Mercedes-Benz S550 Review
Ever have an extremely likeable acquaintance who drives you nuts with their constant need to flaunt their knowledge of arcane or technical matters? That's the new Mercedes S550. In many ways, on many levels, the big Merc is the world's best sedan: a sublime expression of German automotive engineering excellence. And then the luxobarge starts showing off, convinced that it's smarter than you are when it comes to comfort, information, communication and yes, driving. At that point, a fully-equipped S550 could well be world's most annoying automobile.
Again, let's get this straight: the Mercedes S550 is the best riding and handling four-door sedan money can buy. At the front: a four-link air suspension with antilift control, gas shock absorbers, stabilizer and anti-dive system. At the rear: multilink independent air suspension and antisquat system. On the road: the German luxobarge smothers road imperfections with extreme prejudice, out-Jaguaring Jaguar by a wide margin. Even better, hurling Mercedes' 4376-pound behemoth into a corner is like riding a Maglev train; the S550 leans slightly and then glides through all but the tightest turns. The car's dynamics are virtually indefatigable.
The S550 also boasts the world's finest automatic gearbox, hooking you up to a stonking 5.5-liter V8. The transmission works so smoothly you will swear that Swabian engineers have discovered the secret of perpetual motion. It's supposed to have seven forward gears, but I only perceived one. And it's user-friendly. If you find yourself deep in seventh gear in need of a little motivation, just press the little button on the back of the steering wheel at the 9:00 position. Order-up as many downshifts as you like. When you've amused yourself sufficiently, hold the right button to restore full automatic function.
And the hits keep happening. Mercedes' Comand controller is easier, more flexible and intuitive than its Audi and BMW equivalents. It's been designed with several reassuringly retro touches. When you're listening to the radio, the Comand screen displays a horizontal dial akin to the radios of yore. You simply twirl the Comand knob to reach any displayed station. And there are lots of secondary buttons offering shortcuts to the various submenus; if you want another seat massage, the button with the vibrating seat symbol shows you the way. And then…
Woe betides anyone who succumbs to the allure of the option sheet. Let's start with night vision. The speedometer is replaced by a two dimensional view of the road ahead illuminated by infrared detectors. Whoops, where is my depth perception? Where should I look? Maybe my co-pilot can watch my night vision screen while I'm driving and announce any upcoming impediments that I might otherwise miss (hit?).
Next up, Distronic Plus (DP). With the system engaged, you can pretty much sit back and watch your S550 maintain a safe distance behind the car in front, even if this vehicle comes to a complete stop. Unfortunately, not all cars are driven by computers. As soon as the system encounters drivers with free will, who feel free to weave about and cut-in without warning, the Distronic Plus loses it mind. It unleashes an orgy of beeping– without providing any indication of the potential threat's location.
And then there's Dynamic Rear View Monitor (DRVM). This radar-based system isn't content to just go "beep-beep" as your vehicle approachs a solid object, like your garden-variety parking aid (Parktronic uber alles). DRVM imposes a color schematic representation over the rear view which includes the current trajectory, optimum trajectory, guide lines for the vehicle size and the likely terminus. The instructions fill seven pages in the four-inch thick owner's manual. I've read the DRVM bit five times and I still don't know how to use it. Perhaps Mercedes' boffins will eventually program the DP to use DRVM and take over the entire parking operation…
But wait; there's more! How about Drive Dynamic Multicontour Seats with Massage Function? While the chairs' Sharper Image-style massage is predictably addictive, the inflating and deflating side bolsters– triggered midway into and out of a corner– feel like they were designed for a $1 fun park ride, not a $90k luxury sedan. When my passenger felt the effect for the first time, she nearly jumped through the sunroof, and then accused me of surreptitiously feeling her up. The gimmick is endlessly annoying; either give me lateral support or don't.
Clearly, Mercedes have over-reached with their relentless focus on new electronic technology. One can only hope that all this gee-whizzery will not, once again, drag the S-Class' reliability ratings towards the bottom of the luxury car pile. That would be a tremendous disservice to the car's basic achievements. Meanwhile, if you order your S550 without all the toys, you get the best of all possible worlds: a cheaper, better and dumber version of the world's best passenger car, bar none.
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