Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
Mercedes-Benz is to automotive luxury what Kleenex is to tissues or Q-tips are to cotton swabs, so much has the brand become ingrained in the vernacular. The S-Class sedans are among the most glittering rocks in the manufacturer's display case, and are favored by those with the resources to afford the very finest. The S550 is the volume seller of this storied class. Luxury sedans are expected to telegraph elegance, and the 2009 Mercedes-Benz S550 doesn't disappoint. With its haughty sheet metal — marked by a swooping hood and a prim bustle of a back end — the sedan exudes old-money sumptuousness. It's a more classic look than you'll find in any of its competitors — less youthful, perhaps, but impeccably refined.
It's not just its distinguished appearance that makes the S550 so appealing to the Bel-Air and Hamptons set. With ferocious acceleration and a forgiving yet communicative ride quality, the car's handling judiciously balances comfort with performance. The exhaustive amenities list adds every conceivable high-tech indulgence that a moneyed driver could hope to buy, though it should be noted that these options added a hefty $20 large to our test car's price tag.
Of course, this Mercedes isn't the only worthy German in the room. The more performance-oriented BMW 7 Series is the enthusiast's choice, and with the lowest price tag of the three, Audi's well-crafted A8 offers loads of value. However, the 2009 Mercedes-Benz S550 outdoes them both when it comes to grandeur. Hands-down, it's the definitive luxury sedan.
The S550's performance brew gets its caffeinated kick from an earnest 5.5-liter V8 good for 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque. Our test car weighed in at a hefty 4,630 pounds, but you'd never know it by the quickness with which acceleration was achieved — the power plant's impressive capabilities allow you to carve up traffic with an action hero's self-assuredness. The S550 pulls off the magic trick of feeling smaller than it actually is, and its nimbleness made it easy to forget that we were piloting a full-size sedan.
It also earned accolades on our test track. The S550 went from a standstill to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds, and it did so with grace — power delivery was linear and smooth, and shifts, while not especially quick, were seamless. The car ground to a halt from 60 mph in just 108 feet, and brakes showed zero fade even after numerous punishing runs.
Our S550's optional Active Body Control (ABC) adaptive suspension proved to be a significant asset. It kept all four tires glued to the pavement on the skid pad, and banished body roll on the slalom. Our test driver gushed that the ABC helped make the sedan's slalom runs simple to execute and incredibly consistent. Combine its superb braking with the benefits offered by ABC, and it's pretty clear that the S550 is ideally equipped to keep you safe should the situation call for emergency maneuvers.
EPA fuel-economy estimates rate the 2009 Mercedes-Benz S550 at 14 mpg city/22 mpg highway and 17 mpg combined. As you might expect, premium gas is required for this premium hauler.
Wide door openings make the S550 easy to access. Seats are firm and supportive (typical of a Benz), with bolstering that holds you in place without interfering. Our test car was also equipped with an optional massage feature. Though it initially feels somewhat peculiar and intrusive, this feature ultimately proved to be an antidote for sore muscles.
Rear passengers aren't shortchanged. There is enough room in back to allow even 6-footers to travel in comfort, and child seats are easily accommodated. Wind noise is kept at bay, but there is noticeable tire noise — a no-no for a luxury sedan in this price range. However, we suspect this was an unfortunate consequence of the test car's optional 19-inch wheels (part of the Sport package), and surmise that the standard 18s would deliver a more serene experience.
Visibility is quite good, and the test car's optional Blind Spot Assist is an able ally during freeway travel. Our 2009 Mercedes-Benz S550 was equipped with optional Night View Assist, which uses a near-infrared camera to deliver a clear view of the dark road ahead. The image is placed front and center, and shown on the same instrument panel that contains the speedometer. Overall, this technology is a potent weapon for your safety arsenal — it allows drivers to see farther down the road at night than they would otherwise. Still, the feature would be even more effective if it communicated a visual or auditory warning of impending obstacles.
Secondary functions like audio and navigation are controlled via the car's COMAND system. A humongous push-and-turn knob on the center console allows drivers to manage these functions using an in-dash screen. The system holds its own with similar systems from Audi and BMW, but like the others, has its ergonomic foibles. Overall, it was relatively cooperative, and although the version in Mercedes' 2010 E-Class is better, it's nevertheless intuitive enough for us to scale the learning curve without constantly scouring the owner's manual. Our S550's Harman Kardon stereo system delivered appreciable sonics.
Golf clubs and standard-size suitcases were painlessly gobbled by the S550's cavernous trunk. The sedan offers 16.2 cubes of luggage capacity. That's nearly 2 cubes more than competing models from Audi and BMW, but less than you'll find in Lexus' LS sedan.
Design/Fit and Finish
p>The S550's sheet metal is elegant. Relative to others in this class, though, it comes across as a bit old-fashioned, which might be a turn-off for younger buyers. For them, choices like the more modern-looking BMW 7 Series might be a better fit.
Without and within, this Mercedes embodies craftsmanship and attention to detail. Panels are precisely placed and materials quality is beyond compare. Burnished wood and pliant leather gloss almost every nook and cranny, and the plastics used are soft and pleasantly textured. The gauges are lovely to look at. The speedometer — a crisp digital image of a classic analog gauge — is particularly attractive, though it tends to wash out a bit under the noonday sun.
Overall, the S550's interior is nothing less than palatial. Its cabin could easily go head-to-head with those of ultraluxury sedans costing twice as much. By this measure, this sedan is a real bargain.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2009 Mercedes-Benz S550 is ideally suited for any deep-pocketed driver seeking a sedan that places the emphasis squarely on luxury. Its roomy interior, ample trunk and long list of safety features also make it a credible pick for those seeking a high-end family hauler. Additionally, it's an excellent bet for affluent seniors, thanks to its comfort-oriented cabin and the availability of features like Night View Assist.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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