels, and the existence of the VW Phaeton W12, the S55 AMG would be the stealth wealth on steroids luxo-barge of the century.
It sometimes seems the S-Class has been around a hundred years; the current shape predates the new 7-Series, A8 and manned space flight (well, almost). And yet, for full-sized power, comfort and class, the S is still the one to beat. And the S55 AMG is still The Daddy. Although Mercedes will launch the new S55 after the revised S-Class '06 debut, it's hard to believe the company could improve on what AMG has wrought upon unsuspecting tarmac. After driving the 55, it's even harder to wait and see.