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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Richard Truett
October 5, 1995
Since being redesigned in 1991, Mercedes' flagship sedan, the S500, has been improved every year it has been on the market. But is it good enough? Despite incremental improvements in handling, performance, weight reduction and fuel economy,
the S500 is still fuel thirsty and massively heavy. The S500 is the automotive equivalent of a luxury ocean liner. It coddles its occupants in supreme comfort, offers them all the room and luxury features they could possibly need, and conveys them to
their destination in as safe a package as one can reasonably hope for in an automobile. But there is something about this big Benz that makes it feel out of touch and out of sync with today's world. Maybe it's the price, which would be far more
than the sticker $92,032 indicates. That's because of the 10 percent luxury tax applied to all cars with prices greater than $33,000. Maybe it's the S500's considerable girth - it is just more than 17 feet long and it weighs 4,760 pounds. For some
reason, this car - impressive as it is - left me cold. PERFORMANCE The biggest sedan in the Mercedes-Benz lineup is offered with a 315-horsepower, 32-valve V-8 and a four-speed automatic transmission. As with many of the other cars in the
Mercedes lineup, the S500 is not particularly quick from a start. It really only begins to deliver stellar performance when the engine is revved high and the car is moving at about 50 mph. The cars Mercedes ships to the United States are not geared
for American driving conditions. Because there are many roads in Germany with very high speed limits, good 0-to-60 mph performance is not as important as sustained high-speed driving. So a Mercedes doesn't really get moving until you reach 50 or 60 mph.
But responsiveness from a stop and strong performance to 60 mph is important to many drivers in the United States. The S500 starts out in second gear. A Mercedes spokesman said it does so to helpthe S500 meet emissions requirements. It will start in
first if you bury the accelerator in the carpet, but its shift from second gear to first is somewhat rough. The '96 model gets a five-speed automatic, so maybe it'll be a bit more responsive. Several times during my 300 mile test-drive, I moved the
shifter into first and manually changed gears. Doing so changed the character of the car. Instead of lethargic acceleration, it moved away briskly from stop lights. The 5.0-liter V-8 is about as smooth and quiet as they come. However, it has a
tremendous appetite for unleaded premium. Our test car guzzled fuel. I got 13mpg in the city and 18 mpg on the highway, though I did drive with a fairly heavy foot. HANDLING The S500 is one of those cars that generates very little noise as it goes
down the road. On a rough surface, such as a brick street, you might hear the sound of the tires, but that's all. At this juncture it must be said that Lexus ac
complishes the same sensation in its LS400 for about$40,000 less. However, the S500 has a feeling of granite-like solidity that no car I've ever driven can match. It's as if the S500 is carved from single block of steel. Indeed, Mercedes-Benz builds
the stiffest car bodies in the industry. A stiff body prevents the car from flexing as it encounters rough roads. It also makes the car safer by enabling it to absorb more energy in a crash. Another benefit of a rigid body is that it allows the
suspension system to be very finely tuned. However, the great weight of the S500 may be too much for the suspension system. The S500 has four-wheel independent suspension, but the ride is anything but sporty. The car is so heavy that it almost feels
unwieldy. Yes, it'll turn a corner quickly and without leaning, but I never felt comfortable driving this car quickly, as I would a sports sedan. The steering, which uses an outdated recirculating ball system instead of the more
modern and efficient rack-and-pinion type, is heavy and somewhat dull. When you round a corner, the wheel is very slow to return to center. For such a large car, the S500's 41-foot turning radius is impressive. Not many cars this size could turn such
a tight circle. The four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes are industrial strength, but they have to be because of the car's weight. A traction control system is standard. FIT AND FINISH I don't understand how seats that are so hard and firm could
be so comfortable. But they are. The S500's electrically adjustable front bucket seats are amazingly stiff. They don't give much when you sit on them, and initially you feel a bit uncomfortable because you are not used to such rigid seats. Yet on two
occasions I spent two hours behind the wheel and felt no fatigue at all. The seats offer support in all the right places. As one might expect for this car's high sticker price, the S500 is loaded with high-tech features. One such item is the
built-in, hands-free cellular phone. Once it is programmed, it will dial automatically when you call out numbers or give it verbal commands, such as ''call home'' or ''call office.'' Simplicity in a complex object also can be considered a luxury. Yet
the dual zone air-conditioning system in the S500 has more than 20 buttons and switches. Thank goodness it has an automatic setting. Counting the clock, there are seven instruments in the gauge package. That's a bit much. Particularly useless is a
fuel economy gauge (anyone who spends $100,000 on a car likely could care less how much fuel costs). Also, the gauges are fairly plain. One passenger who owned a '70s era Mercedes said the gauges hadn't changed much. For such an expensive car, a
classy set of instruments would do much to add a bit of ambiance to the inside. Some of the car's best features include plenty of room for rear passengers; a six-disc CD player; a massive trunk; afull menu of power accessories; thick, beautiful
carpeting, and leather seat covers. Perhaps I would feel better about the S500 if it were more agile, weighed less and was tuned for American roads. But virtually no one I chauffeured in the S500 felt it was worth about $100,000, and I would have to
agree. Truett's tip: The S500, the biggest Mercedes-Benz sedan, is a heavy-duty luxury cruiser. It is exceptionally smooth and quiet, but a bit ponderous to drive.