Redesigned for the first time since 1992, the full-size Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans are smaller, roomier, safer, and more powerful. All models feature eight airbags, a GPS-based navigation system, voice-activated telephone and stereo, and later this year, a cruise control system that automatically adjusts following distance.
S-Class raises the bar
As the biggest and most expensive automobile in Mercedes-Benz lineup, the S-Class sedan is expected to set standards for other Mercedes-Benz vehicles – and even other automaker’s luxury automobiles. For the past two decades, the S-Class has been the acknowledged leader in the full-sized luxury sedan class, even when compared with stratospherically-priced Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.
But it’s been seven years since the S-Class was last redesigned, and its halo was beginning to fade. Many worthy competitors have appeared in the last few years to challenge the leader, including the redesigned BMW 7-Series, the Jaguar XJ8, and the lightweight, aluminum-bodied Audi A8.
In my opinion, the redesigned 2000 S-Class will retain its crown, but it’s unlikely Mercedes-Benz will wait another seven years for the next S-Class. With the aid of computer-aided design software, new cars are now being redesigned in as little as three years.
The 2000 S-Class is new from the ground up – nothing is carried over from the previous model except its five-speed automatic transmission, but even that has been revised and offers a new manually-selectable ‘Sportshift’ mode.
2000 S-Class sedans come in S430 short wheelbase and long wheelbase models which have a 275 horsepower 4.3 litre V8 engine, and an S500 long wheelbase model which has a 302 horsepower 5.0 litre V8 engine. Sometime later this year, a V12-powered S600 long wheelbase model will be added to the lineup. Last year’s 3.2 litre V6 engine is no longer offered.
The previous S-Class sedan (1992 – 1999) was often criticized for being too big and heavy, and Mercedes-Benz responded by making the new model smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient, primarily through greater use of aluminum and high-strength steel, and a new line of smaller, lighter engines. The new S-Class is 225 kilograms lighter, 53 mm shorter, 25 mm narrower, and 4 mm lower than the previous (long wheelbase) S-Class models.
The styling now has a moderate wedge shape, and is dominated by distinctively-shaped polycarbonate headlamp covers, a lower sloping hoodline and a more steeply raked grille. At the rear, are unusually large triangular-shaped wraparound taillamps. The S-Class underwent thousands of hours of wind tunnel testing, and though it is a big car, it has a very low drag coeficient of 0.27, the lowest of any passenger car on the market today.
The S-Class uses the same 4.3 litre V8 engine as the E430, ML430, and C43, but adds a new 5.0 litre version of this engine in the S500. These all-aluminum single overhead cam engines have two sparkplugs per cylinder and three valves per cylinder (two intake and one exhaust) to help improve combustion efficiency and lower emissions, and a two-stage intake manifold to improve low-end and mid-range torque. The minimum service interval for oil changes is now 15,000 km (up from 12,000 km), and can be as high as 30,000 kilometers, depending on driving use.
The standard adaptive five-speed automatic transmission with a floor shift lever now has a ‘Sportshift’ mode that allows the driver to shift manually (without a clutch) by tapping the gear lever left to shift down, and right to shift up. It’s not really a substitute for a manual transmission, but it does allow the driver to control shifting points for more spirited driving.
The 4.3 litre V8 feels velvety-smooth in day-to-day driving, offering more than adequate responsiveness off the line, and effortless cruising power on the highway – it turns over just 2000 rpm at a steady cruising speed of 100 km/h. The passenger cabin is so quiet and the engine so smooth, that it’s easy to find yourself going over the speed limit. Like most German cars, the S-Class is designed to cruise comfortably on German autobahn’s at speeds over 200 km/h – 100 km/h is like a walk in the park for this ‘bahn’ stormer.
Though the S430 could not be described as sporty, handling has been improved over the previous S-Class model. The front independent suspension has been changed from a double wishbone design to a four-link design by splitting the lower links. The effect is to improve vehicle stability and ride, and combined with a new speed-sensitive, power-assisted rack and pinion steering system (replacing a recirculating ball system) improves steering feel and accuracy.
