2004 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
The benchmark for ultra-luxury sedans.
Base Price (MSRP) - $74,320
As Tested (MSRP) - $78,095
Big, fast in any of its variations, and exceptionally smooth. The solidity of a bank vault. Virtually every convenience imaginable, from massaging front seats to electric door-close assists, and the most sophisticated passenger-car safety technology money can buy. Yes, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has everything the world expects in a full-size luxury sedan, including a stratospheric price tag. It remains the ultra-luxury car against which other ultra-luxury aspirants are judged.
This is the flagship of the Mercedes line, and recognized as such in every corner of the globe. The S-Class is sleek and aerodynamic, right down to the polished Tri-Star hood ornament that symbolizes status from Beverly Hills to Boston to Berlin to Baghdad. Yet that gleaming star only hints at the engineering underneath. There's much technology here, and learning all of the features takes some time.
The S-Class is smaller, lighter and more efficient than those built in the 1990s, yet inside it is roomier. Microprocessors and onboard sensors instantaneously determine forces acting upon the car, filter the data, then adjust the handling, engine or transmission performance. The safety systems can actually anticipate a collision, and prepare the driver and passengers to get through it as safely as possible. Electric seat belt tensioners are activated, and the power seats adjust to a lower and more upright position. Mercedes-Benz calls this Pre-Safe, and says it is the only system in production that engages before the impact, when milliseconds can minimize the energy spikes that cause serious injuries.
The S-Class offers four engine choices and optional all-wheel drive. The S430, the most popular model, has plenty of power for quick passes, merging into fast freeway traffic or accelerating out of corners, and it exudes the presence buyers in this price range expect. The S500 delivers much more responsive performance, with crisp off-the-line acceleration that should please any closet hot-rodder. The V12 S600 represents the ultimate in Mercedes-Benz luxury and power, with thrust and acceleration that feels like a 747 approaching rotation speed. The S55 AMG is a limited-production high-performance model geared toward wealthy motorheads.
A year ago the S-Class benefited from a mild face-lift that freshened its styling around the edges. There are more updates for 2004, starting with the first seven-speed automatic offered in a passenger car. A new DVD-based navigation system eliminates the need to change CDs for movement between regions. Other updates include MP3 capability for the stereo and optional 18-inch wheels for the S430 and S500.
Is this the best ultra-luxury sedan available? The S-Class doesn't deliver the athletic feel of the new Audi A8L or the reflexes of the BMW 7 Series. Its control switches, all six dozen of them, can seem intimidating, and sport-minded enthusiast drivers can sometimes feel as if they're wrestling with all that electronic technology. Yet a certain arrogance of engineering has always been part of the Mercedes tradition, and a component of the brand's charm. Well-healed buyers seeking the classic big luxury sedan should start with the Mercedes S-Class.
Four distinct models comprise the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. All are four-door sedans, powered by single-overhead-cam engines breathing through three valves per cylinder. All come with a very high level of standard equipment.
The S430 ($74,320) is powered by a 275-horsepower 4.3-liter V8. It comes standard with the Airmatic self-leveling air suspension, an Electronic Stability Program (ESP), an improved DVD-based GPS navigation system and Mercedes Tele Aid, which includes automatic accident notification, vehicle tracking and concierge services. The S430 also has leather upholstery, a Bose-developed 12-speaker audio system and electric door- and trunk-closing assists.
The S500 ($82,770) upgrades to a 302-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 (note that this powerful engine saddles the S500 with the federal Gas Guzzler Tax, a $1,000 fee the S430 barely avoids). The S500 also gets a more lavish interior with more leather trim, including glove-soft Nappa leather seating surfaces.
The S600 ($122, 820) is powered by an ultra-smooth, twin turbocharged 5.5-liter V12 with a whopping 469 horsepower (and 590 pounds-feet of torque). S600 also features the Active Body Control suspension, plus high-polish 18-inch alloy wheels, a still greater slathering of leather and wood, a suede-like Alcantara headliner, Parktronic obstacle warning, four heated and power-operated seats, four-zone climate control, CD changer and digital cellular phone with voice control.
