Design Study: Mercedes-Benz S-Class

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.

  • ScarecrowRepair The 1907 Panic had several causes of increased demand for money:[list][*]The semi-annual shift of money between farms and cities (to buy for planting and selling harvests)[/*][*]Britain and Germany borrowing for their naval arms race[/*][*]San Francisco reconstruction borrowing after the 1906 earthquake and fire[/*][/list]Two things made it worse:[list][*]Idiotic bans on branch banking, which prevented urban, rural, and other state branches from shifting funds to match demands. This same problem made the Great Depression far worse. Canada, which allowed branch banking, had no bank failures; the US had 9000 failures.[/*][*]Idiotic reserve requirements left over from the Civil War which prevented banks from loaning money; they eventually started honoring IOUs illegally and started the recovery.[/*][/list]Been a while since I read up on it, so I may have some of the details wrong. But it was an amazing clusterfart which could have been avoided or at least tamed sooner if states and the feds hadn't been so ham handed.
  • FreedMike Maybe this explains all the “Idiots wrecking exotic cars” YouTube videos.
  • FreedMike Good article! And I salute the author for not using the classic “Lucas - prince of darkness” trope, well earned as it may be. We all know the rap on BL cars, but on the flip side, they’re apparently pretty easy to work on (at least that’s the impression I’ve picked up). On the other hand, check the panel fits on the driver’s and passenger’s doors. Clearly, BL wasn’t much concerned with things like structural integrity when it chopped the roof off a car designed as a coupe.
  • Mongo312 Had an 89SE, 92SE and an 03SE all with stick. The 03 took almost 3 months to find because there were so few produced with a manual transmission and dealers didn't want to give them up. Ended up buying one from a dealership in San Antonio and having it shipped here to St Louis.
  • Bullnuke About 15 years before the TR-8 my brother-in-law put a 301 Chevy small block in a TR-3A. Needed a U-joint in the steering to clear the headers, a modified '59 Pontiac radiator, and a drive shaft that was basically two U-joints end-to-end. It was a scream to drive, basically a small block Chevy with 3-deuces on wheels. 142mph in the quarter - we learned that the original wire wheels were a no-go on this thing at the drags...