Prodigious thrust from the big V8, luxurious ride, firm yet comfy seats, bank-vault build quality, classy presence.
Handling not as athletic as engine performance, somewhat numb steering, manual lumbar adjustment.
Mention Mercedes-Benz and a number of images could come to mind: stately sedans, dashing drop tops, self-absorbed celebrities and their tiny dogs, a bank vault. The latter has been used so many times in analogy to describe a Benz's solid construction that it wouldn't be surprising to see an S-Class door guarding the gold at Fort Knox. Give a Mercedes the old door-shut test, and you'll see what we mean. The hefty, precise and vibration-less manner in which it closes gives the feeling that the whole car is carved out of a block of solid titanium.
Of course, there are other traditional characteristics of this venerable German marque that have endeared it to the masses, such as style, luxury and effortless performance. And they're all in plentiful supply in the 2008 Mercedes-Benz E550. For many, the E550 represents the perfect middle ground in terms of performance between the six-cylinder E350 and the tire-smoking E63 AMG. And with last year's midcycle tweaks including a more powerful engine for the mainstream V8-powered E-Class (80 more horsepower versus the outgoing E500), the E550's straight-line sizzle is much closer to the AMG version than the E350.
Wielding a 382-hp V8 (whose performance is maximized through no fewer than seven speeds from the automatic transmission) the E550 has no problem pinning its occupants to their seats. Lean into the gas, and it feels as if this Benz is being whisked forth on a giant wave, so insistent and uninterrupted is the power delivery. The surf is definitely up here — 391 pound-feet of torque is available from 2,800-4,800 rpm.
A muted growl under full throttle gives the strong and otherwise silent V8 some personality. With a 0-60-mph time of 5.2 seconds, the stunning acceleration is more full-on sports car than luxury sedan. Yet the sensation is muted, a product of the car's broad power band, smooth powertrain, effective noise isolation and aforementioned monolithic build quality. At speed, it's the same unflustered sensation; you may find yourself running down the freeway 10-15 mph faster than you realize. A radar detector is not included.
The automatic offers three modes: Comfort, Sport and Manual. In Comfort, it starts out in 2nd gear (which makes for a gentler step-off) and changes gears sooner than when in Sport mode. Those two actions also optimize fuel economy and grip on slippery roads. Sport mode was our choice, as it starts out in 1st gear, which provides snappier response off the line; shifts at higher rpm; and also downshifts more eagerly. In essence, it keeps the E550 "up on its toes," ready to blow past cell phone-focused dawdlers going below the speed limit in the passing lane. Less satisfying was Manual mode, which is enacted by flicking the console's shift lever left and right to change gears. Typical of most automanuals, it downshifts promptly when the lever is flicked, but upshifts are slow on the, well, uptake.
Surprisingly, given our leadfoot tendencies, we averaged 18.4 mpg in mixed driving against the EPA's estimates of 15 city/22 highway/17 combined. Drive like you don't have a company gas card and you'll probably do a few mpg better than we did.
Braking performance is about average for this class, as we recorded a 120-foot effort during a simulated panic stop from 60 mph. Pedal feel is firm, though travel is longer than expected.
Although the Benz E550 is, without question, a track star during acceleration runs, super-athletic moves on a twisty road are not the car's forte. It's certainly composed — press S1 to firm up the Airmatic suspension's electronic dampers and the 4,002-pound Merc feels capable enough — it's just not as involving as its countryman and competitor, the BMW 550i. Adding to that impression is the precise, well-weighted steering that's nonetheless numb — it lacks the road feel that a Bimmer's would provide.
With all that said, the 2008 Mercedes-Benz E550 has an affable nature that should please most luxury sedan intenders. It has the firm, reassuring feel that's the hallmark of a premium Euro-bred sedan, and a plush ride quality, as bumps and ruts are absorbed without any excess body motions. Wind noise is virtually nonexistent, as is road noise, except when running over grooved concrete freeways (common in Southern California), where the latter is noticeable but not intrusive.
In typical German fashion, the seats in the Mercedes E550 are firm but ideally shaped to provide proper support. On a long trip, you realize the purpose of this design, as even our staffers' most fickle lower backs had no complaints after a couple hours driving up the coast. Still, we were a bit miffed that the lumbar support adjustment is manual, not power as one would rightly expect in a luxury sedan costing $60 grand. With the power tilt-telescoping steering wheel adjustment and 10-way power seat, finding an agreeable driving position is easy.
In back, the seat has a high cushion so even taller folks have ample under-thigh support. Though the rear backrest looks flat, it's comfortable, while nearly 36 inches of rear legroom prove enough for a pair of 6-foot staffers riding front and rear.
On a particularly hot day, the ventilated seats keep legs from sticking to leather (not available for 2009 E550), while the four-zone climate control keeps both the guys (who typically want it cooler) and gals (who usually prefer warmer settings) happy on a day trip.
At first, the sight of the E550's abundance of buttons on the center stack is dizzying, but they're actually mostly user-friendly. Climate controls are straightforward, and the audio and navigation interfaces can be figured out without opening the manual ? but there are newer, more user-friendly systems offered on some competitor vehicles.
Though some staffers didn't care for the large analog clock located next to the speedo and tach, at least one preferred it to the typically small and harder-to-read digital units. Long a Mercedes feature, the power drop-down of the rear headrests made parallel parking less of a hassle, although it would be nice if Mercedes included parking assist as standard equipment. (It's optional.)
The ample E-Class trunk is capable of swallowing a large suitcase, plus at least two golf bags. The wide opening allows those bags to drop in without any fuss, while the free-moving hinges make opening and closing the trunk very easy. In fact, the lid opens itself completely at the push of the key fob's trunk button.
With its uncluttered lines, crouching stance and elegant thin-spoke 18-inch wheels, the E550 has a classy yet powerful presence. Some of us prefer the E550's cohesive look to Mercedes' new design language, with more angular lines and exaggerated wheelwell flares, as seen on the S-Class sedan.
Within the E550, materials and build quality fully befit the big-bucks price tag. Our test car's black bird's-eye maple wood trim is hard to notice, however ? against the black interior trim, it just looks like grayish plastic. The more traditional burled walnut offers more contrast and a warmer feel.
If you're a true driving enthusiast, the type for whom telepathic steering feel and strong cornering prowess are required characteristics, you'll probably want to drive a BMW 550i before making your decision. But the much larger majority in this segment typically wants a handsome, roomy sedan that coddles its occupants in a luxurious cabin while providing the driver with plenty of power and a confident feel on the open road. For them, the 2008 Mercedes-Benz E550 should be a perfect fit.