The hot-rod S55 AMG ($106,500) is hotter than ever, powered by a hand-built supercharged 5.4-liter V8, delivering 493 horsepower and 516 pounds-feet of torque. Mercedes claims the S55 can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. SpeedShift buttons on the steering wheel allow manual control of the five-speed automatic transmission. The S55 AMG features a performance-calibrated version of the ABC active suspension, 18-inch AMG Monoblock wheels with high-performance tires, ventilated front seats, AMG aerodynamic enhancements and a trunk-mounted CD changer.
The S430 and S500 can be equipped with Mercedes' 4MATIC automatic all-wheel drive ($2,180). This full-time system splits engine power 40/60 front/rear, with electronic traction control adjusting that mix to the wheels (or wheel) with the best traction in slippery conditions.
S-Class model prices have increased from $1000 to $3000 for 2004, and they include scheduled maintenance for the duration of the 50,000-mile warranty. Mercedes offers a number of options, either in packages or individually, which allow even the S430 to be equipped with everything offered on the S600 (except the engine). One of the most popular choices for the S430, S500 and S600 is the Sport Package ($5,210), which sharpens handling and includes many of the sport tweaks on the S55 AMG. The Sport Package adds an AMG front air dam, rear apron and side skirts, 8.5x18-inch front and 9.5x18-inch rear AMG Monoblock alloy wheels and tires rated for safe performance to 155 mph.
Other options: voice-controlled CD changer and cell phone ($1,995); power-adjustable rear seats ($1,825); four-zone air conditioning ($2,800); ABC active suspension ($3,090). Also available: adaptive cruise control ($3,010), a programmable system that uses radar to maintain distance between your car and the car ahead of you. It won't do panic stops for you, so you need to keep your foot near the brake pedal. An option called Keyless Go ($1,040) allows the owner to unlock the car simply by pulling the door handle, then start the engine by pushing a button.
All of the high-tech safety equipment is standard on every model, including Mercedes' exclusive PRE-SAFE system. This technology tightens seatbelts and positions the seats in their optimal positions for crash safety before an impact occurs. Other passive safety features include front airbags that deploy at variable rates depending on the weight of the occupants and the severity of the impact, front and rear side-impact airbags, and curtain-style head protection airbags that deploy from the headliner.
Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans are big, long, rich and luxurious, with a dignity of design appropriate for a technological flagship. No one will mistake them for anything other than a Mercedes.
Separate the styling from the image, and these cars are sleek, given their heft. But they aren't dramatically eye-catching. They say rich at least as much as gorgeous, with the conservative demeanor many buyers in the class prefer. Our S430 came in silver, and no one does silver better than Mercedes-Benz. The racy bodywork that comes with the sport package certainly draws more looks, but it may not match conservative tastes. The 18-inch AMG Monoblock wheels look a bit too big and solid to our eyes. Press a button on the remote key fob and the trunk lid raises, useful when your arms are full. With 15.4 cubic feet of cargo space, the S-Class trunk is considerably smaller than its primary competitors', but small in this instance is relative. There's still enough room for three or four golf bags, depending on their size.
Sit in a Mercedes S-Class and you immediately feel like a master of the universe. The interior exudes serious class. A long strip of burl walnut sweeps across the instrument panel from door to door, its bend and taper reminiscent of the graceful lines of an archer's bow.
The S430 isn't as lavishly equipped as the S500, but it's hardly spartan. The S430 comes with premium leather on the seats, seat backs, side panels, head restraints, magazine pockets, and door trim inserts. The seats are firm and multi-adjustable. We were surprised our S-Class didn't come with seat heaters, and it turns out they are optional on the S430 ($670, or $900 with heated steering wheel), standard on the S500.
The S500 adds premium leather to virtually all interior panels, including the center armrest and doors. It also gets glove-soft Nappa leather on the seating surfaces, though we were happy with the stiffer (and seemingly sturdier) standard leather. The S600 gets the glove-soft leather throughout.
The rear bench seat feels like an expensive sofa. There's a cavernous 40.3 inches of legroom back there, just one inch less than the front. The rear seats recline individually, if you check off that option, and heat with electric elements ($670). Four-place seating is available, providing rear occupants with bucket seats (a steep $6,010). Active ventilation is also available for the rear seats.
Mercedes says the design goal was to reduce driving stress as much as technology and good design sense would allow. Watch out for an ambush by oxymoron, however: Technology and good design sense often fight for control, and, at least initially, stress is sometimes increased rather than decreased. The instrument panel includes about six dozen switches and controls, some labeled with baffling icons, as if the translation from German to sign language had somehow come out Greek.
