Design Study: Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Karl Schaeffer
by Karl Schaeffer
design study mercedes benz s class

Twenty years ago, if one were to trying to describe the differences in the various models from Mercedes-Benz, it would be something along the lines of “just like the big, boring sedan, only bigger / smaller.” No longer. The Japanese, once viewed as nothing more than a bunch of Pacific-rim wet smack upstarts who would NEVER produce a viable competitor to the established German marques, have changed the rules of the game. Not only do the Asian prestige brands have a stranglehold on quality, but some of them are starting to actually look pretty, too. Uh oh. Seems time to swim upstream, mein freund.

The late 20th century's over, thankfully. So there's no longer any need for the well-heeled or arriviste consumers to apologize for– or even make motions to conceal– conspicuous consumption. Why speak softly and carry a big stick when you can afford a bullhorn and bazooka? To that end, Mercedes' S-Class is finally showing signs of emerging from its identity crisis. The biggest, most expensive car in the lineup OUGHT to provoke an almost apoplectic concupiscence, right? It should be the knockout; the brick house.

Ostensibly then, the big S is the model driving the styling direction of the company– though Audi never seemed to get on board with that theory, and Bavarian Motor Works is busy back-pedaling. But if the S550 is the thrust, then I'm afraid it bodes ill for the rest of the range. In a diametric flip-flop worthy of the Bush administration's foreign policy, Mercedes has gone from being a company that couldn't get the front-end right to one that botches the tail.

The S550’s nose is merely standard-issue Mercedes boilerplate, hobbled somewhat with the need for a more upright grille area to comply with European pedestrian crash safety standards. Like any efficient courtesan, however, the front-end styling saves all the excitement for below the belt, where an interesting grouping of shapes is at play. (Dare I say racy?) I enjoy the way the styling folks at Mercedes make a single molded plastic unit look as though it’s composed of impossibly tight-fitting separate bits; it’s perceived quality– perhaps just shy of fictive– but nice.

No doubt about it, this is a big car. By all indications, there was a stalemate as to whether or not to emphasize that fact from the side. Gone are the days of the legendary Mercedes flying phallus wedge, in favor of something a little more nympholeptic. Hey, I’m all for getting in touch with the feminine side, but then why the positively congested wheel arches? That conceit didn’t even work for the hysterically hyper-styled ML55 and that was a truck, guys! I half expect the S550 to suppurate brake fluid out all four corners onto my Bruno Maglis. Elevate it and give it a cold compress, please.

And while you’re at it, save some of that avant-garde for the side mirrors. Mercedes, the company that integrated turn-signals into the mirror housings (most visibly, at least) has moved on. That’s okay… The Volkswagen group is more than happy to pay attention to detail opportunities like these. Oh dear, oh dear. Now the rear.

Across the board, this used to be Mercedes’ strong suit. No matter how insouciant the stylists were with the front, you could always count on there being a tight little hiney. Like the view of the people on the beach at St. Tropez, the rear 3/4 was usually the view of preference. At best, the S550’s taillight treatment is breathtakingly boring and weak; at worst, it’s a shameless attempt to forge a link to Mercedes’ own Maybach. Granted, the S500 ain’t cheap, but precious few will confuse the money-for-money’s-sake empyrean Maybach with something from the three pointed star, taillights be damned.

Inside the S550, corporate jet is the current styling dictum, what with all the scalloped seatbacks and offset lighting. Air travel always conjured-up impressions of leg cramps and sinus infections to me, but I fly coach. Not so the ones buttering the S550’s bread, and it shows with impressive materials, most of which take great pains to project quality. Apart from the somewhat overwrought sweeping dashboard shape (an unfortunate Mercedes trend, likely to continue), the sum of the parts works toward a pretty convincing whole. And thank the maker that the S550’s interior stylists have rediscovered chrome switchgear, because Mercedes’ suppliers can’t seem to wrap their minds around the concept of soft-touch, good looking plastic. My advice? Stick with what you know…

So for those with the 8-digit income (7-digit is SO three-scandals-ago) who wish to hurtle along in apollonian splendor, Mercedes presents the thoroughly competent, if not particularly cohesive, S550. Nobody emerges from an identity crisis fully intact, but then of course we won’t know for sure until the swelling goes down.

