Redesigned for the 2000 model year, Mercedes-Benz has continuously refined its S-Class flagship sedan, bolstering its competence with bells and whistles to an almost-scary level of sophistication. Hop behind the wheel in T-shirt and jeans, and you'll
feel lucky the car agrees to start. The test model, a 2003 S430, is the cheapest in the S-Class lineup - of course, "cheap" is relative, when the starting price is $72,600. The "430" refers to the engine size, a 4.3-liter, 275-horsepower V-8 that is,
like all Mercedes V-8s, smooth and strong. It's mated to a five-speed automatic transmission that is nicely calibrated for the engine's power and offers "Touch Shift" if you'd prefer to shift for yourself. Flick the lever left to downshift, right to
upshift. Inside, it's all leather and wood, with more than enough room for five genuine adults. At 203.1 inches long and 73 inches wide, the S430 is smaller than a Dodge Intrepid, but the car feels much roomier than you'd expect. Handling is
reasonably nimble for the 4,160-pound vehicle, but it isn't as sporty as, say, a BMW 7-Series. Fuel mileage - at 17 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway - isn't bad. Even with no options, the test car was loaded. Features included the "Airmatic"
air-controlled suspension, front and side air bags with side curtains, a navigation system, a 10-speaker Bose sound system, rain-sensing wipers, the TeleAid satellite-linked emergency communications system, electronic stability control, even a power
rear-window sunshade. I am not crazy about the COMAND system, a TV screen in the dash that controls multiple functions, and a few other unintuitive controls will send you to the owner's manual for explanation. Perhaps your butler can explain it to you;
mine was unavailable, so I was forced to figure it out for myself. As mentioned, there are more expensive S-Class sedans - the V-12-powered S600 lists for more than $115,000 - but even the S430 is humbling. The new-for-2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class,
completely redesigned to favor the S-Class probably more than S-Class owners would like, will likely steal some sales from the S-Class until Mercedes redesigns it. The 2003 E500 has a 5.0-liter, 302-horsepower V-8, and while it may not have the S-Class'
cachet or quite as many features, it lists for less than $55,000. If you can afford the S-Class, though, I am certainly not trying to talk you out of it. Capitalism is a wonderful thing.