This car comes with its own video training course. The glovebox is crammed with operating manuals in black leather packets, including a separate one for the standard COMAND (COckpit MANagement and Data) system. This includes the GPS navigation, stereo and climate controls, and Tele Aid, which is basically a cellular help line for specific problem situations, including accidents and lockouts. In its latest incarnation, Tele Aid even includes traffic reports and concierge services. The Info Services provides web-based customized information including news, stock quotes, sports and weather.
Reduce driving stress? The sheer mass of the manuals is stress-inducing. It's daunting to think about all the controls you have to learn to master so you can feel like a master of the universe. And even if you fully understand them, it would take so much attention to keep all the auxiliary systems perfectly tuned, all the potential for information fully optimized, that a co-pilot would be helpful. Maybe that's where the voice command feature comes in. Some stuff you can just tell the car to do, and hope it understands you. But first you have to learn its language, and it yours.
Ergonomics-wise, the center console has great support for your right knee, bracing your throttle foot. But there's nothing on the left, no real dead pedal, and not enough support on the standard seats for your thighs, so your legs get pitched during aggressive cornering. We know, the S500 is a luxury car, not a sports car, but if you offer a suspension that boasts level cornering, as Mercedes ABC system does, the driver might be expected to use it. The S55 AMG solves this problem with aggressively bolstered sport seats.
The S430 we drove featured a substantial cupholder sprouting from the left side of the passenger seat. It works well, but it rubs against the passenger's left leg and we couldn't figure out how to remove or stow it. Speaking of stowing things, there aren't enough places to stow things in the S-Class. Also, drivers who are not familiar with the Mercedes stalk-mounted cruise control may find themselves turning on the cruise control when they meant to signal a turn.
The roofline, specifically the C-pillar, creates a blind spot when you look over your right shoulder. But there's no blind spot through the windshield, not even in the spray of a truck in the rain, thanks to powerful wipers with no less than six nozzles to spew washer fluid.
For 2004, the standard CD player will play MP3 encoded music. Naturally, the Bose sound system is state of the art: More things that can be optimized, more features programmed for individual tastes. Soundstage positioning, it's called. According to Mercedes, "From a driver in the car alone, listening to talk radio, to a car full of people, listening to symphonic or vocal music, there is an audio setting to make the listening experience more enjoyable." But the quality of the rock 'n' roll we listened to didn't knock our socks off. Maybe we didn't have our soundstage positioned perfectly.
As with all navigation systems, there is a learning curve to mastering that in the S-Class, and you can expect frustration and distraction levels to increase until you reach that point. We found ourselves fighting off the audio when we wanted to operate the navigation system. And we could not figure out how to select a house number after entering it. But that may be us. Further, the new DVD (as opposed to CD) data base is an improvement, as is the enlarged screen for 2004. At least we didn't have to change map discs when we drove from Detroit to Cleveland, and the system seems a bit quicker at calculating routes.
Stately and stable describe the Mercedes-Benz S-Class nicely. These sedans are in their element on smooth, straight roads traveling at very high speeds. Set the cruise control by using big digital numbers displayed on the speedometer screen, then sit back and relax. You've got your optional Adaptive Cruise Control, which watches your tailgating and maintains a predetermined distance to the car ahead. You've got your ESP to help control the car if you can't, your Brake Assist to slam the binders if you don't hit them as hard as you should, your Adaptive Damping to adjust ride softness according to the surface, your traction control, your rain-sensing wipers, your 10 airbags (front, doors, and air curtains over the windows), your high-intensity xenon headlights, and your automatic Tele Aid emergency calling for that slim chance that you might need it.
The standard Airmatic suspension in the S430 and S500 uses compressed air in bellows-like springs at each corner to maintain constant ride height regardless of load. On the highway, the car automatically lowers itself by about an inch, which improves aerodynamics and thus fuel mileage. Airmatic features adaptive damping, which allows the driver to adjust the shock absorbers according to road conditions, load and speed, from softer to firmer. Or the suspension will do this automatically. This system is not the same as the more complex Active Body Control suspension, which is optional on the S500 and S430 and standard on the S600 and S55 AMG, and virtually eliminates body roll in cornering, squat under acceleration, and dive during braking. The Airmatic suspension has three settings. One tester thought the firm setting was quite livable and appropriate for all situations, while another preferred the soft and middle settings around town.