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  • Wim van Acker Wim van Acker on Aug 11, 2007

    I own a 2007 S550 4Matic, delivered first week of November 2006. Summary: great ride, many major quality problems. I have experienced major quality problems, causing many visits to the dealer: 1 the engine had been wrongly mounted, causing vibrations in the powertrain. Mind you, the front axle and the steering column had to be decoupled to be able to replace the engine mounts! 2 engine oil sensor was defective, requiring two stops at the dealer and exchange of the sensor in the engine 3 the premium leather of the front seats had been improperly stitched and wrongly put over the seats. Result: the seats had to be redone. 4 Etc. MB USA has not been active to take care of my case (this is a polite way to describe the indifferent and rude way, I have been treated). I told MB USA I want my powertrain warranty extended, because I do not want to end up with any cost in future, cause by the wrongly mounted engine. They basically told me to shut up. I sent a letter to Daimler CEO Zetsche, and MB USA has changed its attitude now. It seems that they are open to get to a fair solution now, although that has not been achieved, yet. I am not concerned about the solution offered by them, because I have a strong case and feel confident to be able to force MB USA with litigation to take responsibility for the improperly mounted engine. It will just take more time, but it will be my pleasure to take them on with this case.

  • Tfenimore Tfenimore on Dec 15, 2007

    I, too, bought a 2007 S550 4Matic (May, 2007), and have also had problems with vibration at low to moderate engine loads. The vibration was a buzzy, tingling vibration felt in the steering wheel and floor boards. When I took it to the dealer for diagnosis and correction, they replaced the engine mounts per the mfr's bulletin. That helped moderate the vibration somewhat, but it is still there and at an objectionable level. They say that they have further things they could do if I didn't have a 4Matic. They do not yet have a follow-up fix for that model. Grrr... (IF ANYONE HAS ANY GUIDANCE TO OFFER ME ON THIS VIBRATION ISSUE AS I TRY TO FIND AN ACCEPTABLE REPAIR WITH MY LOCAL DEALER, PLEASE CONTACT ME AT TLFENIMORE@GMAIL.COM. THANKS.) I also had problems with the Navigation system. It would make poor choices when laying out a route (as compared to my other three systems). So far, my Garmin StreetPilot 2370 is the best of the bunch, including our 2008 BMW 535xi. The dealer has bent over backward to try to help, including loading a 2008 control module and software into it. That has improved things considerably. Although it still has some shortcomings, I can live with it now.

  • Dusterdude @El scotto , I'm aware of the history, I have been in the "working world" for close to 40 years with many of them being in automotive. We have to look at situation in the "big picture". Did UAW make concessions in past ? - yes. Do they deserve an increase now ? -yes . Is their pay increase reasonable given their current compensation package ? Not at all ! By the way - are the automotive CEO's overpaid - definitely! (That is the case in many industries, and a separate topic). As the auto industry slowly but surely moves to EV's , the "big 3" will need to be producing top quality competitive vehicles or they will not survive.
  • Art_Vandelay “We skipped it because we didn’t think anyone would want to steal these things”-Hyundai
  • El scotto Huge lumbering SUV? Check. Unknown name soon to be made popular by Tiktok ilk? Check. Scads of these showing up in school drop-off lines? Check. The only real over/under is if these will have as much cachet as Land Rovers themselves? A bespoken item had to be new at one time. Bonus "accepted by the right kind of people" points if EBFlex or Tassos disapproves.
  • El scotto No, "brothers and sisters" are the core strength of the union. So you'll take less money and less benefits because "my company really needs helped out"? The UAW already did that with two-tier employees and concessions on their last contract.The Big 3 have never, ever locked out the UAW. The Big 3 have agreed to every collective bargaining agreement since WWII. Neither side will change.
  • El scotto Never mind that that F-1 is a bigger circus than EBFlex and Tassos shopping together for their new BDSM outfits and personal lubricants. Also, the F1 rumor mill churns more than EBFlex's mind choosing a new Sharpie to make his next "Free Candy" sign for his white Ram work van. GM will spend a year or two learning how things work in F1. By the third or fourth year GM will have a competitive "F-1 LS" engine. After they win a race or two Ferrari will protest to highest F-1 authorities. Something not mentioned: Will GM get tens of millions of dollars from F-1? Ferrari gets 30 million a year as a participation trophy.