January 2, 2007

Photo Gallery: 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 4MATIC

Specifications: 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 4MATIC

The Guide: 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 4MATIC

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For 2007, Mercedes-Benz has done some serious whittling on its new S-Class line-up: it’s been reduced from seven models in 2006, to three regular editions and an AMG version for 2007. My tester, the S550 with 4MATIC all-wheel drive, is a step up from the S500 of 2006; that model carried a 5.0-litre V8, while the S550 uses an all-new 5.5-litre V8. Horsepower jumps from 302 to 382, while the all-important torque number steps up from 339 to a healthy 391 lb-ft.

Prior to this new model, the S-Class came in two wheelbase lengths; the 2007 models, which can easily double as chauffeur-driven vehicles, come in only one length, but it’s longer than the long-wheelbase model of 2006.

Most cars intended for a “driven” audience tend to be understated, and the S550 is no exception. During my week with it, it usually blended into traffic; most of the attention I received was only from other luxury-car owners who knew exactly what I was driving. That’s not to say that it isn’t nicely styled overall though; it’s smooth and slippery, and while I’m still undecided about the tall Maybach-inspired trunk line, I love the exaggerated wheel arches, which make it look like it’s hunkering down on its muscular flanks. Like most Mercedes vehicles, it also sports an upright grille ornament – call me shallow, but I really like looking down the hood and seeing one.

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The styling continues inside, which is even nicer than the exterior. The wide charcoal dash is broken up by a burled walnut insert that runs its length, and is matched on the steering wheel and centre console. An elegant line of ribbed metallic centre stack buttons is echoed in the controls on the door and console. Cars in this price range always have meticulous attention to detail, but the S550’s interior is extremely well done, both in the materials and craftsmanship, and in the way that all of the components are meshed into a cohesive whole.

For all that, though, form sometimes triumphs over function: the tiny identical ribbed buttons look great, but they do require considerable time spent looking away from the road. They’re also used on the overhead console, to operate the various courtesy lights throughout the vehicle. Their functions are indicated by a backlit button, and one’s initial instinct is to press the illuminated button, instead of the unlit tab that actually performs the operation. No doubt an owner would get used to it in time, but as a temporary denizen, I frequently pressed the wrong control.

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Several of the controls are redundant, especially for the stereo and heater. Although you still have to go through the COMAND computer screen to adjust the modes, the temperature and fan speed can be controlled through the centre stack buttons, while the stereo volume can be controlled via the wheel, an awkward console-mounted dial, or onscreen. One redundant control that had all of us guessing – including the Mercedes-Benz representative – was one that allowed access of the front passenger’s seat controls from the driver’s door, including the power adjustment, and seat heating and cooling functions. Perhaps it’s meant to be used when less-mobile people are in the front seat; I just used it to bug my husband.

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My tester’s Premium Package included multicontour front seats, which contain air bladders in the seats, back and sides that can be individually inflated or deflated, for maximum support and comfort. Settle in, pump up the chairs around your frame, and you’ll probably want to toss out the lounger at home.

The centre stack, in addition to a lovely analog clock, also includes COMAND (Cockpit Management and Data System), a computer screen used to access many of the car’s functions. It operates via a joystick on the console, with a couple of console buttons that will take you immediately to some of the more frequently accessed screens. I found it a bit less difficult to learn than BMW’s iDrive, but only a bit: there are still a lot of screens involved, and I didn’t always remember how to get to them. And some simple functions, such as changing the radio station or the heater mode, must be done through computer screens, which is too much to do at 100 km/h. But I very much like the fact that, unlike many other computer and/or navigation systems, it doesn’t require you to hit “okay” each time you restart the car, having read the “don’t look at me when you’re driving” warning for the hundredth time. Instead, the warning flashes for a few seconds, and then switches to its function. A button on the dash turns the screen toward driver or passenger for easier viewing.

