2008 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Expert Review:Autoblog
There was a time when what we might call super-sedans were largely the province of a dedicated cadre of aftermarket tuners. Companies like Brabus, Alpina and, of course, AMG would generally start with mid-sized German sedans and transform them into something truly special. AMG in particular came to the forefront in 1987 after two decades of building special Mercs when they unleashed the Hammer. They had been building cars for two decades already, but the Hammer took things to a new level by installing a 5.6L V8 from the 560SEC coupe modified with twin-cam four valve heads into the mid-size 300E sedan. With that car, AMG set off an arms race that continues to this day. The tuners are still out there but AMG was eventually brought in from the cold when it was bought by Mercedes-Benz. Today AMG produces high performance versions of almost all Mercedes models and standing near the pinnacle of the lineup is the S63 sedan. Find out what the AMG S63 is like to live with after the jump.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
The S63 is not quite the ultimate S-Class from Mercedes. That crown falls to the twin-turbo V12 S65. The S63 is instead powered by AMG's bespoke 6.2L naturally aspirated V8. AMG designed and built this exclusive V8 that is installed across the range of AMG badged models. Unlike previous AMG engines, this one shares no parts with standard Mercedes engines. In the S63 it generates 518 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque, enough to propel the 17-foot long, 4665-lb S63 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds and achieve an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. Opting for the $7,000 performance package adds a 20-inch wheel/tire package, a limited slip differential and a reprogrammed speed limiter set to 186 mph. You might be asking yourself, what possible good is that extra 31 mph in the United States where there is nowhere to legally use it? A very reasonable question that we'll return to a little later.
While super sedans are more elevated than ever, the effect on their performance is seeing diminishing returns as manufacturers try to outdo themselves with technological wizardry. This is where the S63 truly shines. Unfortunately, in some respects it is also its downfall. There are almost no features available on any high end car anywhere in the world that you won't find on the S63 and there are also gimmicks in this car that can't be found anywhere else. We don't use the word gimmick lightly here. While there are useful features like adaptive cruise control, others are absolutely superfluous. Top of the list here is the Drive-Dynamic front seats, which surprised when taking the S63 around our first corner. As the car builds cornering force, the seat bolsters begin to grope your sides. As you turn left the right side bolsters push inward, presumably to hold you in place. Turn right and the opposite side moves. This is a feature that adds weight and complexity to the car without adding useful functionality.
Another problem with all the gimmickry is that it requires controls. If all of these features had physical controls, the entire inner surface of the car would be covered with buttons and knobs. As its German counterparts have done, Mercedes has a control knob-based system with access to these features buried in a menu structure on the center mounted screen. Many of the adjustments for the seats are in the graphical menu system. The Drive-Dynamic function, which is standard on the front seats and available as an option with the 2-seat rear configuration, can be adjusted in intensity or turned off. A massage function within the seats can also be controlled here. All manner of controls are embedded somewhere in there. Fortunately, there are three memory positions available. Aside from all the electro-mechanical wizardry, the seats themselves are comfortable and don't need the fancy stuff embedded in their foam.
More technology is buried in the instrument cluster. While the tachometer, fuel and temperature gauges are physical dials, the center of the cluster where the speedometer sits is an LCD. When the sun drops below the horizon, a button on the left side of the dash becomes effective to activate the night vision assist. This system uses an infra-red sensor to detect what's well beyond the reach of the headlights. When active, the speedometer shrinks to a horizontal bar across the bottom of the screen. Above that the infra-red image is displayed. Night vision systems are not a new idea, with Cadillac having introduced a similar system in 2000 that failed more because of its cost than its functionality.
The idea of reducing the array of physical controls in a car by integrating them into a multi-functional interface is probably a good idea. Unfortunately to date no one has done a particularly good job of making such a system easily navigable by the driver. While the Mercedes setup is better than the current BMW iDrive (we haven't tried the new 2009 version yet), it still has plenty of room for improvement. Perhaps the only real answer to the problem is to reduce the number of functions available to the driver.
Beyond the groping seats and seemingly endless variety of controls, there is the actual driving experience. The S-Class is a big machine and in AMG S63 form it moves surprisingly briskly. The 518 hp is fed to the rear wheels via a 7-speed automatic gearbox. Mercedes uses a column-mounted shift stalk that operates in a similar manner to recent BMWs, though it's nothing more than an electronic switch. Tapping it upward engages Reverse, down brings Drive, and returning to Park requires pushing the button on the end of the stalk. Manual control of the gear selection process is provided by the now typical pair of paddles on the back side of the steering wheel.