As expected, the S-Class is quiet, really quiet, when it's blasting along at high speeds. But the Airmatic suspension isn't perfect. It rocked over shallow holes in the road at 10 mph, and at the speed limit we could feel it lift from side to side over rough or grooved surfaces. We could also feel a jiggling in the steering wheel over bumps on an otherwise smooth road.
Underway, the S-Class engines are quiet, relaxed and so smooth that they give no hint of operation. At idle, however, we found both the S430 and S500 engines a bit rougher and noisier than expected.
The S430, the most popular of the S-Class sedans, has plenty of power. Nail it at 65 mph and it accelerates smoothly around the offending vehicle. It cruises easily at high speeds on cross-country trips and it's responsive around town. We never felt like we were missing something by not having the larger S500 engine. Until we drove the S500. Then it's clear that the S430 does not offer the same rocket-like response. Perhaps only certified lead-foots will notice.
We are among them. Drop the hammer on the S500 and the V8 makes neat sounds. The car is most fun when it's using its torque and growling. That's when a big, elegant luxury car can feel like a hot rod. The specs say the S500 engine produces its full 339 foot-pounds of torque between 2700 and 4250 rpm, but it didn't feel like the V8 hit its sweet spot until nearly 4000 rpm. When you floor it at 3000 rpm, it kicks down a gear or two, as if to get more power when it should theoretically already be in the right gear for maximum torque. Either way, the S500 is exceptionally smooth and quiet as the revs increase into the 5000-rpm range, so it's easy to hit the 6000-rpm rev limiter in second or third gears when you're in the manual-shift mode.
For 2004, Mercedes has equipped the S430 and S500 with a passenger-car first: a seven-speed automatic transmission. All those gears allow the trans to maintain closer to an optimal gear ratio in any given driving situation, while at the same time offering a larger ratio spread between the lowest and highest gear. The electronic controls have more flexibility to adjust shifting to achieve optimal fuel efficiency. The seven-speed automatic lowers average engine speed, which reduces fuel consumption and minimizes noise.
The seven-speed automatic once again demonstrates Mercedes' continuous quest for the ultimate automotive technology, which is something buyers spending $80,000 for a sedan have a right to expect. Ultimately, this transmission improves response, acceleration and fuel economy. But like many systems in the S-Class, it sometimes wants to be the boss when the driver has different expectations. Sometimes it will shift up when we expect it to hold; other times it wants to shift down twice, when we're expecting once. It may take some time for many of us to get used to it, or some time for the transmission to get used to us.
The S600 and S55 AMG are rocket sleds, plain and simple. It's difficult to convey the sensation of planting your foot to the floor on a long, open straight in either of these big sedans, except to say that, with the amount of mass the engines are moving at an amazing rate, it feels like a commercial airliner as it approaches take-off speed. Either will accelerate to 60 mph faster than most sports cars or sport coupes, and between the two acceleration is basically a wash.
So which of these big-kid toys would we choose? The V12 S600 is silky smooth, with muted turbochargers and more conservative, understated looks. The S55 is a bit rougher, by design. Its supercharged V8 vibrates more obviously, and its aggressive body cladding screams speed. Even if money were no object (the S600 starts at $12,500 more), we'd probably take the S55, simply because its ABC active suspension is calibrated to limit body roll in corners more aggressively. Scratch that. We'd take the S600 with the sport package, minus the body kit.
Yet even in the S430, there's enough power that, on a wet freeway with the cruise control set at 72 mph, the traction control got a workout. Whenever the tires hydroplaned in puddles that formed in the freeway grooves, you could feel the wheels spinning and biting, spinning and biting. It was interesting to blast through them like this, with no feet on the pedals. A few times the cruise control deactivated because the brakes were automatically dabbed.
That traction control made us a little nervous once, as we pulled onto a two-lane from the side of the road. A truck suddenly came barreling over the hill at us, and we spun a little gravel to get the heck out of there. Problem was our traction was still being controlled, even after our rear wheels were on pavement. For whatever reason, the car didn't believe we should be accelerating just yet, so it wasn't letting us, using its powers of throttle intervention. The car was wrong. The lag was unwanted and unneeded, and it made us think: Traction control doesn't always get you away faster. It just gets you away without spinning your wheels. And sometimes faster is safer, even if it involves a little wheelspin.