A push of the optional Keyless Go button, and the 5.5-litre comes to life: as would be expected, it’s extremely quiet. It’s mated to a seven-speed transmission that shifts as smooth as cream. If you want more control, it can be shifted manually using paddles on the back of the wheel, but I only used it once: the transmission always finds exactly the right gear, and there’s no need to override it. The V8 does a very good job: it will accelerate hard if it’s asked, but it’s extremely easy to modulate it, and throttle response is immediate. It’s so quiet and fast that you’re up into triple digits before you realize it.

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The 4MATIC system splits the torque 45/55 front to rear, but when necessary, the system will seamlessly shift it from side to side or axle to axle, to a maximum of 100 per cent to a single wheel. It’s more than just a way to get through heavy snow: on curves, the car is beautifully balanced, with flat cornering and almost neutral handling.

While it will return all the performance you want, there’s still a definite heft to the S550: competitors from BMW and Audi feel positively lightweight next to the Mercedes. But that isn’t a bad thing, not here: the S550 may feel heavy and well planted, but it’s still agile and never cumbersome, and the weight will satisfy old-school buyers who retain the perception that they’re paying by the pound.

The ride can be switched between “Comfort” and “Sport” via a button on the console; Sport mode stiffens up the dampers and sets the transmission’s shift points to higher rpm. You can definitely feel it, especially when taking the twisties at speed, when the S550 turns from limousine into performance sedan. I found that road imperfections intruded into the cabin much more than expected, but that’s the price to pay for the stiffer handling.

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Very few people actually end up within a vehicle’s advertised fuel numbers, but the S550 did surprisingly well for me: 13.4 L/100 km, compared against its rated 9.6 L/100 km on the highway and 15.2 L/100 km for city driving. That’s still a lot of premium fuel, but was much less than I’d expected to use, considering the weight of my right foot.

My tester was optioned with Night Vision Assist, a $2,500 feature that no doubt has its proponents but didn’t really impress me very much. Other automakers offer similar systems, including Cadillac and BMW, but this was my first time using any of them.

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It consists of an infrared camera mounted in the windshield, above the rear-view mirror, and a screen that appears in the instrument cluster when the system is turned on. The S550’s cluster is a combination of reality and illusion: the gauges on either side are real needles, but the central speedometer is actually a picture on an LCD screen (and a very convincing one, too). When the Night Vision is switched on, the speedometer switches to a black-and-white video, with the speedometer set below it in a line.

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According to Mercedes, the Night Vision projects an image that’s the equivalent of using the high-beam headlamps. There’s surprisingly little glare from oncoming headlamps, and the system does illuminate items far up the road.

The problem was that I was never sure exactly where to look. The owner’s manual warns not to rely on the display, but to “continue to look through the windshield”. When I did that, the screen became pretty much useless, as my peripheral vision tends toward seeing things beside me, not below me, especially since I look – as drivers should – at the horizon, not directly in front of the car. Nothing ran out in my path (normally a good thing, although it would have made for a better assessment of the system) so perhaps any unanticipated movement on the screen would have caught my eye. But without the opportunity to test it in such a manner, all I can say is that I found it more distracting than helpful, and in a few instances I found that I was watching it too intently – not a good idea when the traffic lights are all shades of grey.

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I don’t have many complaints about the S550. The side mirrors are too small and oddly-shaped; COMAND, while better than some German rivals, isn’t as intuitive as those offered by some Japanese automakers; the small controls, while lovely, are too fiddly when driving; and while others may disagree, I don’t see the advantage to the Night Vision Assist.

But the biggest complaint? I had to give it back. Now if I could only hit those lottery numbers…

Pricing 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 4MATIC

Base price $122,000

Options $ 10,400

(Premium Package of leather/burl walnut steering wheel, side window roller blinds, climate comfort multicontour front seats, luxury front headrests, heated rear seats, electronic trunk closure, Keyless Go $6,500; panorama sunroof $1,400; Night View Assist $2,500)

Freight $ 1,795

A/C tax $ 100

Price as tested $134,295


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