The most significant difference in the S-Class suspension are new air springs which replace steel coil springs. The air springs automatically adjust their height to keep the car level, and can be raised 20 mm by pressing a button on the dashboard. Conversely, the suspension automatically lowers by 15 mm at speeds over 110 km/h to reduce air drag and improve fuel economy. In addition, the shock absorbers have four different stiffness levels which are automatically adjusted depending on driving conditions.
All four disc brakes are now larger, and are cross-drilled to minimize brake fade. All S-Class sedans feature standard four-wheel anti-lock brakes, ‘Brake Assist’ which automatically applies more pedal pressure in an emergency, ASR traction control, and ESP stability system which helps prevent the car from losing control in slippery conditions.
Though the new S-Class is smaller than the previous model, the interior is actually larger. Cabin length has been increased by 38 mm, and there’s 6 mm more headroom. Cabin width has decreased, but not by much. According to Mercedes-Benz press literature, the new S-Class long wheelbase model is roomier than long wheelbase versions of the BMW 7-Series and Jaguar Vanden Plas.
The interior features a curved dash with plenty of wood trim, and a prominent monitor in the center dash area. The small, colour monitor displays stereo functions, but it’s not a touch screen – controls are to the right of the monitor. The monitor’s most important function will be for a GPS-based navigation system which requires a CD-ROM map for each major city – unfortunately, only Toronto will be available this year. The navigation system is quite simple: after inputting destination, it guides drivers to their destination using maps and oral commands.
Directly ahead of the driver are new electro-luminescent gauge displays which turn blank when the ignition is turned off. This bright, white-on-black display is easy to see and can be adjusted for intensity.
Front passengers sit in orthopedically-designed leather-upholstered seats with 14 different adjustments, including height, seat cushion length, cushion angle, and head restraint height. The seats are heated and have two memory positions. In addition, optional multicontour seats feature ten electric fans built into the cushion and seatback to keep the seats and the occupants cool during the hot summer months. These seats also have adjustable air chambers for lumbar and side support, and an ‘active lumbar’ feature which slowly deflates and inflates an air chamber to relax the spine. S430 LWB and S500 models are also available with optional rear heated, power seats.
All S-Class models come with voice-activated telephone and stereo volume controls, allowing drivers to keep their eyes on the road. This system is capable of recognizing different dialects and accents.
Advances to the automatic climate control system now optimize air flow and temperature for individual occupants. Sensors in the seatbelt buckles tell the system how many people are in the car and where they are, and the climate control system automatically provides appropriate air volume and temperature for each individual passenger.
Gee, what will they think of next?
Well perhaps, Smart Cruise Control. In the latter half of 1999, the S-Class will be available with an ‘intelligent’ cruise control system which uses radar to automatically adjust distances between the S-Class and the car ahead. If the car becomes too close, the system sets off an audible alarm to alert the driver, however the system is not designed to stop the car automatically.
No discussion of the S-Class would be complete without mentioning safety. Previous S-Class models were the first to offer such features as anti-lock brakes (1978), airbags (1982), and an anti-skid system (1996). The new S-Class has been designed for crash ‘compatibility’, meaning that it can protect its own occupants and absorb some of the energy of the other vehicle as well. The new model exceeds current government mandated crash tests, meeting a 65 km/h offset crash test and a 55 km/h side impact test.
In addition to anti-lock brakes, traction control, Brake Assist and stability control, the new S-Class has eight airbags (2 front, 4 side, 2 head curtain airbags), laminated side glass, automatic rear head restraints which raise when rear passengers fasten their seatbelts, seatbelt pretensioners and belt-force limiters, automatic child detection system in the front passenger seat, turn signals in the side mirrors, LED brake lights, deformable ‘crash boxes’ in the front end, subframe and rear bulkhead, and a heavily reinforced body structure.
With so many advances and improvements, the 2000 S-Class is a veritable showcase of technology, and is bound to retain its position as the world’s top luxury sedan for many years. Still, the S-Class retains that familiar solid, heavy, regal feel of a Mercedes-Benz, a character that’s quite different from its competitors at Audi, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, and Jaguar.
The manufacturer’s suggested retail price of the S430 short wheelbase is $92,500; S430 long wheelbase $98,850; and S500 long wheelbase is $112,850.