A new pace for ultraluxury.
by Bob Plunkett
PRESCOTT, Ariz. - West of Phoenix, we're crossing the Sonoran Desert on Interstate 10, cruising at speed in absolute vehicular comfort and safety, thanks to a proliferation of posh amenities and high-tech controls stuffed into the latest full-size luxury sedan from Germany's Mercedes-Benz.
The S500, the stronger of two new full-size Mercedes sedans with stretched wheelbases and model-year 2000 tags, draws on the strength of 302 horses extracted from a 5.0-liter V-8 engine to propel 2 tons of metal and machinery in a seemingly effortless and surprisingly quiet manner.
With fitted seats and touches of polished hardwoods and fine leather decorating the cabin, this car envelops passengers in a staggering array of sophisticated controls and perks to make life in the fast lane not only comfortable but secure. Also, there are many mechanical systems working latently for protection, including devices that stabilize forward movement and tire traction, smart brakes and adjustable suspension, plus as many as eight airbags lurking to cushion fragile human cargo during a crash.
Outthinking the driver
Still, there's more: This car has a mind of its own. It can actually outthink the driver at times and make smart decisions regarding car movement and safe operation. Microprocessors connect with numerous on-board sensors that measure forward and lateral movement, tire rotation, passenger load, and even conditions of a roadbed and the traffic on it. These computers filter all data, then automatically deploy various equipment based on need or demand.
For instance, an adaptive restraint system uses sensors to figure out who's sitting where, then switches off airbags and seat belt pre-tensioners for unoccupied seats. Monitors in the rear seat belts recognize when riders are aboard and automatically raise rear headrests for them. Other sensors link to an automatic climate system and determine how many people are aboard, then deliver cooling or heating to maintain a pre-set temperature in the cabin, as well as modulate air flow to counter the effects of solar gain.
Sensors in the new suspension system determine vehicular payload, speed and road conditions, then adjust dampers on shock absorbers to smooth out or firm up the ride quality. Still other devices measure wheel speed and lateral acceleration and can then brake an individual wheel to correct potential skidding or spinning of the car.
Later in the model-year, a smart cruise control system also will be available. It uses the Doppler effect in radar to measure the distance to a car ahead in the path, then adjusts the throttle or even applies brakes to maintain a pre-set minimum distance between the two vehicles.
And a dash-mounted navigation system as standard equipment integrates a guidance system with Global Positioning Satellite reckoning and hands-free telephone and audio controls. A driver can converse verbally with the intelligent system and use it to control the audio, dial phone numbers, or figure out where to go.
We were using the navigation system in the Arizona desert, and a recorded voice told us when and where to turn on a selected route over the Weaver Mountains to Prescott.
These new Mercedes sedans carry so many devices that we counted as many as 78 different switches and toggles and pushbuttons available as controls within reach for the driver. You need a tutor to learn to drive it, although the car comes with its own video training course plus an encyclopedic instruction manual.
Creating the ultimate luxury sedan
The concept behind packing a large car with so much intelligent hardware seems to be to create the ultimate design for an ultraluxury sedan. Two S-Class models powered with V-8 engines reach the American market in the summer of 1999 as culmination of a six-year program by Mercedes-Benz to broaden the line of products and, in the process, set new high marks for automotive technology.
Both models - S430 and S500 - have extended wheelbases stretching for more than 10 feet and both provide more headroom and rear legroom than the predecessor editions, despite the fact that the new structure measures 2 inches less and is 1.5 inches shorter and narrower.
Compared against the previous generation of S-Class sedans, these new models look more sleek and less bulky, and although they contain so much intelligent hardware, their curb weight actually drops by about 500 pounds, which translates into quicker and more agile pavement action. New exterior styling looks smooth and aggressive, yet subtle in the elegant execution of shapes and fixtures.
A familiar horizontal chrome grille marks the prow unmistakably as a Mercedes, but it's raked and streamlined to match all smooth lines sweeping rearward. So much streamlining works for this package that it's the most aerodynamically efficient production car in the world.
Clear polycarbonate covers shield each four-light headlamp cluster containing high and low beams plus fog lamps and integrated parking lamps and directional signals. High-intensity Xenon headlamps appear as the standard for the S500 but rank as an option for the S430.
More interior space
Despite the lower stance and reduced exterior proportions, there's actually more room inside the luxury cabin than the predecessor S-Class. The elegant interior features a wraparound cockpit in twin spaces for seats divided by a multifunction console, with an elegant band of wood (burl walnut for S500, eucalyptus for S430) stringing across the dashboard from door to door and also accenting the console and steering wheel.
Interior safety equipment extends to frontal and side-door airbags, plus new airbag curtains mounted above side doors as additional protection for heads.
For power, the S430 stocks the sophisticated 4.0-liter Mercedes V-8, a single-cam aluminum plant that reaches to 275 hp and peaks the torque at 295 lb-ft across a board band from 3000 to 4500 rpm. The S500 goes even further with the single-cam 5.0-liter V-8 cranked to 302 hp, with 339 lb-ft in torque spread from 2700 to 4250 rpm.
Either engine connects to a slick new five-speed adaptable automatic transmission from Mercedes that adds selective clutchless shifting through a flick of the stick, either left to upshift or right to downshift.
Other notable mechanical tools include power rack-and-pinion steering for precise turning control plus power-assisted disc brakes tied to anti-lock and traction control systems, along with the stability control program. The Mercedes innovation of Brake Assist is also aboard, automatically applying full braking force during panic stops to shorten stopping distances by as much as 45 percent.
Options bring a rear bench or two individual seats, plus an executive package with heated rear seats and adjustable outboard seatbacks, and rear air conditioning. Prices dip dramatically for these new cars despite so much high-tech hardware, starting now at $69,700 for an S430.
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