The Good: Quickness, comfortable ride and cabin, high-tech options
The Bad: High price, quality problems in the past
The Bottom Line: Crème de la Crème luxury -- and you pay for it
The new Mercedes S550 is the kind of car that people work hard all their lives to afford. I drove its predecessor last year, and the new version of Mercedes' flagship luxury sedan has all the traditional virtues of the previous one: impeccable fit and finish; a cushy, ultra-comfortable ride; and a spacious, leather- and wood-lined cabin where sound is so muffled it seems as if the engine is turning over somewhere in the next county.
The new S Class sedan, which came out early this year but is labeled a 2007 model, is also far sportier than the previous one. The S550's styling is curvier and sleeker than its boxy, traditional-looking predecessor. And the car's standard 32-valve, 382 horsepower V8 engine will propel it from 0 to 60 in 5.4 seconds, which is as muscle-car fast as the Ford (F) Mustang GT.
The new S550 even gets slightly better mileage than its predecessor. The S550 is rated to get 16 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway. In a stretch of 280 miles of mixed driving, I got 18.5 mpg, which is pretty good for such a big, speedy car. By comparison, the 2005 S500 was rated to get the same city mileage, but only 22 mpg on the highway.
So far, Mercedes has sold out of its early inventory of S550s.Through April, it sold 10,651 this year, more than double the sales of the old model during the same period last year -- although that might be an unfair comparison because many potential buyers knew of the redesign and saved their money for the 2007 model.
The advanced technology in the S550 is evident "from the start." As long as you have the key on your person, you can start the car by merely pushing a button on the dash. The emergency brake is electronic -- you turn it on or off by flicking a little paddle on the dash to the left of the steering wheel. There's no conventional shifter -- just a stubby little lever on the steering assembly. Tap it up for reverse, down for drive, and push a button on the end for park.
Many people will like this shifter. If you're going to go with an automatic on a car like this, it might as well be easy to use. But if you want a driver's car, you might want a stick shift and a little less interference in the driving experience. I was expecting a luxury car and ended up liking the ease of use of this feature a lot. And the automatic transmission on the S550 is very smooth, with little revving or hunting around for the right gear.
SEATS OF POWER.
When the car is going forward, the butter-smooth, seven-speed automatic transmission is designed to adapt its shifting pattern to your style of driving. If your driving style is more sedate, the automatic shifts by moving from second to third at a lower speed. If you're a more aggressive driver, it shifts at higher speeds.
It's worth test-driving the S550 just to try out the power seats, which are among the fanciest on the market. As in other Mercedes, the seat adjustments are conveniently next to you on the front and rear doors, rather than on the seat-sides, as they are in many cars. You can manipulate the seat position, lumbar support, etc., in all the usual ways.
There are also inflatable pockets in the side bolsters of the front seats that snug you in whenever you accelerate or take a corner a little fast. It's disconcerting at first -- you feel like an unsteady toddler whose anxious mother is constantly steadying him from behind -- but you get used to it.
Both driver and front passengers also can make nearly infinite minute adjustments in the seat settings using the computer-mouse-style knob and video screen on the center console. There are 10 settings apiece for shoulders and thighs, for instance, and three firmness settings.
Fortunately, once you get the seats adjusted to your liking, there's a function that memorizes the settings for up to three drivers and three passengers. There's also a marvelous massage system in both front seats. Settings range from "slow and gentle" to "fast and vigorous," which feels like rolling pins are running up and down your spine.
A lot has been written about how complicated it is to make these sorts of adjustments on German cars, especially using BMW's I-Drive system. But I didn't find the Mercedes command system hard to use. As with a BMW, you manipulate the control knob to scroll through various menus. The Mercedes' advantage is that the commands actually register when you push down on the knob, which didn't always happen during my experiments with BMW's I-Drive.
You can learn the basics of the Mercedes system just by fiddling around with it for a few minutes, but you'll have to study the 700-page owner's manual to make full use of the S550's technology. There are override buttons if you really get stuck, and you can use voice commands if you're into talking to your car (I'm not). But the best way to learn how to do even simple things -- like operating the radio or using the navigation system's destination and search functions -- is via screen commands.
Several of the S550's most advanced features are worthy of special mention. The optional adaptive cruise control ($2,850) requires a real leap of faith to use, but it works. It locks the S550 in on the car directly ahead of you, braking and accelerating automatically to maintain a set distance behind the other car. It has an easy-to-adjust top speed setting -- so if the car ahead of you suddenly accelerates to an unsafe speed, the S550 won't just blindly follow along.
Mercedes says about half of all buyers so far are opting for the night vision system, which costs an extra $1,775. It's great fun -- the resolution is so good you can read street signs -- but I'm not sure how useful it is. It showed an image of the road and surrounding area that extended a little farther and wider than I could see. But looking down at the little screen was so mesmerizing that it was more distracting than safety-enhancing. I wasn't able to test the system in heavy weather, but Mercedes says it works in fog, rain, and snow, which would be very useful.
WAIT AND SEE.
A couple of comfort features are also worth singling out. The separate front and rear sunroofs give the cabin an airy, open feel. And the S550's ride is exceptionally smooth, largely due to an electronic damping system that easily absorbs even major potholes. For an extra $3,900 you can add Active Body Control, which steadies the ride even more during cornering and braking.
But as much as I love this car, I can't give it five stars. For one thing, it remains to be seen whether Mercedes has resolved the quality problems that plagued the previous S Class sedans. The S550 is also very pricey, even compared to rival German luxury cars. It starts at $86,175 and easily tops $100,000 with options. The AMG version of the car will probably cost about $25,000 more, while the S600 (which only comes fully loaded) goes for a whopping $140,675.
JUST A DREAM.
By comparison, an '06 BMW 750i starts at $72,495 and a long-wheelbase version of the '06 Audi A8 Quattro at $72,810 -- while a fully loaded Cadillac STS can be had for around $60,000 (see BW Online, 12/7/05, "Caddie's STS: From Zero To Wow").
The bottom line: The S550 can match or beat its main rivals on just about everything but price. If price is a concern -- and when isn't it? -- the S550 is a wonderful car, but a bit of a flight of fancy.
Click here to see a slide show of the 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550