Even as BMW, Audi and Jaguar throw new cars into the luxury-flagship ring, Mercedes-Benz has kept its S-Class sedan competitive, with sedans that start below $90,000 and top out at more than double that.
The S-Class is still a spectacle of refinement — though it's dinged in small part by an inconsistent accelerator pedal.
While the S-Class is four years into the current generation, new for 2010 is the V-6-powered S400 Hybrid, which we cover in greater detail here. It anchors the bottom of the S-Class lineup. In order of ascending price, the rest of the lineup includes the S550, S63 AMG, S600 and S65 AMG. Click here to compare the group. All five models employ rear-wheel drive, but the S550 also offers all-wheel drive. I evaluated an all-wheel-drive S550.
Redesigned for 2007, the S-Class has always been a handsome, if conservative, car. For 2010, a few visual updates give it a more assertive presence, which is a welcome change. The bumpers get a more aggressive front air dam that's flanked by horizontal LED daytime running lights on all but the base S400. The grille is more angular, and it keeps Mercedes' trademark three-pointed hood ornament. The rear bumper has wider tailpipes integrated into it, and the rear loses the earlier color-striped taillights for a more uniform red. This is how it should have been all along; side-by-side with the '10, the '09 taillights look a bit dorky.
Top-tier luxury sedans from BMW, Jaguar, Lexus and Audi offer regular and extended wheelbases. For American buyers, the S-Class comes in just one wheelbase, and it's long. Sedans like these are as long as most minivans, and with an overall length of 206.5 inches, the S-Class is among the group's largest. Its 40-foot turning circle falls on the tighter side of the class, believe it or not, but that's still well into SUV territory. City drivers, you've been warned.
Eighteen-inch alloy wheels are standard. A Sport package on the S400 and S550 adds larger wheels, as well as the requisite deeper bumpers and side skirts. The S600 has unique bumpers and 18-, 19- or 20-inch wheels. The S63 and S65 AMG have even more aggressive bodywork, along with 20-inch wheels and quad tailpipes.
With an air suspension that can be adjusted to varying levels, the S550 rides with soothing composure. The BMW 7 Series is firmer, and the Jaguar XJ is downright stiff in comparison. It's even more impressive given our test car's 19-inch wheels, which come with the Sport package (suspension tuning is the same). Driving just gets easier: You don't have to think about avoiding manhole covers or street-side ruts. The S550 packs them off to some distant universe where alarm clocks, mass emails and other annoyances go to die.
Over stretches of uneven pavement, the car maintained remarkable control. There's minimal wheel hop, good steering response and very little suspension float. That's often a downside for soft-riding cars, and it's nice to see Mercedes sidestepped the tendency. Activate the suspension's Sport mode — distinct from the transmission's Sport mode, activated via another button — and a few more bumps seep up to the cabin, but it's not rough by any means. On the downside, body roll on curvy roads is noticeable in either suspension mode. An active suspension feature, which forcibly counteracts body roll as it occurs, is available in Mercedes' optional Active Body Control. We've evaluated a few other Mercedes products that have it, and it keeps things impressively flat on curves. ABC is optional on the rear-drive S550 and standard on the S600, S63 and S65. It's unavailable on the S400 and all-wheel-drive S550.
The S400 and S550 without ABC have silky-smooth steering. The wheel turns with light effort at low speeds, though there's a tad too much power assist at highway speeds for my taste. On sweeping curves, the car handles well. With little of the nose-heavy push that some Mercedes cars exhibit, the S550 displays enough balance to slide the rear and rotate the car with the accelerator. The XJ has better precision, but the S-Class is no turkey.
Weighing more than 4,600 pounds, our all-wheel-drive test car was heavier than many large crossovers. But its engine — a 5.5-liter V-8 good for 382 horsepower and an impressive 391 pounds-feet of torque — made the car feel downright light. Even loaded with adult passengers, the S550 moves out from a standstill and pulls strong on the interstate. Enjoy it responsibly; the power never seems to run out, and without an eye on the speedometer you'll soon reach triple digits.
