January 28 2008
North Vancouver, British Columbia – There’s a general sense out there that over the last half-decade or so, longtime and iconic luxury car builder Mercedes-Benz has made a profound philosophical shift to build cars for the masses.
Apparently someone forgot to tell Mercedes S-Class engineers and designers about this wholesale change, as the 2008 S450 sedan is nothing short of sumptuous motoring for the fortunate few.
With a base sticker price north of $100,000 and a standard equipment catalogue that would make an oil sheik blush, the S450 is the entry-level 2008 S-Class sedan, joined by stablemates S550, S600, S63 AMG and the ungodly S65 AMG, starting at a cool $229,500.
So, while it’s true that Mercedes-Benz has gone down-market in recent years with affordable vehicles such as the B-Class sport tourer and the C-Class model line, the Stuttgart automaker is still as committed to building luxury vehicles as it has been since forming in the mid-1920s.
Just sitting in the new S450 will tell you that. Surrounded – make that ensconced – by leather, burl walnut and that distinctive Mercedes new car smell, the cabin of this luxury cruiser is a feast for the senses. Visually, the clean, crisp lines of the swooping dashboard integrate seamlessly into the wood and chrome-trimmed door panels. Likewise, a nicely shaped canopy that completes the aeronautic cockpit-feel of the cabin’s dashboard shrouds the driver’s gauges and controls, including the user-friendly and easy-to-read 20-inch colour display screen.
That colour display screen is the main reason the S450’s dash has such a clean and uncluttered look. Apart from the headlights, the transmission and the brakes, pretty much every function performed by the big sedan’s big computer brain is controlled by the ‘push-and-turn mouse’ dial located on the centre console, which in turn is displayed on the information screen. This system, dubbed the COMAND system, takes some getting used to, but after just a couple of days the intuitive feedback from the aluminum dial becomes second nature and I found myself easily scrolling through the various menus — audio, climate, navigation, seat settings, telephone, even opening and closing the windows. And when I threw the S450 in reverse using the small gearbox shifter attached to the steering column, the display screen turned into a video monitor as the optional rearview camera displayed a wide and clear perspective of what was behind the car.
There are a couple of things I didn’t like about the interior. First, Mercedes may well be proud and attached to the use of as many steering wheel shaft ‘stalks’ as it can hold, but I find them to be a distraction as I often turn on one when I’m trying to turn on another.
More of a distraction, though more to my aesthetic sensibilities than my dexterous abilities, was the Bluetooth device attached to the centre console cargo space. Apart from looking like a remote control for a futuristic Playstation, the Bluetooth adapter was located in a spot where house keys, wallets, coins and all kinds of loose stuff are stored. Meaning you either give up the space to the odd-looking thing, or you pile your stuff all around and under it. Either way, not a compromise an owner of such a vehicle should have to make.
In addition to having Bluetooth integration — also standard on C-, M-, R-, GL-, E- and CLS-Class vehicles — the S450 features an auxiliary audio input and SIRIUS satellite radio.
My test unit was outfitted with both the AMG Sport Package and the S450 Premium Package, with the former adding refinement to an already solid performance-oriented chassis and the latter providing the kind of technological features only found in cars of this nature. Take the driver’s seat, for instance. Like the front passenger seat it offers 14-way power adjustment and three-memory positions. It can also be equipped with a ventilation option, where fans in the bottom of the seats pull cool air from the floor or the car and circulate it throughout the seats.
There’s a massage option and even an inflating lumber support, that fills and empties twice a minute. But the most impressive piece of seat wizardry is pneumatic side bolsters which inflate and deflate in relation to the strength of lateral Gs being exerted on the car. Like the COMAND system, it takes some getting used to, but once you realize when you throw the big and stable car into a corner that you aren’t going to slide on the seat, you really get in tune with driving the car.
As much as the interior of the 2008 S450 is a testament to Mercedes’ long tradition of quality cabins, all the leather and wood and high-technology sort of fades away when you get around to actually driving the sedan.
Just as that cabin is equipped with state-of-the-art features — from a Harman/Kardon stereo to voice control command — the underpinnings of the sedan are decidedly cutting edge. From radar sensor technology that determines if you are braking hard enough to avoid a collision to an active night-vision system that can extend the driver’s ability to see ahead more than 150 metres, the S450 is equipped with a laptop’s worth of computerized software designed to make the driving experience better, safer and more economical.
On that last point, the 4663-cc all-aluminum V8 produces 335 horsepower, hurtling the large car from zero to 100 km-h in just 5.9 seconds, but thanks to some improvements to the powerplant when the new generation S450 debuted last year, the fuel efficiency isn’t as bad as previous Mercedes’ big block V8s. These improvements include the use of tumble flaps and two close-coupled catalytic converters. The seven-speed automatic gearbox also assists in keeping the fuel mileage down (or, depending how to look at it, up).
Perhaps the biggest tribute to all this technology is to say that when you have the S450 up to highway speed and on the open road, none of that high-tech gear gets in the way. It’s just you and the steering wheel and the gas pedal and the brake.
And in the hands and feet of someone who knows how to drive, the S450 is a remarkably agile and nimble car, in spite of its large presence. Cornering is crisp and responsive; acceleration, as earlier noted, is fast of the mark and even at high speeds the throttle responses with a roar; and braking – and this is wholly due to that hidden technology – is rock solid.
Mercedes’ patented 4MATIC all-wheel drive system adds another layer of control to the S450, and in concert with computerized traction control and brake assist, create a seemingly unflappable chassis.
All in all, the 2008 S450 not only reconfirms Mercedes-Benz’s commitment to building among the finest most luxurious automobiles in the world, but also demonstrates that far from being a builder for the masses, the German manufacturer continues to cater to the elite and discerning customer.
Pricing: 2008 Mercedes-Benz S450
|(premium package, $4,200; sport package, $2,000; comfort access, $750)|
|Price as tested:||$||
Manufacturer’s web site