We battled with the brain in the anti-lock brake system, too. We made a panic stop at 60 mph to test the ABS, and when we lifted off the pedal the brakes stayed applied for another beat. Yep, we got Brake Assist. It would have been nice if we had asked for it. There's a brake release switch that takes a split second to activate, as a Mercedes engineer later explained to us. Around town, the brakes are smooth, powerful and easy to modulate for even, progressive stops.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class offers a lot, as it should, given its price and reputation. It represents the state of the art of the high-performance luxury sedan. Its interior comfort is unsurpassed, and its styling is both appealing and aerodynamically efficient. The S-Class screams status. It's as roomy a sedan as you'll find, amazingly fast with the higher output engines, and as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar.
The S-Class isn't quite as nimble as BMW's 7 Series, nor as lithe as Audi's A8L, and it costs more than either. Mercedes' ultra-lux sedan puts a little more emphasis on comfort, less on active driver participation, and many buyers will no doubt prefer that. Its daunting array of switches and systems can be intimidating, but the allegedly simple, single-control interface in the BMW 7 is much more difficult to master. The distinctions will matter most to buyers on their third or fourth ultra-luxury sedan. The rest of us will just be wowed by the S-Class.
|Model Line Overview|
|Base Price (MSRP)||$74,320|
|As Tested (MSRP)||$78,095|
|Model lineup:||Mercedes-Benz S430 ($74,320); S500 ($82,770); S55 AMG ($110,170); S600 ($122,820)|
|Engines:||4.3-liter sohc 24-valve V8|
|Transmissions:||7-speed automatic with manual override|
|Safety equipment (Standard):||front-passenger front and side-impact airbags, rear side-impact airbags, curtain-style head protection airbags; ABS with brake assist and electronic brake proportioning; ESP traction and stability control; xenon headlamps with washers; BabySmart seat system; Tele Aid emergency calling|
|Safety equipment (Optional):||none|
|Basic warranty:||4 years/50,000 miles|
|Assembled in:||Sindelfingen, Germany|
|Specifications As Tested|
|Model tested (MSRP):||Mercedes-Benz S430 ($74,320)|
|Standard equipment:||Airmatic self-leveling air suspension, leather upholstery, hand-polished wood trim, Bose sound system with CD and 12 speakers, COMAND GPS navigation system, 14-way power front seats; dual-zone climate control with charcoal and dust/pollen filters, integrated garage door opener, cruise control, intermittent wipers with Rain Sensor, power windows with express up/down, multi-function steering wheel controls, power tilt/telescoping steering column, pneumatic door and trunk closing assist with retracting trunk handle, power glass sunroof with tilt and express open/close, power rear window sunshade|
|Options as tested:||Parktronic ($1060); Motorola V60 phone with voice control and handset ($1995)|
|Gas Guzzler Tax:||N/A|
|Engine (Optional):||275-hp 4.3-liter sohc 24-valve V8; 302-hp 5.0-liter sohc 24-valve V8; 493-hp 5.4-liter sohc 24-valve supercharged V8; 493-hp 5.5-liter sohc 36-valve twin-turbocharged V12|
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm):||275 @ 5750|
|Torque(lb.-ft. @ rpm):||295 @ 3000-4400|
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy:||17/24 mpg|
|Transmission (Optional):||7-speed or 5-speed automatics with manual override|
|Track, f/r:||62.0/62.0 in.|
|Turning circle:||39.7 ft.|
|Head/hip/leg room, f:||37.6/NA/41.3 in.|
|Head/hip/leg room, r:||38.4/NA/40.3 in.|
|Cargo volume:||15.4 cu. ft.|
|Suspension F:||independent, four-link, air springs, electro-hydraulic damping with gas-charged shocks, level control|
|Suspension R:||Independent, five-link, air springs, electro-hydraulic damping with gas-charged shocks, level control|
|Curb weight:||4160 Lbs.|
|Brakes, f/r:||13.0-inch vented and drilled disc / 11.8-inch vented disc, with ABS and Brake Assist|
|Fuel capacity:||23.2 gal.|
Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive