Matt Davis, European Correspondent
Ever since the ninth-generation Mercedes S-Class was introduced in the autumn of 2005, it has dominated the worldwide luxury segment. After all, a total of 270,000 examples of this generation of the S-Class have been sold worldwide since 2005, and the S550 has been the most popular version. So this car ain't broke, and it hasn't required any fixing. Instead the lightly revised 2010 Mercedes-Benz S550 simply is part of an effort to keep the S-Class one step beyond the reach of the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, Lexus LS and whatever becomes of a Cadillac STS replacement.
Driving deep into the Black Forest in the countryside west of Stuttgart, there were plenty of opportunities to not only cruise on a cloud but also to urge this 4,500-pound German through elevation changes and hard curves. If nothing else, the 2010 Mercedes S550 shows us that the twin-turbo V12-powered S600, the AMG-prepared V12-powered S65 and the AMG-built V8-powered S63 just might be unnecessary.
While the flanks of this W221-code S-Class design do not change at all aesthetically, the face and rear fascia now mesh better with the profile. The face in particular gets a lot of attention with a new four-slat chromed grille for all V6 and V8 models. Not only is there a bit more shine, but also the grille forms more of a point in the middle, expressing a corporate yearning for more stylistic edginess.
The shape of the front headlight assemblies stays the same, but the way the space inside is used has changed, with standard full bi-xenon lights and an Audi-emulating strip of LED indicator lights along the bottom. Switch on the standard daytime running lights via the multifunction steering wheel and the LED strips over the new air intakes within the front bumper remain illuminated. The chin spoiler also adds eight-tenths of an inch to the S-Class' overall length.
Outside rearview mirrors are now larger per new European regulations, but they are also more aerodynamic and help keep the side windows dry and clean during inclement driving. Standard wheels for the V8 model in North America remain 18 inches. The rear lights feature LEDs, and the more visible exhaust tips have taken a more I-challenge-you-sir rectangular shape.
You need to look pretty close at the inside of the 2010 Mercedes-Benz S550 to spot all the changes. The steering wheel design has changed to what Mercedes is calling a sportier look and feel. We particularly appreciated that the center cover for the airbag is no longer done in that severe, thick Swabian plastic and instead is made from the same leather that upholsters the interior.
The standard seating in front is now a 12-way electronically adjustable pair of thrones and they're really fine. But our S550 (by the way, it's badged S500 in the rest of the world — it's a long story) had the ultra-wondrous multicontour seats with 11 inflatable air chambers that can be adjusted in three stages via the latest-generation COMAND onboard system. There are now no fewer than three lumbar cushions and two new shoulder cushions, and, well, we're lucky we stayed awake, since we also had the optional massage function peeling away all of our tension.
Until now the S-Class had only amber-colored indirect cabin atmosphere light, but customers can now also request either polar blue or white lighting. Really good news on the much-touched console is that the wood grain is actually now wood grain and not plastic veneer. We knocked on it and smelled it, and it was good. There are five different types of wood trim depending on the S-Class you choose.
New Tech Trickle-Up
As with the S-Class exterior taking on more edge to better match the rest of the Mercedes lineup, so, too, the plethora of new technology presented to us with the new E-Class has ended up here. Some of the optional E-Class bits have also become standard for the S-Class.
Every 2010 Mercedes-Benz S-Class comes with: Active Body Control with crosswind stabilization and mechanically based Direct Steer; Adaptive Highbeam Assist to prevent dazzling oncoming traffic without having to dip your lights; Attention Assist for detecting drowsiness; Brake Assist Plus; more sophisticated radar sensing for Distronic Plus cruise control; Lane Keeping Assist; enhanced Night View Assist Plus; the latest generation of PreSafe; and a new Torque Vectoring Brake system at the rear wheels.
So she's loaded for bear, folks, and the Adaptive Highbeam Assist, Direct Steer and Torque Vectoring Brake (it lightly intervenes with the disc brake on the inside rear wheel in a corner to minimize understeer) stand out from this list. Another nice technical update is the separation of the Sport-Comfort-Manual adjustment for the transmission and throttle response from the functions for the Active Body Control. Now you can leave the ABC in sport and play with the transmission calibration you want, or vice versa. If you opt for the Airmatic adaptive suspension, that still changes automatically with the S-C-M. (Got all that?)
As far as the powertrain, the 5,461cc V8 of the M273 engine family is the same as before, with 382 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 391 pound-feet of torque between 2,800 and 4,800 rpm, propelling this big Merc from a standstill to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds. Together with the standard seven-speed transmission, the massaged S550 absolutely barrels along and might be the all-time gas-powered freeway cruiser and autobahn bomber.
Our test car also had the optional 19-inch wheels with low-rolling-resistance Continental SportContact 2 tires, 255/40R19 100Ys in front and 275/40R19 101Ys in back. As hard as these tires are, they were good all day and transmitted only a fairly normal amount of road noise to the well-insulated cabin. Although the rectangular exhaust tips let out a fairly satisfying growl when you jump on the throttle, wind noise is incredibly low even at high speed.
And in all of this subtlety of midlife change, the 5.5-liter V8 takes the S550 farther on a tank of gas by 6 percent. S-Class Product Manager Frank Steinacher explains that the aerodynamics have been slightly improved by a more slippery front end, new outside mirrors and new window seals. Then there are the low-resistance tires together with low-friction wheel bearings. Lastly, Mercedes has installed low-friction motor oil.
The Guns of August
The changeover to this new iteration of the W221 S-Class starts in late August for North America. Seeing as a full 25 percent of S-Class sales are made in North America, Mercedes would like to keep it that way. Given that the recently introduced Mercedes E-Class has come priced nearly $5,000 less than before, the S-Class seems likely to make a similar statement. Our Mercedes contacts tell us that the price of the 2010 Mercedes-Benz S550 could start at $85,000, or about $4,500 less than the current model's sticker.
Between the BMW 7 Series and Lexus LS (but somewhere closer to the Lexus), Mercedes has carved out the right niche for the S-Class. So far as we can say after this long drive through the Black Forest, the segment's luxury leader remains relatively unthreatened by its rivals and indeed the present sales statistics indicate it is suffering the least among all the luxury sedans during this nasty cash-strapped epoch we're in.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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