The rub, unfortunately, is accelerator lag. Such lag has long been a result of the electronic throttles that are employed across the industry, and it ranges from minor to pronounced. The worst cases display erratic inconsistencies, and the S550 is among them. Press the gas, and the resulting thrust could be relatively immediate, or it might be delayed by a half-second or more. It's vexing, and we've noted it in cars as diverse as the Audi A6 and the now-discontinued Saturn Outlook. Mercedes, for its part, seems to be a repeat offender; we've also noticed accelerator lag in the GL-Class and the prior-gen E-Class.
The S550's seven-speed automatic shifts smoothly, upshifting lickety-split when you press hard on the gas. (The S400, S550 and S63 have a seven-speed auto, but the S600 and S65 employ a five-speed.) It's not the best about kicking down to lower gears — the Jaguar XJ's six-speed automatic is better — but the V-8's prodigious torque means you can power out of a corner even in a higher one. The transmission offers a Sport mode, which holds lower gears longer and lessens the probability that you'll need a downshift. Should you need to, Sport mode still takes its time, unfortunately.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard. Our S550's brakes bit down high in the pedal's travel, which several editors noted gave the process a nonlinear, or abrupt, sensation. Other S-Class variants may improve on this: The S600 has larger discs, while the S63 and S65 get cross-drilled, 15.4-inch front and 14.4-inch rear discs. (That's into the upper echelons of supercar territory — just 0.3 inches smaller than the 987-hp Bugatti Veyron's front discs.)
Move up the chain, and you can get as much as 604 hp in the S65 AMG. Both AMG cars have an AMG Speedshift automatic, with significantly decreased shift times over the regular transmission. In the other direction, the S400 Hybrid teams a 3.5-liter V-6 with an integrated motor. It's a mild hybrid, not a full one, so the motor chips in to help the V-6 but can't power the car on its own. It runs off a compact lithium-ion battery — among the first lithium-ion applications in a mass-market hybrid. Combined gas mileage is 21 mpg, a 17 percent improvement over the S550. (Most of that comes by virtue of having two fewer cylinders: In Europe, the V-6 S350, whose engine the S400 uses, is already 11 percent more fuel efficient than the S500, equivalent to our S550.)
We drove the S400 last winter, and while it doesn't provide the S550's effortless thrust, it certainly has enough passing power. The brakes, on the other hand, are disappointing: They employ a regenerative function, like most hybrid-vehicle brakes, but the effect makes for a stiff pedal that's more bricklike. Even for a hybrid — but especially for a Mercedes-Benz — the S400's brakes need work.
Here's how the S-Class variants stack up:
|S400 Hybrid||S550||S63 AMG||S600||S65 AMG|
|Base price*||$86,800||$91,600 (RWD), $95,600 (AWD)||$136,550||$152,700||$204,150|
|Drivetrain||3.5L V-6 with electric motor||5.5L V-8||6.2L V-8||5.5L twin-turbo V-12||6.0L twin-turbo V-12|
|Horsepower (@ rpm)||295 @ 6,000**||382 @ 6,000||518 @ 6,800||510 @ 5,000||604 @ 4,800|
|Torque (lbs.-ft., @ rpm)||284 @ 2,400 - 5,000**||391 @ 2,800 - 4,800||465 @ 5,200||612 @ 1,800 - 3,500||738 @ 2,000 - 4,000|
|Driveline||RWD||RWD or AWD||RWD||RWD||RWD|
|Transmission||7-speed auto||7-speed auto||7-speed auto||5-speed auto||5-speed auto|
|Zero to 60 mph, sec.||7.2||5.4 (RWD)||4.5||4.5||4.2|
EPA fuel economy
|19/25||15/23 (RWD), 14/21 (AWD)||11/18||11/17||11/17|
|*Prices reflect applicable $1,150 federal hybrid-vehicle tax credit for S400 and federal gas-guzzler taxes of $1,000 for the S550 AWD and $3,000 for the S63, S600 and S65.
