Editor's note: This review was written in May 2008 about the 2008 Mercedes-Benz S550. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
When a car costs as much as a house, as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class does, it makes you take a step back. Can a car this expensive really be worth it? After spending a week with an S550, I can tell you that if any ultraluxury car can justify its gold-plated price tag, it's this one. Mercedes' flagship offers a level of power, luxury, technology and prestige found in only a select few full-size luxury sedans.
Elegant and Modern
The S-Class commands respect. The sedan's strong visual presence is highlighted by a sleek front end that incorporates triangular headlights and a classic Mercedes grille. The edges of the headlights flow into bulging front fenders that are mimicked over the rear wheels as well (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model).
Contributing to the car's serious look is the optional AMG Sport Package that gives the S-Class some of the look, if not the performance, of a high-performance AMG version of the S-Class. The package includes 19-inch AMG-style alloy wheels, more-aggressive bumpers and rocker panels, and chrome exhaust tips. It costs $5,630.
The Strong, Silent Type
The S-Class is available with a range of V-8 and V-12 engines that produce from 382 horsepower in the V-8 S550 up to 604 hp in the ultimate-bragging-rights sedan: the S65 AMG with a twin-turbo V-12. In between are the S600 with its 510-hp, twin-turbo V-12 and the S63 AMG, which has a 518-hp V-8 under its hood. These are pretty heady power figures for a full-size luxury sedan, but not counting the AMG versions they're relatively similar to what competitors from Audi, BMW and Jaguar offer; big horsepower is a prerequisite in this class.
Even if you choose the "base" S550 with its 5.5-liter V-8, you're still going to be in for a performance treat. This V-8 engine is what you might call a strong, silent type; it's powerful and makes this big sedan lunge forward when you mash the gas pedal to the floor. Mercedes-Benz cites a zero-to-60-mph time of 5.4 seconds for the S550, which is stunning considering the sedan's 4,465-pound curb weight. The more powerful versions are quicker still, with times in the mid- to low-4-second range. That's Chevrolet Corvette territory.
The S550's V-8 drives a seven-speed automatic transmission that, like the engine, performs in a purposeful, quiet way. In many cars you feel when a shift occurs, but in the S550 the only hint that it's happened is when the V-8 gets even quieter with the drop in engine speed. The transmission includes Mercedes' Touch Shift clutchless-manual mode, which lets you select gears by pressing buttons on the back of the steering wheel.
Gas mileage for the S550 is more like what you might expect for a full-size SUV; the rear-wheel-drive S550 gets an EPA-estimated 14/21 mpg city/highway, but with the optional 4Matic all-wheel-drive system it drops slightly to 14/20 mpg. Not surprisingly, it's even lower — 11/17 mpg — if you choose the S600 or one of the AMG models. Most typical car buyers would see this as a significant negative, but here the frequent visits to the gas station are likely to be nothing more than a slight inconvenience for the owner of one of these six-figure cars.
At 17 feet long, the S550 is obviously a large car, but it doesn't feel the least bit ponderous from the driver's seat. It's pretty easy to maneuver through heavy, fast-moving highway traffic and feels rock-solid doing so, like nothing's going to move it off its line.
The sedan's size is most noticeable when you maneuver in tight spaces. Fortunately, there are a number of optional features that can lessen your chances of scuffing one of the bumpers, like front and rear parking sensors and a backup camera. Even with such aids, though, the S-Class can still sometimes feel like a giant when parking.
Your Den, On Wheels
The S-Class' cabin mixes classic luxury cues with modern technology features. It also includes the kind of details you'd expect in this segment, like a leather instrument panel cover and classy chrome power window buttons. Beautiful burl walnut wood graces the dash, doors and center console, the latter of which incorporates one of the S-Class' techno gizmos: the Comand controller.
A large silver dial, the controller can be rotated and nudged in various directions to navigate menus on a large screen in the middle of the dash. Think of it as a universal remote control for your car's various features, but with a large joystick and a few buttons. Mercedes isn't the only luxury automaker with this kind of system — Audi has its Multi Media Interface and BMW introduced the world to the concept with iDrive — but Comand is one of the more user-friendly versions.
Its primary advantage is the intuitive arrangement of menus on the screen that will have even new users comfortable with its operation in a matter of minutes. Whereas iDrive has you wishing for some regular buttons to control the vehicle's settings, Comand shows you the value this kind of thing can have when done right.
A few days into my test drive, though, the system's cursor began intermittently jumping between menus on its own, which made it difficult to control. With a little less than 3,000 miles on the odometer, this issue would hopefully be under warranty, but it makes you question how well a high-tech system like Comand will hold up long-term.
The S-Class is also available with some of the most advanced front seats ever. The optional Drive-Dynamic multicontour seats have numerous adjustments, thanks in part to air chambers in the seats. They also include a massage mode and can inflate the side bolsters when cornering to help keep you in place. Some of the settings can be adjusted using the Comand system, but the more traditional controls, like cushion position, are in easy reach on the door panel. Fancy adjustments wouldn't mean much if the seats weren't comfortable, but they are, in a large, soft, leather easy-chair type of way.
Maybe you're more interested in being driven than in driving. If that's the case, the S-Class has you covered with its massive backseat. It offers tons of legroom and a backrest that's angled backward for optimal comfort. Power-adjustable rear seats are optional.
What makes the S-Class a bit different from most of its competitors is that this expansive backseat is standard; unlike the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series and Lexus LS 460, you don't have to buy a long-wheelbase model to get it. Even though there are seat belts for three, it's clear the backseat is designed for two, as there is a large hump in the middle of the floor, and the middle seat's cushioning is hard compared to the outer seats'.
Optional high-end gadgets include Night View Assist, which can "see" almost 500 feet ahead of the car and display the view in the instrument panel. Equally interesting is the available Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control system. If you're one of the legions of drivers who find themselves stuck in stop-and-go rush-hour traffic on a daily basis, Distronic Plus might be just what you need to ease the morning and evening commute. This system will brake and accelerate the S-Class as necessary to keep it moving through heavy traffic, and it can even bring the car to a complete stop if necessary. We know of no other manufacturer with a feature this comprehensive.
Standard features include antilock brakes, an electronic stability system, front and rear side-impact airbags, side curtain airbags and Pre-Safe. By monitoring the braking, steering and stability systems, Pre-Safe can ready occupants for a collision by tightening the seat belts, adjusting the position of the front passenger seat and available power rear seats, and closing the windows. The more advanced Pre-Safe Brake system, which requires the optional Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control system, can brake the S-Class automatically if the system deems there is a chance for an accident.
S-Class in the Market
The S-Class is up against some very good competition in the full-size luxury sedan category, including the LS 460, which starts significantly below the Mercedes' $86,700 base price. The S-Class and its competitors aren't vying for any value awards, though; they're designed to offer consumers a high level of performance and luxury. In this the S-Class succeeds, and it remains a leader in this exclusive slice of the market and a favorite here at Cars.com.
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