1999 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

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1999 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
Available in 5 styles:  S320 4dr Sedan Base shown
Asking Price Range
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Estimated MPG

13–17 city / 19–24 hwy

Expert Reviews

1999 Mercedes-Benz S-Class 4.9 7
$ -
October 14, 1998

Here in the wine country of Styria, it's late September and the weather is balmy, the sky free of clouds and brilliant blue. The air is so clear, you easily can see the mountains in nearby Slovenia.

The Austrians call this pleasant autumnal weather alt weiber summer - "old woman" summer - supposedly because the gossamer spider webs spun at this time of year resemble fine strands of silver hair.

You can stop at a roadside shack and buy hot chestnuts, fresh roasted pumpkin seeds and the first pressings of young wine from the local vineyards on Wein Strasse (Wine Street).

I can think of few more picturesque places to drive the redesigned Mercedes-Benz S class, the flagship of the German automaker's line. On this trek, I share driving chores with my Hamburg colleague, Joachim Staat, an editor with Auto Bild, Europe's largest weekly automotive publication.

Staat is good enough to explain everything from the local colloquialisms to the inner workings of the Mercedes, which won't reach U.S. dealerships until spring. He's been fiddling all morning with the controls on the fancy audio/navigation system on our S430, trying to make the radio work. "I think we've broken it," he finally says in frustration. No matter. There are plenty of other gizmos and gadgets to keep you occupied in the S class.

They include:

* Distronic intelligent autonomous cruise control, which automatically keeps the car at a safe distance from the vehicle ahead.

* Airmatic adaptive intelligent ride control, which combines air suspension with adaptive shocks that automatically adjust to road conditions, payload and the driver's own operating characteristics.

* Keyless Go system on a pocket-size "smart" card that requires no key to automatically unlock the driver's door and start the car.

* Command cockpit management and data system, which combines radio, CD changer, cellular phone and onboard navigation system, and includes a color display in the center console and multi-function buttons on the steering wheel. A Tele-Aid emergency call system also is included.

* Dynaps dynamic auto pilot system that takes traffic jams into account when programming a vehicle route via the satellite navigation system.

There are, of course, loads more goodies on the S class, including heated power seats with active ventilation (there's a fan inside) and "magic fingers" that can massage a tired spine and back muscles.

Even without all that whiz-bang technology, the S class would be noteworthy in one other respect: It is one of the safest production cars in the world.

Standard features include no less than eight air bags. There are frontal bags for driver and passenger, and the passenger bag automatically adjusts for vehicle speed and impact severity, and includes a child-seat detector. There are also side-impact bags in each of the four doors, and window bags that extend nearly the entire length of the cab in to protect occupants' heads.

In addition, the S class employs the usual array of sophisticated electronic equipment to keep the vehicle as stable and secure as possible, including anti-lock brakes with automatic assist, and an electronic stability program to keep the rear wheels from sliding or "fishtailing" on slippery pavement.

I tease Staat that you almost need a pilot's license these days to operate an S class because there are so many dials and controls to contend with. Indeed, it takes us several moments to figure out that the central locking switch is not on either door, but in a long line of similar switches mounted across the dashboard.

Despite its sleek shape and snazzy ellipsoid headlamps, the new S class doesn't look as substantial as its predecessor. There's a good reason. Overall length and width have been trimmed, and Mercedes has taken from 475 to 660 pounds out of the various S-class models, substituting lots of aluminum, plastic and high-stren lightweight steel in place of conventional steel to cut weight.

There was such a hue and cry in Europe over the ponderous size and mass of the previous S class when it was introduced in 1991, I'm not surprised Mercedes was a bit sensitive in this regard. The company says the lower mass of the new model results in an impressive reduction in fuel consumption of 13 percent to 17 percent.

The diet also has worked wonders for the car's road manners. The S class feels considerably more lively and agile on these twisty European roads than the previous generation. The new 4.3-liter V-8 in the S430, rated at 279 horsepower in European trim, is gratifyingly responsive, especially in combination with the five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission.

The suspension system also is impressive, providing a surprisingly satisfying combination of control and ride comfort that was not apparent in the old car. Fitted with speed-sensitive power steering, the S class hugs corners tightly, with almost no body roll, and brakes smoothly and assuredly with little evidence of dive. The result is a poise that is uncommon in a car in the ultra-luxury class.

When the S class arrives in North America, it likely will be offered in two V-8 variants -; the S430 and S500 - with the 12-cylinder S600 returning at the top of the range.

There's no word yet from Mercedes-Benz of North America on how much, if any, prices will go up. We'll probably have to wait until after the first of the year for the definitive word there.

Longtime S-class owners in the United States also will have to bide their time before discovering if the latest edition of "der Grosser Mercedes" has enough substance - and perhaps a tad too many gadgets - for their taste.




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