First Drive:  2007 Mercedes Benz S550 mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
Photo: Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

By Haney Louka

Kiawah Island, South Carolina – ‘Bargain’. That was the word Arden Nerling, marketing services manager for Mercedes-Benz Canada, used to describe the new 2007 S550.

But before you put your jacket on and head down to your local purveyor of Benz luxury cars to find out how much your 1994 Taurus is worth on trade-in, I should mention that this new flagship sedan starts at $118,500.

In the eyes of luxury car shoppers, bang-for-the-buck just took on a whole new meaning.

The ninth generation S-Class (W221 in Benz-speak) goes on sale February 10th and promises to stretch the definition of luxury, but not only in the context of indulgence. The big picture also needs to include strong performance and state-of-the-art safety features to make sure the well-heeled are ready for any situation that might present itself.

While the S550 is propelled by a 382-horsepower V8 (more later), a 510-hp twin-turbo V12-powered S600 will be arriving in April, to be followed by the S65 AMG with 612 raging horses. Wow!

Mercedes-Benz is certainly making a styling statement with the new S which has fender flairs never before seen on a car bearing the three-pointed star. But it’s tastefully shapely, a clever way to hide the immense size of this luxury sedan.

First Drive:  2007 Mercedes Benz S550 mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
Photo: Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

The list of standard features is too exhaustive to repeat here, but be assured that from leather to navigation to bi-xenon headlights, a “stripped” version of the S550 is well equipped indeed. Of course, there are options that involve massage, seeing in the dark, and having eyes in the back of your head to round out the list of everything you could possibly want on four wheels. Should a customer select all available options, the price tag would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $160K. And that’s before talking about the more powerful models in the line-up.

Buyers can order “multicontour” seats with 11 air bladders that can be adjusted through the car’s simplified COMAND driver interface system to suit each occupant’s desired firmness.

First Drive:  2007 Mercedes Benz S550 mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
Photo: Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

These seats can be ordered for front and rear occupants. If that isn’t enough, check the “driving dynamic” box on the order form and get seven additional bladders that perform massaging functions. But wait, there’s more: these seats can also monitor lateral g-forces and inflate the driver’s seat bolsters to keep him or her in position during cornering. I wasn’t aware of this particular option until I took a corner in a car so equipped, and I was surprised to say the least. I would classify this particular feature as somewhat gimmicky in its most aggressive setting, but a valuable option nonetheless because of its potential to reduce injury in a collision.

If the car’s computer senses an impending side impact (a driver would have to brake aggressively and swerve hard for the computer to come to this conclusion), the outside bolsters will inflate to move the occupants more than one inch towards the centre of the car, giving the side and head curtain airbags more room to inflate. And in a side impact, every millimetre will count.

First Drive:  2007 Mercedes Benz S550 mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
Photo: Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

For 2007, Mercedes transcends the traditional labels of “active” and “passive” for their safety systems, claiming that there are really four pillars around which occupant protection is designed, as a whole termed “Pro-safe.” The first of those dubbed “Perform-safe” is much like the traditionally defined active safety. It refers to systems such as traction control, stability control, anti-lock brakes, night view assist (which uses near-infrared technology to produce an image of what’s ahead at night), and bi-xenon headlights, all of which work together to help drivers avoid collisions.

“Pre-safe” is the second safety pillar, essentially positioning occupants before an anticipated impact so that the airbags have maximum effectiveness. Part of Pre-safe is found in Distronic Plus radar-based cruise control system. If it determines that the car ahead is too close, it can apply up to 40% of the braking power to slow down to a safer distance.

“Passive-safe” refers to the systems which are in place to provide the maximum protection for occupants during a collision. Of course airbags fall into this category, but also the passenger compartment has been made from press-hardened steel to remain intact during most collisions.

The final safety pillar in the S-Class is “Post-safe” which continues to protect the car’s occupants after a collision. Items such as automatic fuel supply cut-off, four-way flasher activation, and doors which are designed to be opened more easily after a frontal collision all work toward getting people rescued quickly. Most importantly, though, the car’s Tele-Aid communication system will get help sent to the site in short order.

In the new S-Class, Mercedes-Benz takes safety to a whole new realm.

While it’s good to know that Mercedes’ designers are working towards keeping people intact, it would be tough to sell a car solely on its safety features, particularly in this class. Good thing there’s a whole lotta performance on tap.

First Drive:  2007 Mercedes Benz S550 mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
Photo: Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

This comes courtesy of an all-new 5.5-litre V8 with – what’s this? – four valves per cylinder and dual overhead cams? After decades of insisting that their three-valve single-cam engines were every bit as good as (or better than) the competitors’ four-valvers, Mercedes has finally made the switch, and to good effect. Every bit as fuel efficient as last year’s 5.0-litre V8, the new engine produces 80 more hp and boasts an increase of 52 lb-ft of torque for a total of 391 with a broad plateau between 2,800 and 4,000 rpm.

Mated to a seven-speed automatic and powering the rear wheels (expect a 4Matic all wheel drive version this Fall), the S550′s powertrain is simply superb. The engine makes joyous sounds as it works its way up through the rev range and upshifts are seamless enough that they are hard to discern. There is a manual mode, accessed by pressing two buttons on the back of the steering wheel spokes, but it’s hardly a feature that S-Class buyers will be using after the first week of ownership. Downshifts required for moderate acceleration are quick and eager, but when calling for more aggressive pickup, there’s a hesitation before the transmission takes two steps down and launches the 2,000 kg sedan with authority.

Mercedes claims a zero-to-100 km/h time of 5.6 seconds, or 0.7 quicker than last year’s S500.

And if the Benz feels like it’s riding on air, well, it is. Airmatic suspension is standard, while active body control is on the options list. None of the test examples at the vehicle launch were so equipped, but I can say that the standard suspension is no slouch in its efforts to keep the big Benz from listing in the corners. If you need flatter handling, you’re probably looking at the wrong car.

Stopping the two-ton S550 is no easy feat, and Mercedes designers appointed four-piston calipers to squeeze 13.8-inch front rotors to slow things down. The rotors are perforated to keep cool, but rather than traditional cross-drilling, the holes are cast in to reduce the stress concentrations that result from drilling them afterwards.

First Drive:  2007 Mercedes Benz S550 mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
Photo: Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

And then there’s the indulgence: sumptuous real leather. Real burled walnut veneer. Real aluminum on dash and door switches. This is genuine luxury, through and through.

There are two screens on the dash, which happens to be one more than the number of televisions in my home: one 8-inch LCD for the speedometer, which doubles as the display for the night-view. There’s also an 8-inch TFT (read: sharper image) screen for the COMAND and navigation systems at the top of the centre stack which can be rotated through 10 degrees for either the driver or front passenger to use.

Shifting from Park doesn’t require the traditional manual labour of physically moving the selector between gates. Rather, it’s done through a steering column stalk and is easier than operating the turn signals. Up for Reverse, down for Drive, and push a button on the tip to put it in Park. It even chimes to let you know when it’s safe to take your foot off the brake and get out of the car, although I recommend a quick glance at the instrument panel just to make sure.

There’s plenty of space for back-seat drivers, thanks to a 50-mm increase in rear legroom over last year’s already commodious cabin.

And then there’s the bargain part: the starting price is $6,000 less than a 2006 S500, with more power, style, and features than last year. $118,500 for pushing the technology, luxury, and safety envelopes? Sounds like a good deal to me.