While the S63 provides some nominal degree of manual control, the bottom line is that this is not really a driver's car. The electro-mechanical wizardry ends up filtering the interaction between the vehicle and the road. There's virtually no indication through the steering wheel of the degree of the forces between the front wheels and the pavement. The Active Body Control damping system means that S63 exhibits essentially no body roll as you go around corners, and the torso-groping seats give a strangely artificial kind of feedback about the overall cornering force that the car is generating. Even the growl of the engine is thoroughly muted by all the insulation and dual pane side glass. The transmission shifts are smooth and seamless, but even with the stability control "turned off" the computer systems retain an excessive degree of control over the experience.
With over 500 hp on tap, you would think it possible to do a nice burnout in the S63. Such activity is clearly considered to be immature and unseemly by German engineers and the best that can be achieved is a chirp before the electrons intervene. It's more like playing a driving video game where any feedback you get is simulated. One thing that definitely isn't simulated is the heat generated by the engine. Standing next to the S63 with the engine idling, you can feel the waves of heat emanating from within.
So if this isn't a car for drivers, who is it for? The S63 may not be for anyone in this country. Its handsome looks aren't distinct enough to set it apart from much cheaper standard issue S-Class sedans and its high speed cruising ability can't be legally utilized on U.S. roads. Those who want to be driven and stand out will more likely opt for a Bentley Flying Spur or Rolls-Royce Phantom. Those who want more of a driving experience are also more likely to opt for a Bentley Continental or something smaller like an RS6, M5 or E63.
No, this car is for wealthy European executives who need to get from Stuttgart to Hamburg in a hurry but don't want the hassle of an airport or train station. Even at $143,000 the S63 is less expensive than a private jet but the rear compartment is cavernous enough that it's probably more comfortable than anything smaller than a G5 or Challenger. The S63 and all of its technology is really just a prime example that just because we can do something, it doesn't necessarily mean that we should.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
The benchmark for the top luxury sedans.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is the benchmark for luxury sedans. Completely redesigned just a year ago, the Mercedes S550 and S600 are superb automobiles. The S-Class cabins are among the most beautiful interior executions on the market today. These cars are loaded with technology yet the COMAND system is easier to operate than the systems from BMW and Audi. Underway, the S-Class cars are smooth, quiet, and powerful.
The S-Class is made up of the S550 models, which come with a V8 engine, and the S600, which comes with a turbocharged V12. The S550 4MATIC adds the all-weather capability of all-wheel drive. Two AMG versions bring racecar performance to this big luxury sedan.
All of them boast quick acceleration and are comfortable and stable at high speeds. Performance goes up with the more powerful engines, of course. The S600 can accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, according to Mercedes, which is very quick indeed.
These cars handle remarkably well for big luxury sedans. They are responsive but not darty. The Airmatic air suspension system is tuned toward the sportier end of the spectrum. The Automatic Body Control active suspension option cuts body roll significantly, and you can really feel it working when you throw the car into a fast, sweeping downhill curve. And we found the Brake Assist Plus brakes spectacular in their stopping power and stopping distance performance.
Completely redesigned for 2007, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class is unchanged for the 2008 model year except for the inclusion of satellite radio as a standard feature. This latest generation of S-Class are longer, wider and taller than pre-2007 models, with aggressive fender flares that give the big Benz an exotic look.
The 2008 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is composed of the S550 ($86,700), the S550 4MATIC ($89,700), the S600 ($144,200), plus the S63 AMG ($127,000) and the S65 AMG ($144,200). The S550 models are powered by a 5.5-liter V8 and come with a seven-speed automatic transmission; the 4MATIC adds all-wheel drive. The S600 is powered by a 6.0-liter 3-valve V12 twin-turbo engine connected to a heavy-duty five-speed auto. The federal Gas Guzzler Tax adds $1,300 to the V8, $3,000 to the V12. The S63 AMG is powered by a 6.2-liter V8, while the S65 AMG features a 6.0-liter V12.
Standard features on the S550 include leather upholstery, a navigation system with voice recognition, heated 14-way power front seats with lumbar, heated power mirrors, Harman/Kardon 14-speaker, six-disc audio system with weatherband, satellite radio, and front/rear illuminated vanity mirrors. Also standard are active bi-xenon headlamps which illuminate around corners, and cornering fog lamps that illuminate the front corner areas of the car, as well as automatic shock-absorber adjustment and a load/height adjustable suspension. Both S550 models ride on 255/45HR18 tires. Options include Active Body Control ($3,900), Parktronic park assist ($650), Distronic Plus cruise control ($2,850).
The S600 adds Active Body Control, Parktronic front and rear parking radar system and Distronic radar-controlled cruise control.
