A few months back, Mercedes invited us to bask in the new styling of the S-class and take in its many safety and electronic features (C/D, ). That preview didn't involve a drive; we had to wait until after the big Benz's coming-out party at the Frankfurt auto show to slip the S-class's new column-mounted shifter into drive.
So after the last major press conference of the show, we were whisked away to Milan, Italy, to pick up the key to a 2007 S500. In February the S500 goes on sale in the U.S. for an estimated base price in the high-80Ks and will be followed by a smaller-engined 335-hp S450 version (about $78, 000) and the 510-hp V-12 S600 for at least $137, 000.
The S500's 382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8 isn't an entirely new engine, but it does sport an increase in bore and stroke and, perhaps more important, new dual-overhead cam, four-valve-per-cylinder heads with variable valve timing. The S450 gets a smaller 335-hp, 4.7-liter version of the engine. From inside, with the windows up, the 5.5-liter powerplant is barely audible, but dropping the double-paned glass in one of the many tunnels north of Milan reveals the otherwise hidden anger of the V-8. Thrust is similarly deceptive. The seven-speed automatic always has the right gear, and the engine hurtles the S500 forward without violence or drama. (The S600 only gets the five-speed manumatic.) It's not until you peer down at the pegged speedometer that the 500 reveals its speed.
The S-class so effectively hides its mechanicals and the outside world that it can feel like it's a simulation of a wonderfully luxurious sedan. Opt for the new Distronic Plus cruise-control system that, without help from the driver, has the ability to bring the big car to a complete stop in traffic, and the whole experience begins to take a surreal bent. When the cruise control is set, the car's short- and long-range radar systems monitor cars or objects in front, applying the brakes or throttle as needed. Compared with the previous Distronic, the second-generation system can follow the car in front more closely and has smoother accelerator and brake inputs. The distance the S-class keeps from the car in front can be varied, but at its lowest setting, it gets about as close as a good driver would dare. After some initial trepidation and keeping your foot hovering over the brake pedal, the fear fades because Distronic Plus's predictable braking and accelerating quickly inspire confidence. The new S-class is becoming so good at driving itself that you can sit there relaxed, your only task being the occasional turn of the steering wheel.
If you do decide to get involved, the S-class eventually reveals itself as a competent handler. The steering is accurate and adds effort when you start loading up the front tires. Easy to control understeer is the primary handling trait, and the standard Mercedes Airmatic suspension does a decent job of keeping the S-class settled on tight mountain switchbacks. However, body roll in a car without the optional active body control was excessive enough to make my passenger feel as if his inner ear had been kicked in the groin.
The more time we spent in the S500, the more we were seduced. The soft leather seats with their myriad adjustments, the clear-sounding stereo system with DVD audio capability, and the yellow glow of the lights around the dashboard and doors made us believe we'd sneaked into some very wealthy person's living room-or maybe into his or her 7-series. We were getting so comfortable that we started looking for a liquor cabinet to raid, only to find an empty glove box.
Mercedes is hoping younger buyers will find the S-class's aggressive new shape appealing. To our eyes the fender flares are more sports car than über-Benz, but they do make room for the larger wheels that are mandatory on this type of car. This big Benz dynamically and stylistically straddles the line between the over-the-top-engineered and overweight early-'90s S-class and the svelte and stylish late-'90s version. It has enough advanced engineering and technology to make a robot blush, and it's all wrapped in stylish sheetmetal.