It's a balancing act that would challenge a Cirque du Soleil performer. When you're one of the most prestigious car companies in the world and it's time to update your flagship, certainly you want to wow the crowd with some new material, but you also want to maintain your trademark style and personality. Especially when you have a 90-percent owner loyalty rate (meaning the S-Class enjoys a helluva lot of repeat business) and you've dominated your market segment for years. A tough challenge indeed.
For Mercedes-Benz and its 2007 S-Class, that meant incorporating the latest performance, luxury and safety technology into an updated, yet still familiar package.
Updated yet Familiar
The 2007 Mercedes-Benz S-Class' style is a blend of old and new. The sweeping roofline and rising beltline are strong and familiar, while the exaggerated wheelwell flares, bold character line and light clusters break some new ground. The rear end is reminiscent of a Maybach (and not by accident as designers felt a tie-in with Mercedes' ultraluxury relative couldn't hurt), and more emphasis was placed on the signature grille (it's bigger). Aerodynamic efficiency is incredible — the coefficient of drag ranges from 0.26 to 0.28 — more like a super-sleek sports car than a large luxury sedan.
The new car is also larger than the outgoing model. Width is increased by 0.6 inch, height is up 1.1 inches, the wheelbase is stretched 3.2 inches, and the sedan is 1.7 inches longer than before. The upshot is that rear-seat passengers will enjoy limolike room, as legroom back there is up 2 inches, while shoulder room is up 1.5 inches. Europe will have a shorter-wheelbase model as well, but it won't be marketed here in the "super-size" capital of the world.
Settle into the cabin and you notice the console-mounted knob, which controls Mercedes' COMAND (Cockpit Management and Data) system. The system is much easier to use than before, as there is a larger screen mounted to the right of the instruments and many controls are redundant. For example, frequently used climate control functions can be controlled by conventional dash buttons, steering wheel buttons or the COMAND knob. In practice, it doesn't take much time to get used to making simple adjustments. Adjusting the "Multi-Contour" power seats requires a bit more patience, but if we can get familiar with it in one day of driving, we don't think actual owners of the car will have any trouble.
We Are Going to Pump You Up
Simple elegance marks the cabin décor, with high-quality materials, richly polished woods and soft leathers all 'round. And it's as comfy as it looks. Our S550 (the new name reflects the larger V8 for this year) had the optional Dynamic Multi-Contour seats which have 11 air chambers that essentially allow you to mold the seat to your body. The "Dynamic" part of the name means that during aggressive driving the side bolsters automatically pump up and down in response to cornering forces, to better hold one in place. These seats can also provide a soothing back massage. This is not technology for technology's sake: We took a 210-mile drive and this writer's finicky back felt great at journey's end. Our car's optional 600-watt Harman Kardon audio system, fitted with satellite radio as well as a six-disc CD changer, also upped the enjoyment factor.
And that journey passed rapidly. Our drive took us from Milan, Italy, to St. Moritz, Switzerland (yeah, we know, you feel for us). The long open stretches and twisty mountain roads were fantastic for evaluating a luxury touring sedan. We got ample opportunity to stretch the new engine's legs: The 2007 S550 sports 5.5-liter, four-valve-per-cylinder unit that pumps out 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque. These are hefty increases over the outgoing 5.0-liter V8 — horsepower is up 82 ponies and there's 52 more lb-ft of torque on tap.
Who Needs a V12 With an Eight This Great?
Power is channeled to the rear wheels via a seven-speed automatic transmission. Mercedes claims that the S550 can jump to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds, and judging by the healthy shove we got anytime we booted the throttle, that number seems about right. Top speed will be, as in the past, electronically limited to 155 mph. The power delivery is so smooth and linear that it almost seems as if the S550 is powered by a muscle-bound electric motor, not something with controlled explosions taking place inside.
The "7G-Tronic" transmission has a sport mode and also allows manual shifting via buttons on the steering wheel. The manual mode was quick to answer on downshifts, but had a little delay when the button was pressed for an upshift. In other words, it was about the same as most of these "automanual" setups. We found that just selecting the sport mode and letting it do its thing worked best, as the shifts came right when we wanted them. With peak torque available from 2,800 to 4,800 rpm, the S550 laughed at elevation changes and, without once touching the gear lever, we never felt "out of the power" while taking it to the mountain.
Cruising through the Italian countryside at extra-legal velocities, we noted the impressive serenity of the cabin. Maybach engineers lent their expertise, and as a result the Benz has over 170 noise-damping components and a level of quietude that would make a librarian's day.
(Don't) Let It Roll, Baby, Roll
Some of our route involved a series of switchbacks that put the standard air suspension (independent all around) and optional "ABC" (Active Body Control) to the test. The "Airmatic" suspension automatically adjusts the dampers to driving conditions, e.g. the ride is softer while cruising on the highway yet stiffens up when the driver attacks a twisty road. ABC takes it a step further by using that adjustable damping to limit body roll during cornering. Mercedes claims a 60-percent reduction in roll for this latest generation of ABC as compared to the previous system.
Ride and handling are what you'd expect and what you wouldn't. The ride is compliant and fitting for a luxury sedan, dispatching bumps and ruts with nary a shake to the cabin, while the handling makes the S550 feel two-thirds its size. "Nimble" may be too strong a descriptor, but considering the S550 weighs 4,200 pounds, it feels surprisingly agile. Through the various increasing, decreasing and fixed radius turns of the Alps, the Benz remained flat and stuck to our line without wavering or wallowing. Steering was fairly quick and precise with a decent heft to the wheel, though we'd still give BMW a slight edge in the road feel department. The brakes were strong, linear and fade-free on the fast downhill runs.
Playing It Safe
Since this is an all-new Benz, there's a wealth of improvements in the area of safety. The BrakeAssist system, which automatically applies full power braking if it senses (via rapid pedal movement) a panic stop situation, gains more brains. By using the radar of the updated Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control system, BrakeAssist Plus can "see" how rapidly the Benz is closing on a car or other object in front. If a collision seems imminent, the system calculates how much braking force is required and then supplies it when the driver brakes, regardless of the actual pedal pressure he or she applies.
The new systems also have the ability to automatically bring the car to a complete stop, if need be, when the cruise control is being used. Of course, we'd like to think most drivers would be paying enough attention so that the car wouldn't have to decide when to brake. We used Distronic Plus in light highway traffic and it worked seamlessly, slowing the car to 95 kph (around 60 mph) and then resuming 130 kph (around 80 mph) without making us the slightest bit nervous.
We would've liked to sample the S-Class' new Night Vision Assist, but our drive was solely during daylight hours. Unlike thermal (heat-sensing) systems, such as Cadillac's, Mercedes' Night Vision Assist uses infrared beams. This is intended to provide sharper images and also show inanimate objects that don't give off heat but that could be blocking your path up ahead.
So when do we get these lovely cars? The S550 will be the first to our shores, set to debut in February of 2006. The S550 will be joined two months later by the S450 (4.6-liter, 335-hp V8) and flagship S600 (5.5-liter twin-turbo V12 with 510 hp). Pricing will range from the high $70Ks for the S450 to the high $80Ks for the S550 and on to the mid-$130Ks for the S600. All-wheel-drive (4Matic) versions will roll out around early November.
Mercedes seems to have pulled off that tricky balancing act between progress and tradition with the 2007 S-Class.
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