AMG models include upgraded brakes, sport active suspension, 255/35ZR20 front tires, 275/35ZR20 rear tires, heated/ventilated and massaging front seats with automatic side bolsters, power side shades and trunk closing.
Options for S-Class include Night View Assist ($1,775), wood-and-leather steering wheel ($550), heated steering wheel ($450), dynamic multicontour front seats ($1,800), Keyless Go ($950), power rear and side window shades ($700), Panorama glass roof ($1,000), a reverse camera that displays on the COMAND screen ($1,000), 19-inch wheels ($1,200) and an electronic trunk closer ($500). The AMG Sport package features upgraded wheels, exhaust tips and body moldings ($5,600). The P1A package adds heated rear seats ($1,250); also available is the active ventilated rear heated power seat package ($2,900).
Safety features are unequalled in the class, with all the usual brake and airbag technology and Pre-Safe accident-readiness equipment made standard. The Brake Assist feature has been improved to Brake Assist Plus status, and is fully integrated with Parktronic and Distronic, respectively the radar-controlled parking and distance-controlling cruise control systems. The system has two forward-facing radar systems, and can apply the brakes at any speed from zero up to about 125 mph and bring the car to a full stop without driver input.
In addition to closing the sunroof, windows and repositioning the seat in the event of an impending collision, PreSafe also has air chambers in the backs of the multicountour bucket seats that inflate to add support to the upper body in case of a rear-ender.
Night View Assist uses infrared headlamps and a tiny camera to project clear, sharp images of what's ahead of the car at night. The picture is displayed in the space normally occupied by the speedometer and tachometer, which change to bar graphs underneath the night vision display when it's activated. Unlike thermal systems, the Mercedes system uses a sharper display that can operate unaffected by temperature extremes.
The current generation S-Class was launched for the 2007 model year. It's longer, wider and taller than previous models.
The exterior's most noticeable features are the exaggerated fender flares front and rear. Additional design cues include an upright grille, headlamps and tail lamps, the latter with thick body-colored horizontal bars running through them and tied together with lower body molding. The decklid opening is not contained within the rear fenders, but instead extends out to the side of the body, with a distinctly raised position that looks a bit like the rear end of a 7 Series BMW. That was done for exactly the same aerodynamic reasons as on the BMW, to give the air rushing over the long, long roof panel a good place to separate cleanly from the body without causing drag. A side benefit is a huge trunk opening for easy loading.
To keep weight down, the hood, decklid, door skins, and much of the door interiors are made of aluminum alloys, while the main body shell is made of high-strength steel.
A wide variety of wheel designs and sizes is available to suit each model, with a number of optional wheel and tire combinations. The S550 comes with nine-spoke 18-inch wheels with an optional five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheel or a chrome version of the same wheel; a 19-inch 22-spoke alloy wheel with 255/40R19 front and 275/40R19 rear tires, or a 19-inch split spoke design with the same staggered tires. The S600 starts with a beautiful five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheel with 255/45R18 front and 275/55R18 rear tires; an AMG alloy wheel is available for the staggered 255/275 19-inch tire combination as well. Those looking for a more aggressive style may wish to add the optional AMG Sport package and get the big AMG wheels, a revised front bumper with lower intakes and lamps, a restyled rear bumper, exaggerated side sills, and twin dual-outlet chrome exhaust tips.
The Mercedes S-Class boasts one of the most beautiful interior executions on the market today. Got Maybach envy? S-Class buyers can order special designo editions with lavish materials that make these truly sumptuous cars.
And it's relatively easy to learn how to operate. We solved all of the mysteries of a complicated luxury car's switch layout and control system without looking in the owner's manual. It's that easy. The COMAND system, located at the center of the dash, is used to operate the radio, telephone, entertainment system, navigation system, and vehicle systems.
The COMAND system uses a large, deeply hooded and high-mounted 16:9 ratio full-color display screen, with a console-mounted knob that twists and pushes to change categories and change settings. Everything is done with the twist-and-push controller that operates like the BMW iDrive or Audi MMI systems, only better. It's far easier to use and understand, even without resorting to reading the manual, and far more intuitive than the BMW and Audi systems. Select the vehicle systems and the display changes to a silhouette drawing of the car where you can customize 10 different settings to your preferences as easily as using a point-and-shoot camera.
The driver's door panel is packed with controls for windows and mirrors, including a folding function, and in this case they fumbled. The switches that select the left or right mirror to be adjusted or folded are so tiny that the average driver will probably hit both at once until he or she is used to it (they each light up with a red jewel to show you which side you're adjusting). The steering wheel makes the audio and other functions easy to use, with a pair of round controls in the spokes that can do up/down and left/right function selection and change, such as radio station, CD or MP3 track, volume, and muting.
