The 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 flagship sedan is one of the most technologically advanced luxury cars, with adventuresome but controversial styling never found on its predecessors.
So what's with the styling, which highlights items such as rakish, heavily flare wheel arches? Well, being a German automaker, Mercedes doesn't put extraneous items on cars; the flares are there to accommodate the S550's huge tires.
But Mercedes knows that Lexus and other rivals will be introducing more rakish looking autos and wants its S550 and companion S-Class models to be competitive years from now.
The last S-Class was lightened and made smaller and less physically impressive because its predecessor was criticized for being too big and heavy. This time around, Mercedes said to heck with conservative styling with its ninth-generation S-Class, sold as a very early 2007 model.
The new Mercedes also has a larger, more impressive grille and a bolder, sleeker profile. Mercedes spokesman Rob Moran said the new car has "done well in consumer clinics." It looks as imposing as the old large, conservatively styled S-Class cars, which were developed by Mercedes engineers, with no marketing department interference.
Mercedes waits a long time before introducing a new S-Class, which is the top-line Mercedes sedan and coupe and has embodied the brand's flagship role for more than five decades. The S550 will be joined later this year by several companion models, including one with a turbocharged 520-horsepower V12 engine.
The V12 model seems superfluous because the S550's new-generation 382-horsepower V8 is so smooth it can't be heard when it's idling and provides vivid acceleration (0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds) despite the car's size and 4,270-pound weight. But then, the rival BMW 7-Series sedan is offered with a V12, and Mercedes can't take a back seat to competitors.
The entirely new $85,400 S-Class is about 1 1/2 inches longer, a half inch wider and about an inch taller than its predecessor. While larger, roomier and more powerful, Mercedes says it's about $2,500 less expensive on an equipment-adjusted basis.
This new Mercedes is offered with a bunch of futuristic electronic features, which isn't surprising because the venerable S-Class has pioneered major safety and comfort features for the auto industry, including the first anti-lock brakes and stability control system.
One such feature new is the Distronic Plus, which allows the Mercedes to virtually drive itself—something no other auto can do.
Distronic Plus not only automatically keeps the S550 a safe distance from the car ahead during highway driving, it also lets you drive a pre-set distance from the vehicle ahead in stop-and-go traffic—without using your feet.
The car accelerates, slows and brakes by itself—to a complete stop if necessary while following the vehicle ahead. It then automatically picks up speed again after a full stop if you tap the accelerator pedal or a control stalk. (Mercedes feared some drivers would be alarmed if the S550 picked up speed by itself after a total stop without some driver input.)
Easy Parallel Parking
A radar-based Park Assist feature lets you parallel park the S550 by watching red, yellow and blue lines on a dashboard screen without even looking at the vehicles between which you want to park the big Mercedes next to a curb. The lines, or "hash marks," project where the car will go with any given steering input.
That feature makes parallel parking (not even taught anymore in some high school driving courses) easy for most folks for the first time in history. However, it really must be used a few times to fully trust it and not be concerned about scratching expensive paint.
Side bolsters in the large front heated and cooled seats quickly and silently move over to better hold you in place during cornering, then move back to their regular positions. It's as if a giant hand gently kept you in place.
Safer Night Driving
Then there's the new Infra-Red Night View Assist option that can extend the driver's ability to see ahead to nearly 500 feet during dark night driving, using a screen that gives a clear image.
The S550 V8 works with a 7-speed automatic transmission, which enhances acceleration and fuel economy while providing seamless shifting.
Unlike most luxury car transmissions, which usually have five or six speeds, the S550 automatic can skip up to three gear ratios if necessary when it downshifts, moving directly from seventh to fifth gear, or even from sixth to second gear. The transmission has a manual shift feature, but it hardly seems necessary to use it.
Estimated fuel economy is 16 mpg in the city and 24 on highways.
The S550 has an enormous, leather-swathed interior, with genuine wood and chrome trim. The rear-seat area is limousine-like, and ambient lighting emits a soft glow under the dashboard and carries through the doors at night to make the interior more soothing.
The trunk is large, with a moderately high opening.
The small steering-column-mounted "Direct Select" shift lever is pushed down to put the transmission in neutral or drive modes and lifted up a bit for reverse. A button is pushed on the end of the lever to get park mode. It's simple to use and frees up the console area by eliminating a conventional, much larger shifter. But the lever must be moved precisely, or you'll end up in the wrong gear.
Window Switch Problem
Power window switches are set so flush and close together that I couldn't operate them without looking. Otherwise, I was likely to lower a rear window when I wanted a front one down.
Using Mercedes' Command system involves twisting a console mounted controller and following menus on a dashboard screen to do such things as adjust radio stations, climate conditions and seat positions. It's among the easiest such systems to use, and there's a row of buttons near the dashboard if you don't want to bother with the system to adjust, say, the automatic climate control.
The S550 naturally is loaded with standard equipment, including a killer 14-speaker Harman/Kardon surround-sound audio system, which took five years to develop for Mercedes. However, there also are attractive, pricey options that may be hard to turn down.
Satisfying to Drive
So what's it like to drive this latest flagship Mercedes? Steering is a little heavy, but precise. The brakes are extraordinary, with good pedal feel. And handling is solid, although the emphasis is on luxury, not sport. The air suspension provides an incredibly smooth ride over all types of roads, I found while driving the car over a wide range of roads through Arizona's mountains and desert terrain during a media preview.
The S550 is a welcome return to the grand old Mercedes S-Class models, despite its bold styling and futuristic features. It makes you feel fairly affluent just sitting in it, and even more affluent when behind the wheel.