2003 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
    MSRP
    $72,600 - $120,540
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    2003 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    Still the benchmark for luxury, technology, and class distinction.

    Introduction

    The Mercedes-Benz S-Class remains the ultra-luxury car against which other ultra-luxury aspirants are judged. That's impressive given that it was last redesigned for model-year 2000. The S-Class has been mildly face-lifted for 2003. 

    The Mercedes S-Class is a beautiful line of cars, sleek and aerodynamic. They are smaller yet roomier than the bulky pre-2000 models they replaced. And they are extremely sophisticated. Microprocessors and onboard sensors instantaneously determine forces acting upon the car, filter the data, and adjust the handling. There's much technology here and learning all of the features takes some time. 

    The Mercedes-Benz S430, the most popular model, offers plenty of power for quick passes, merging into fast freeway traffic, and accelerating out of corners. It exudes the tremendous presence of a Mercedes S-Class. The S500 delivers much more responsive performance, with crisp acceleration that should please any closet hot-rodder. The top-level S600 and the high-performance S55 AMG get even more power for 2003. A lot more power. As if they needed it. Fast traffic is a description fits an S600 and an S55 AMG. The S600 represents the ultimate in Mercedes-Benz luxury and power. The S55 AMG is a limited-production high-performance model. 

    For 2003, the S-Class comes with new safety systems that can actually anticipate a collision, and prepare driver and passengers to get through it as safely as they possibly can. Electric seat belt tensioners are activated, and the power seats adjust to a lower and more upright position. Mercedes-Benz calls this system Pre-Safe, and points out that it is the only system in production today that engages before the impact, when milliseconds can minimize the energy spikes that cause serious injuries. Also new for 2003 is the availability of 4Matic all-wheel drive. 

    Lineup

    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. 

    S430 ($72,600) comes with a 275-horsepower 4.3-liter V8. S430 and S500 both come with Airmatic air suspension, GPS navigation, Tele Aid with enhanced functions, leather upholstery, Bose audio system, ESP Electronic Stability Program, and a sunroof. 

    S500 ($81,000) comes with a 302-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 and larger, 18-inch wheels and tires. The S500 also gets a more lavish interior, with more leather trim, including glove-soft Nappa leather seating surfaces. (The more powerful engine saddles the S500 with the federal Gas Guzzler Tax, a $1000 fee the S430 barely avoids.)

    S600 ($120,540) is powered by a 5.5-liter V12 that made 362 horsepower last year. For 2003, Mercedes-Benz has added twin turbochargers with intercoolers, raising that figure dramatically to 469 horsepower (and 590 pounds-feet of torque). S600 also has the active suspension, plus high-polish 17-inch alloy wheels, greater levels of wood and leather trim, a suede-like Alcantara headliner, Parktronic, four heated and power-operated seats, four-zone climate control, CD changer and digital cellular phone with voice control. 

    Even the hot-rod S55 AMG ($106,500) is hotter for 2003. It is still powered by a hand-built 5.4-liter V8, but now a positive-displacement Lysholm supercharger increases its output (from 354 horsepower and 391 pounds-feet) to 493 horsepower and 516 pounds-feet. With the new engine, claims Mercedes, the S55 can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. New SpeedShift buttons on the steering wheel provide manual control of the five-speed automatic transmission. New brakes with eight-piston calipers up front provide appropriate stopping power. As before, the S55 AMG features an active suspension, 18-inch AMG Monoblock alloy wheels with high-performance tires, ventilated front seats, AMG aerodynamic enhancements, and a trunk-mounted CD changer. 

    For 2003, Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC automatic all-wheel drive is now available on S430 ($75,500) and S500 ($83,900). A planetary differential splits the power 40/60 front/rear, and advanced electronic traction control distributes it to the appropriate wheels (or wheel) in slippery conditions. 

    S430, S500, and S600 can be equipped with a Sport Package ($4975) that sharpens styling and handling. It includes an AMG front air dam, rear apron and side skirts, plus 8.5x18-inch front and 9.5x18-inch rear AMG Monoblock alloy wheels with 245/45YR18 front and 275/40YR18 rear high-performance tires. 

    Other options include: voice-controlled CD changer and cell phone ($2190); power-adjustable rear seats ($1825); four-zone air conditioning ($1880); active suspension ($2960). Also available is adaptive cruise control ($2875), a programmable system that uses radar to maintain distance between your car and the car ahead of you. Mercedes-Benz was the first to offer this technology, although others now offer it (Lexus and Infiniti, for example). It won't do panic stops for you, so you need to keep your foot near the brake pedal. Another option called Keyless Go ($995) uses a small card instead of a key, as well as a button on the shift lever, which shuts off the engine. 

    Walkaround

    Mercedes-Benz S-Class cars are big, long, rich and luxurious. They look unmistakably Mercedes, with a dignity of design appropriate for a technological flagship. If you can separate the styling from the image, these cars are not dramatically eye-catching. They say rich, at least as much as gorgeous. An S-Class car can blend in among a parking lot full of rather common sedans. 