**Combined electric/gas power.
Source: EPA and automaker data
It's hard to believe the cabin design in the S-Class is four years old. It feels contemporary, from its broad instrument shelf, which spans two-thirds of the dashboard, to the seamless row of climate switches. The front seats are thrones of comfort — wide and flat, with enough thigh support for someone well over 6 feet tall.
The backseat is large; by the numbers, it offers more legroom than the front seats, though it doesn't quite match backseat legroom in the extended-wheelbase 7 Series and XJ. Power-adjustable rear seats are optional, as is four-zone climate control, which gives the outboard rear passengers their own zones. Our test car had both options. While logging impressions, I could have fallen asleep back there.
Mercedes' Comand interface employs a control knob for the standard navigation system. Compared with the knob-based systems from BMW and Audi, Comand is the most intuitive. The dashboard screen packs excellent graphics, and the navigation map has ample street labels. Its traffic indicators for major streets — lines of car icons in yellow or red — are easier to pick out than other systems' tiny, colored stripes. Zoom out a bit, however, and the car icons can obscure nearby streets. And Comand's voice recognition system could use some work: It didn't pick up my home street despite multiple attempts and varying pronunciation. The streets it matched weren't even close.
A standard 15-speaker Harman Kardon stereo with surround sound includes a six-CD changer, high-def and satellite radio, and full iPod compatibility. From Vivaldi to Zeppelin, it sounded superb — in the league of the Audi A8's excellent Bang & Olufsen stereo.
Trunk volume is a competitive 16.4 cubic feet. Like many top-end luxury sedans, the S-Class does not offer a folding backseat. There isn't even a pass-through for skis, a feature a number of competitors offer.
Safety & Features
The S-Class has not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include eight airbags, an electronic stability system and antilock brakes. Click here to see a full list.
Standard on the S550 and up is Mercedes' Attention Assist system, which monitors a number of factors to intuit driver drowsiness. It alerts you with warning chimes and instrument indicators. Other options include a night vision system with pedestrian detection and fully adaptive cruise control that can initiate automatic braking if a collision is imminent.
An optional lane departure warning system uses cameras to detect lane markings; at higher speeds it vibrates the steering wheel should you cross over without signaling. Our test car had it, and one editor found the system less effective for catching your attention than the audible chimes that go off in many competing systems.
Compare the 2009 and 2010 S-Class here. Mercedes products never come cheap, and the S-Class is a primary example. The 2010 S400 starts at $87,950, minus a $1,150 hybrid federal tax credit. That's around the same price as the long-wheelbase 7 Series but $9,300 more than the long-wheelbase Jaguar XJ — and more than $17,000 more than a long-wheelbase Lexus LS. (As of this writing, Audi's redesigned 2011 A8 hasn't been priced yet, but the 2010 A8 starts under $80,000.) Standard features on the S400 include an air suspension, the Harman Kardon stereo, heated 14-way power-adjustable front seats, xenon headlights, leather upholstery, a navigation system and a moonroof.
The S550 starts at $91,600. All-wheel drive effectively adds $4,000 — the system itself costs $3,000, but it dings gas mileage enough to incur a $1,000 federal gas-guzzler tax. Beyond that, pricing truly gets steep. The S63 AMG runs $133,550, the S600 $149,700 and the S65 a hefty $201,150. All three get a miserable 13 to 14 mpg combined — which bumps the guzzler tax up to $3,000. Options on lesser S-Class sedans include adaptive (swiveling) headlights, a backup camera, heated and ventilated seats for both rows, massaging front seats, power rear seats, a rear entertainment system with dual monitors, and a panoramic moonroof. Naturally, just about all of those features are standard on the S600 and S65.
S-Class in the Market
It's fascinating that Mercedes can charge such a premium and still have the second-best-selling car in its class. What's more, all this has happened even as the current generation hits its fourth year. The popularity is deserved: The S-Class is aging well, and it's no longer the reliability sinkhole it used to be.
Competitors are trying to reinvent the wheel, but I don't think a luxury flagship needs to be a sport sedan, too. Mercedes knew its mission, and it hit the nail on the head.
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