Interior environment is controlled by a switch panel at the center of the dash, with four vents and an air conditioning system that is vertically layered and capable of focused, medium, or diffuse air distribution throughout the car, with two zones in front and two in the ear, each with its own controls. Oh, and that thing that looks like a folded-up wood-grained, chrome-edged cellular telephone, on the console just behind the COMAND interface, is exactly that: a telephone dialer.
Another wrinkle is a strip of ambient lighting in the cockpit that starts on the left door, goes all the way across the lower part of the dash, under the wood trim panel, and all the way back on the right door, creating a continuous ribbon of light that can be adjusted through five brightness levels by using the 'Vehicle' portion of the COMAND system. A beautiful touch in a beautifully organized, visually exciting interior.
The transmission shifter operates like the one in the M-Class and R-Class SUVs: A tiny stalk on the right side of the column features up, down and in positions for Reverse, Neutral, Drive and Park modes, and all models come with three-mode shifting including Manual, Sport and Comfort shifting using the steering wheel paddles on the reverse side of the spokes, left for downshifts, right for upshifts. While we liked the brushed metallic interior panels very much, we didn't like the chrome tip on the shifter handle, because it's bright and glares like crazy on a sunny day. We prefer the brushed metal finish.
The CD/DVD system loads behind a panel under the environmental controls, and contains a slot for loading a PCM/CIA memory card to an internal hard-drive that will play up to 1,550 songs through the Harmon/Kardon 5.1 Logic 7 600-watt, 14-speaker surround sound system. The system is compatible with Apple iPod. And finally, the clock is placed at the epicenter of the instrument panel so that it's classic analog design that looks like a fine wristwatch, with bright trim and bright hands, can be seen by everyone in the car.
Power (and money) have a lot to do with choosing among the Mercedes S-Class models. The S550 comes with a 5.5-liter V8 engine that comes alive to the tune of 382 horsepower at 6000 rpm, with torque rated at 391 lb.-ft. at 2800 rpm. The 5.5-liter biturbo V12 that powers the S600 is rated at 510 horsepower at 5100 rpm and 612 lb.-ft of torque at 1800 rpm. All that power shows up in a staggering 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds for the S600. And, remember, this is a huge, heavy, fully-equipped luxury car.
The AMG lineup starts with the S63 AMG with a 6.2-liter V8 that makes 518 horsepower at 6800 rpm and 465 lb.-ft. of torque at 5200 rpm. The S65 AMG features a 6.0-liter version of the S600's V12 and significantly more power, to the tune of 604 horsepower at 4800 rpm and 738 lb.-ft. of torque at 2000 rpm.
Both five and-seven-speed transmissions upshift and downshift with the speed of a lightning bolt, with no hesitation whatever, regardless of shift mode. The transmission is designed to upshift at redline to protect the engine.
The Airmatic air suspension system is tuned to give a far sportier and yet flatter ride than the previous S-Class could offer. The Adaptive Damping System shock absorbers and the steering effort and feel are also tuned toward the sporty end of the spectrum with no dartiness, just a nice, progressive feel. The Automatic Body Control active suspension option cuts body roll significantly, and you can really feel it working when you throw the car into a fast, sweeping downhill curve like those we experienced on our Swiss-Italian test drive.
The Brake Assist Plus brakes are, in a word, spectacular in their stopping power and stopping distance performance. With this system, the brake lights go to full brightness and pulsate in the event of a panic stop.
It's also quiet. Mercedes-Benz officials say they spent an inordinate amount of time and money using human volunteers on the quiet aspects of the car, and called in some of the experts from the Maybach ultra-luxury car team. There are 170 individual pieces of sound and noise control equipment, including a patented front floor panel that cuts both noise and vibration. At continuous cruising speeds up to 125 mph, the S-Class is very, very quiet.
There isn't a better luxury car for the price produced anywhere in the world. It's lightning quick, 155 mph fast (limited by electronics, not power), much sportier than we expected, quiet as a winter night in Wyoming, and comfortable enough for the famous Bangor to Tijuana run twice a week for a month. The safety achievements alone would be reason enough to buy this car, but when you throw in the dramatic looks, the power and the performance, the case is made.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from the Swiss Alps.
Mercedes-Benz S550 ($86,700); S550 4MATIC ($89,700); S600 ($144,200); S63 AMG ($127,000); S65 AMG ($194,000).
Options As Tested
Automatic Body Control suspension ($3,920).
Mercedes-Benz S550 ($86,700).
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