    But it's a beautiful car to behold. The upswept window line is lovely. Our 2003 S430 came in silver, and no one does silver better than Mercedes-Benz. 

    The 18-inch AMG Monobloc wheels that come with the Sport package look a bit too big and solid to our eyes, but come fitted with massive Michelin Pilot Sport tires. The Sport package also includes the AMG aerodynamic bodywork. 

    Silly us: We thought the trunk lid was stiff, until we realized it just doesn't like to be controlled by human hands. A fingertip maybe, then the Pneumatic Door and Trunk Closing Assist does the rest. (There's also an interior trunk release for safety.) Press a button on the remote key fob and the trunk pops open, useful when your arms are full. 

    Interior

    Sit in an S-Class Mercedes 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 car didn't come with seat heaters, and it turns out they are optional on the S430 ($650), standard on the S500. 

    The S500 adds premium leather to the remainder of the seats, center armrest, and door. The S500 gets glove-soft Nappa leather seating surfaces in place of the premium leather, and it doesn't get much lusher. The S600 gets the glove-soft Nappa leather in the other areas. 

    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 seat reclines, too, if you check off that option. Four-place seating is available, providing rear occupants with bucket seats. 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 the ambush by an 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. Press a switch, just for fun. 'Airmatic Vehicle Car Rising,' a message on the panel tells you. Press another one and you've just turned off the Parktronic system, good to know when you're backing toward that big pickup expecting the system to warn you when you're getting close. 

    The 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 and Tele Aid, which is basically a cellular help line for specific problem situations. In its latest incarnation, Tele Aid even includes traffic reports and concierge services. Then there's the optional InfoServices, which 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 very helpful. Maybe that's where the voice command feature comes in. Some stuff you can just tell the car what to do, and hope it understands you. After you learn its language. 

    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 seat support 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, the driver should be expected to use it. 

    The S430 we drove featured a substantial cupholder sprouting out of 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. 'People have stuff!' complained one passenger. Also, drivers who are not familiar with driving a Mercede. 

    Driving Impression

    Stately and stable describe the Mercedes-Benz S-Class cars. They 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 got your optional Adaptive Cruise Control which watches your tailgating, your ESP which helps control the car when you can't, your Brake Assist which slams on the binders when you don't hit them as hard as you should, your Adaptive Damping for the shocks, 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 would need it. 

    The Airmatic suspension that comes on the S430 and S500 uses compressed air in bellows-like springs in 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. This is not the same as the more complex active suspension, which is optional on the S500 and S430 (and standard on the S600 and S55 AMG), and which virtually eliminates body roll in cornering, squat under acceleration, and dive during braking. 

    The Airmatic suspension with Adaptive Damping has three settings for shock stiffness. One tester thought the firm setting was quite livable and appropriate for all situations, while another preferred the soft and middle settings around town. We were surprised that the Airmatic suspension wasn'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 feel a jiggling in the steering wheel, over bumps on an otherwise smooth road. 

    As expected, the ride itself is quiet, real quiet. Underway the S-Class cars are very quiet and the engines feel very smooth. At idle, however, we found both the S430 and S500 engines rougher and noisier than expected. 

    The S430, the most popular of the S-Class, has plenty of power. We never felt like we were missing something by not having the S500 engine. Nail it at 65 mph and it accelerates smoothly around the offending vehicle. It easily cruises at high speeds on cross-country trips and it's responsive around town. The S430 accelerates quickly out of corners. It does not offer the rocket-like response of the S500, but only certified lead-foots will notice and these people know who they are. 

    And 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 this big, elegant luxury car can feel like a hot rod. The specs say the S500's engine produces its full 339 foot-pounds of torque between 2700 and 4250 rpm. It didn't feel like the V8 hit its sweet spot until nearly 4000 rpm, though, and when you floor it at 3000 rpm, it kicks down a gear, as if to get more power when it should theoretically already be in the right gear for maximum torque. The car is super-smooth and quiet again 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. 

    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 t. 

    Summary

    The Mercedes-Benz S-Class offers a lot, as it should, given its price and reputation. It represents the state of the technological art of the high-performance luxury sedan. Its interior comfort is unsurpassed; its styling is aerodynamically efficient. It exudes status. 

    The S-Class is a better choice for many of us than the new BMW 7 Series, which is marred by a driver interface that's a real challenge to learn. The S-Class cars have a daunting set of features that requires some study of the owners manuals, but it isn't insurmountable. 

    Model Lineup

    S430 ($72,600); S500 ($81,000); S55 AMG ($106,500); S600 ($120,540). 

    Assembled In

    Sindelfingen, Germany. 

    Options As Tested

    Parktronic ($1035); Motorola V60 phone with voice control and handset ($1995). 

    Model Tested

    Mercedes-Benz S430 ($72,600). 

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    Read 2003 Mercedes-Benz S-Class reviews from auto industry experts to gain insight on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class's drivability, comfort, power and performance.
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