Mercedes-Benz S-Class Review


2008 Mercedes-Benz S-Class S550 Sedan

The Mercedes-Benz
S-Class is as synonymous with state-of-the-art luxury and safety features as it is with country club prestige. As Mercedes' largest sedan, the S-Class offers the most room for rear-seat passengers, making it a favorite of wealthy dads and heads of state alike.

Mercedes has used its flagship sedan to pioneer many modern technologies, such as airbags, antilock brakes and stability control. And though the most popular versions like the S430, S500 and S550 have been powered by V8s, some of the earlier cars could be had with six-cylinder and diesel engines as well. Since the '90s, Mercedes has also offered the V12-powered S600.

A choice of standard or long-wheelbase has been a longstanding tradition, though more recent years have seen just the longer ones imported to the North American market. Even AMG, Mercedes' in-house tuning division, has imbued the S-Class with its magic, giving this substantial luxury sedan performance equal to that of a sports car.

Before the 1990s, the S-Class' chief competition was the BMW 7 Series sedan, which like the Benz could be had with six- or eight-cylinder power and also offered standard and long-wheelbase variants. Now the big Mercedes faces rivals from Audi, Jaguar and Lexus as well, all of whom offer powerful, long-wheelbase flagships stocked with every conceivable luxury feature known to mankind. In spite of the pressure from these worthy opponents, the finely engineered and crafted Mercedes-Benz
S-Class still stands as a solid choice is this lofty segment.

Current Mercedes-Benz

Debuting in 2007, the current Mercedes-Benz
S-Class heralded a new styling direction for the company, meaning aggressive wheelwell flares and a wedgelike profile that's emphasized with a rising character line. The cabin now has a multifunction controller (similar to but easier to use than BMW's iDrive setup) mounted between the seats, which reduces the number of buttons on the dash. There are five trim levels: S550 (382-horsepower V8), S550 4Matic (S550 with all-wheel-drive), S600 (510-hp twin-turbo V12), S63 AMG (518-hp V8) and S65 AMG (604-hp twin turbo V12). All S-Class trims are equipped with an automatic transmission (seven speeds in all but the V12 versions, which have a five-speed unit).

Luxury feature highlights include a navigation system, hands-free cell phone communication, a Harman Kardon audio system and of course, rich leather and wood trim. The AMG versions add 20-inch alloy wheels, an active suspension, larger brakes, sport seats and specific interior and exterior styling tweaks. Optional features for the V8 models, such as a keyless entry and start system, adaptive cruise control and an infrared night vision system, are almost all standard on the V12 models.

With even the "entry-level" model having nearly 400 hp, the S-Class provides stunning performance. Zero-to-60-mph times range from the low-4-second to low-6-second range -- seriously quick by any standard, let alone when one is referring to a large luxury sedan. Handling and ride dynamics are impressive as well, as the S-Class' athleticism on a twisty road makes it feel much lighter than its 2-tons-plus mass would suggest.

Past Mercedes-Benz
S-Class models

The fourth generation of the S-Class ran from 2000-'06 and was lighter and sleeker than the massive version that preceded it, making it more preferable for driving enthusiasts. Two versions were offered initially, both V8s: the S430 (275 hp) and the S500 (302 hp). The V12-powered S600 (362 hp) debuted a year later, as did the AMG version, the S55 (354 hp). A midcycle refresh in '03 brought lightly revised light clusters, the availability of all-wheel drive (called 4Matic) and a big boost in power for the S55 and S600 (both rated at 493 hp). A seven-speed automatic came on line in '04. Hitting both ends of the spectrum for '06, the S350 brought back six-cylinder power (241 hp) while the S65 AMG offered no less than 604 hp.

With many of these cars available as "certified pre-owned" (meaning a pristine, lower-mileage example with all maintenance up to date and an extended warranty), this generation represents the best choice for a consumer looking to get into an S-Class Benz that should serve them for a long time without having to spend a small fortune. In reviews of the time, our editors were impressed by the car's spacious interior and state-of-the-art safety features. Downsides to this generation included a complicated control interface (the COMAND system) and some interior materials that seemed too low in quality for Mercedes' flagship.

Running from 1992-'99, the third generation of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class represented a big step in the ultra-luxury direction. Fitted with dual-pane windows and the availability of V12 power for the first time, this S-Class gained nearly 600 pounds compared to the previous car. Four trims were offered, ranging from the S320 (228-hp inline-6) and S420 (275-hp V8) to the S500 (315-hp V8) and S600 (389-hp V12). If you are considering the purchase of one of these, be forewarned that (as with any complex, high-end luxury vehicle) a clean Carfax report and an impeccable maintenance record are musts.

The S-Class cars of the second generation (1981-'91) were offered in turbodiesel (300SD, 350SD/SDL), inline-6 (300SE/SEL) and V8 (380 SE/SEL, 420 SEL, 560 SEL) versions. This is the generation that introduced cutting-edge safety technology such as airbags and antilock brakes as standard equipment. Perhaps the least desirable of the lot are the 380 series, which made just 155 hp and were prone to timing chain failures. Chances are good that if you find a used 380-series, it will have been retrofitted with a double timing chain. Diesel versions are known for their incredible longevity and it's not unusual to find an example with mileage approaching 300,000 on its original powertrain.


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