October 1, 2006
"You’re going WHERE for lunch?"
Well, to Montreal, of course. During my last year of university, when I had a bit more free time on my hands, I’d regularly drive to la belle province to grab a smoked-salmon bagel at Beauty’s with friends from McGill or some french fries at Frite Alors before heading back home the same day. I’ve gotten busier since then, but I love Montreal as much as ever and a friend had cooked up a plan to drive up, go for a Grand Neptune at the fabulous Queue de Cheval steakhouse and head back home the same day.
The Grand Neptune, if you’ve never heard of it, is truly a thing of beauty. It may well be the most extravagant appetizer you can order in Canada, a $300 cavalcade of seafood that cost more than $300 and is one of the most impressive pieces of food you’ll ever have brought to your table. Order one and an army of waiters swoops in from all directions, attaching a two-story metal superstructure on your table, to which get attached plates of seafood piled high with massive sea scallops, gorgeous half-lobsters, the most delicious giant shrimps you’ll ever taste, crab legs that are to die for and oysters on the half-shell.
Choosing the appropriate vehicle for the trip was easy. We needed something fast and smooth to make the ride up as quick and painless as possible; we needed something with an appropriately road-smothering ride so that our hard-working digestive juices wouldn’t be upset on the way back by Quebec and Ontario’s potholed highway systems. We needed, oh yes, a Mercedes-Benz S-class. A new S550 to be precise, with GPS navigation to guide us right to the front door, 16-way adjustable seats to coddle our expanding waistlines, a panoramic sunroof to further the food coma induced by the consumption of so much seafood in so little time and a 5.5-litre, 382-horsepower V8 to shorten the distance between the various points on the trip.
Our trip did not start auspiciously. The S550′s navigation system, having guided me flawlessly to my friend’s place with a gentle, almost playful German-accented female voice, suddenly decided that it really didn’t want to take us to a steakhouse. Instead, she kept insisting – ever more stridently – that we make U-turns, even though we were already in sight of the restaurant. Subsequent rest in an underground parking garage for a few hours allowed her to regain her bearings and her sunny disposition, but we were left to our own devices to find Queue du Cheval. Good thing we’d been there before.
No disappointment, though, with the S550′s mile-munching ability. The ride to Montreal was digested in two giant gulps, the big Mercedes cruising effortlessly along while its air suspension smothered all but the worst of the bumps. Inside, there were lots of diversions to distract from the straight, boring drive up highway 401. The Harman/Kardon sound system has a six-disc CD changer than can read MP3 and WMA files; there are endless configuration options for the car’s various electronic systems; there are sunshades not only on the rear windshield but on the side glass as well. Unfortunately, despite some consultation with the manual and no small amount of effort on my part, I couldn’t get the car’s Bluetooth interface to work with my cell phone, which would have also given me speakerphone and voice-dialing features.
In town, despite its size, the S550 proved to be surprisingly agile. It has a tight turning circle that makes navigating underground parking structures and narrow downtown alleys a cinch (indeed, to the point where the parking sensors constantly going off starts to get annoying). Its engine and seven-speed transmission are responsive enough to make the most of small gaps in fast-moving Quebecois traffic. It has excellent all-round visibility thanks to a relatively upright greenhouse and large side mirrors. The three-pointed star on the end of the hood makes it easy to ascertain exactly where the front ends. And when you park the car and lock it with the key fob, the side mirrors fold in to keep them from getting damaged by passing cars. Brilliant!
Toting a massive seafood-induced coma on the way back to Toronto, I nevertheless decided to take a side trip to Ottawa to drop in on another friend of mine. The S550 is that kind of car: it’s so comfortable and so confident that a couple of hundred extra kilometres behind its four-spoke steering wheel seem like nothing at all. With the sun setting, I noticed how fiber-optic lighting underneath the wooden dash panels cast a warm glow over the leather bottom halves; how sharp the instrument lighting was at night; and how the speedometer was actually a computer screen with virtual markings and a floating needle that would fade away in the middle depending on what trip computer setting I chose.
Given its size and powerful V8 (which sounds like distant rolling thunder when you’re hard on the gas) the S550 proved to be impressively economical during the highway stints to Montreal, to Ottawa and back home. Fuel economy over more than 1,200 clicks averaged 9.1 L/100 km, not a bad number for a 382-horsepower luxury sedan groaning under the weight of so much electronics and so much fattened auto journalist. Other "pages" available in the centre of the speedometer include turn-by-turn navigation instructions, maintenance indicators for the car’s various mechanical systems and audio controls. Like the knob and buttons used to navigate the main computer screen (which tilts side to side, understanding that it’s the passenger that will sometimes be doing the work), the interface is intuitive and easy-to-use.
While I may not be especially fond of the new S-class’ Ford Focus-like fender treatment (the rest of it is quite Maybach-ish and rather attractive), there’s no denying that it has real presence on the road. Other drivers turn and stare; so do pedestrians. They peer inside the car and ask what all the buttons do, and they all want to try out the back seat. It’s really comfortable there, with enough stretch-out space for even the longest-legged rider, with separate climate control and heated seats. Another nice touch is headrests that fold away at the touch of a button when there isn’t anybody back there, thus improving rear visibility.
I did the final run home from Ottawa in one sitting, the S550′s cruise set at 115 km/h and the Harman-Kardon Logic7 sound system cranked up. Normally, I start to get antsy after more than an hour or so behind the wheel, but the new S-class is so soothing, so serene that the miles just seem to melt away beneath its softly-pattering wheels. By the time I got home, there were still a couple of hundred kilometres’ worth of range left in the 90-litre gas tank, there were bugs all over the front and I felt better than I could have imagined after such a long stint. This, after I’d just arrived home from Europe the day before, with the attendant fatigue and jet lag.
Mercedes says the S-class was designed with input from ergonomists and other scientists to actually reduce the driver’s stress level; a claim I was skeptical about at first. Now, I’m a believer.
At a glance: 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550
Price (base/as tested): $118,500/$122,850
Engine: 5.5-litre V8
Power: 382 hp
Torque: 391 lb-ft
Fuel consumption (city/highway/as tested): 15.0/9.2/9.1 L/100 km
Manufacturer’s web site