Ingrid Loeffler Palmer, Contributor
The soulful VW Bug was the vehicle-of-choice for the flower children of the '60s and the snazzy BMW 3-Series was popular with the me-generation of the '80s, then the Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a sure-fire fit for the up-and-coming techies of the 21st century. Call them what you will--engineers, computer geeks, technical wizards--they are the ones who will be making the big bucks in the millennium. And cars like the S430 and S500, with their curbside appeal and complicated gadgetry, are perfect for them.
For 2000, Mercedes-Benz offers a new breed of S-Class sedan that is both technologically advanced and seeping with style. Sporting a coupe-like profile and traditional oval-shaped headlights and face, the 2000 S-Class is leaner and sleeker than ever before. Weighing nearly 500 pounds less than the previous S-Class, the cars get up to 13 percent better fuel economy and are LEV certified. Weight reduction came by way of utilizing aluminum, plastic and magnesium for certain vehicle components. The V8-powered 2000 S-Class is three inches shorter than before, but gains almost an inch of rear legroom, and comes with a long wheelbase for an improved ride.
Two models are available: the 275-horsepower S430, which comes with a 4.3-liter V8 engine, and the 302-horsepower S500, which boasts a 5.0-liter V8 under the hood. If a V8 isn't enough, you may elect to wait until next year, when Mercedes plans to introduce a V12 version. Both 2000 models are suited up with fully independent, four-link front and five-link rear suspensions, ABS and Brake Assist (which reduces braking distance in panic stops), Electronic Stability Program (ESP), and BabySmart child-seat protection. Eight airbags are standard, including two new head-protection curtain airbags and a passenger airbag that deploys with partial or full force, depending on the car's speed at impact.
New on the S-Class is a standard COMAND (Cockpit Management And Data) system, which can be directed by voice commands, steering-wheel controls or buttons near the display screen. The system controls the navigation program, hands-free cellular phone and stereo/CD controls. Journalists were offered a chance to fiddle around with the COMAND system during a press event in Arizona this spring. While the designers' demonstrations were impressive, most of the journalists spent a great deal of time flipping through various 200-page manuals trying to figure out how to operate its many functions. Once we figured out how to program the navigation system, we found it to be quite accurate. Unfortunately, we'd probably need to reread the manual to set it up correctly again.
The navigation system features a 4.7-inch display screen in the upper center console, a keypad to plug in information, and a CD-ROM slot to insert map information for various regions. The driver or passenger can find specific street addresses, monitor the vehicle's movements, recall up to 80 stored destinations, and zoom in and out for various map views.
A new safety feature is Mercedes' TeleAid function, which is similar to GM's OnStar system, and puts an S-Class driver in touch with a contracted representative for help in emergencies, with roadside assistance or for general information. An SOS button, much like the RESCU button available in Lincoln Continentals, is located on the overhead console and immediately contacts a representative who can be heard through the car's stereo speakers. You can speak back hands-free to explain the problem or emergency. If the airbags have deployed, the representative will call you. If you do not respond, emergency vehicles will be automatically dispatched to your current position. In the center console, there is an information button that puts you in touch with a live person who can answer questions about your car or give general directions, and a button with a wrench symbol for non-emergency roadside assistance.
Also premiering on the 2000 S-Class is a smart cruise-control system that utilizes radar sensors to keep your car at a specified distance from the car in front of you. When the car you are following slows down, the S-Class automatically applies the brakes to maintain the distance you have set. If you change lanes and the road opens up, the S-Class will automatically speed up. This cruise control function is standard and will be available on S-class models starting in September 1999.
Other amenities include a Bose Beta II sound system, TouchShift automanual transmission (which can be used as a traditional automatic or as a one-touch shift up/down manual), 14-way power front seats, separate climate controls for all four seating positions, and a multi-function, tilt/telescoping steering column. Only a few options are available on the cars, including "comfort" ventilated seats that circulate air through the cushion and offer a pulsating massage that relaxes back muscles, heated rear seats, and individually adjustable rear seats, which feature the same range of functions as the front seats.
In addition to the long list of standard equipment, Mercedes product planners are proud that the new S-cars have a .27 drag coefficient--the lowest of any production vehicle. They boast about the increased zero-to-60 times of 6.9 seconds for the S430 and 6.1 seconds for the S500. And they are eager to discuss the vehicle's ability to lower or raise its frame when operating at certain speeds. It works like this: by pushing a button on the dash, the car is raised 20mm for better ride over rough roads. It automatically returns to its normal height when you resume a speed of 50 mph. Conversely, the system automatically lowers the car by 15mm at speeds above 68 mph, in an effort to reduce air drag and increase fuel economy. S-Class buyers will receive free scheduled maintenance for the length of the warranty, free cellular TeleAid service for the first year of ownership, and guaranteed alternate transportation when the car is in for service.
At the Mercedes-Benz press event in Phoenix, journalists were given the opportunity to navigate these machines across desert and alpine terrain. Our features editor spent a few hours dodging tumbleweed behind the wheel of the new S-Class and promptly declared her respect for whatever tech-savvy genius had designed the car. Our editor enjoyed the amazingly smooth and quiet ride of the S-Class and was delighted with the sporty feel when taking corners. She was disappointed, however, that there was no single in-dash CD player and found the door-mounted power window controls difficult to reach because they were placed so far forward on the doors. Additionally, the small triangular speakers positioned in the corners of the front windows partially blocked her view of the passenger-side mirror. Though the electronic functions were awe-inspiring, she wondered how many drivers would have the skills and patience to learn everything there is to know about operating the vehicle. Think of it this way: if you can't work your VCR, the S-Class will be way over your head. Priced at $69,700 and $77,850 respectively (not including destination charges), the 2000 S430 and S500 models are quite attractive for those with a thick wallet and a bent for technological gadgetry.
Mercedes hopes to entice about 25,000 U.S. buyers into driving home a new S-Class this year. Another 50,000 vehicles will be produced and sold in other countries, according to public relations executives. Though Mercedes has lost market share in this segment during the last two years, company representatives expect to achieve 44 percent of the market share with the new vehicles, or a 12-percent increase from last year. Completing Mercedes' six-year brand-broadening strategy, the all-new S-Class was designed as a look-to-the-future product, competing in the high-luxury market against cars like the BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJR and Audi A8. Mercedes-Benz plans to advocate a negotiation-free buying process and discourage additional dealer markup to ensure that two potential buyers aren't quoted two different prices for the same car. "We are very close to a negotiation-free process already and the S-Class will continue it," said one executive.
So, to whom does DaimlerChrysler plan to sell the S-Class? Company officials claim there are three groups of buyers who will be attracted to the 2000 S-Class:
Traditional S-Class owners (those who prefer larger cars, are safety-conscious and will not trade quality for performance)
Affluent enthusiasts (consumers in the high-end market looking for a performance-oriented car and a dynamic driving experience)
Previous Mercedes-Benz buyers who have migrated to other brands
Mercedes hopes to expand the customer base to include younger, successful, affluent buyers in its target demographic. The average 2000 S-Class buyer is 50 years old, about six years younger than in the past, and has a household income of roughly $260,000.
Mercedes wants drivers looking for "the definitive automotive experience." What better time than the millennium to introduce a vehicle with proven prestige, phenomenal handling and a ton of technological gadgets? If you liked "Mission Impossible," you'll love this car.
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