Review and photos by Laurance Yap

2006 Mercedes-Benz S350
Click image to enlarge

St. Moritz, Switzerland – Used to be there was an easy answer to the question, “What’s the best car in the world?”. Used to be the answer was the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. In times past, it simply represented the best the automotive world had to offer, combining the latest technological advances with unparalleled luxury, near-sports car performance, and enough room and practicality to transport you and four of your best friends in grand style.

But while the S-Class has always remained a superb car, the last few years have seen the market in which it competes evolve into something a lot more complicated than it used to be. Not only have the S-Class’ competitors gotten more numerous and sophisticated – the Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ now feature aluminum construction; Lexus has continued its march upwards in price and features; and BMW’s 7-series has gotten even more aggressive – it now also competes against entire classes of vehicles which didn’t exist at its inception. People shopping big Mercedes nowadays also have the option of luxury SUVs and crossovers, choices they’ve never had before.

Clearly, a mere evolution of the S-Class wasn’t quite going to do; Mercedes not only needed to move back to the top of the luxury car class, but it also had to establish its overall superiority in the car market that made it a default choice for those who simply want the best. To do that, they not only needed to introduce even more new features and technologies, but had to address the car’s overall packaging, the quality and ambiance of its interior, and its styling. The new S is more innovative in terms of technology than it’s ever been, but crucially, it wraps all the new goodies in a package whose overall level of integration and seamlessness is a step above any other car on the market today.

2006 Mercedes-Benz S350
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The S is a complicated car – all $100,000-plus luxury sedans are (for reference, a 2005 S430 4Matic lists for $104,300, an S500 for $122,900, and an S600 is $187,900). Into it are packed such gadgets (some optional) as the latest Bluetooth technology, radar-guided cruise control, Harman/Kardon audio/video system, seats with more power adjusters than you could imagine, a four-zone climate control system, DVD-based navigation that can automatically check for traffic jams and route you around them, a built-in car phone, and even night vision enhancement. Sitting in it and driving it, you get the sense that all of these gadgets have been baked in from the start, rather than tacked-on. The second-generation COMAND system, which is operated by a central knob eerily reminiscent of BMW’s iDrive, consolidates the controls for all of them into a clean, easy-to-use interface whose dash-mounted LCD screen is the biggest and brightest in the business.

Mercedes claims that during its testing procedures, it took the new S and its major competitors on a 500-km drive, and the car was so stress-relieving that its driver’s average heart rate was actually five to six percent lower than in the other cars. Driving the S-class, that’s not so hard to believe.

2006 Mercedes-Benz S350
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It’s not just that the electronic systems are well-integrated and easy-to-use (did I mention that the entire instrument cluster, which still has a 3-D look, is entirely virtual?). It’s because the car itself is so serene: there is a total absence of wind and road noise at most average velocities, the ride on the standard Airmatic suspension is superb, and all of the major controls have a gentle, fluid feel to them. Unless you’re accelerating hard, the engine remains only a distant murmur, and the brilliant 7-speed transmission slips so seamlessly between gears that it feels like a CVT.

In Europe, four engines will initially be available in the S, all coupled to the 7-speed. A 3-litre diesel will probably be the best-seller overseas and produces 235 hp; a 3.5-litre V6 shared with the SLK produces 272 hp; a new 5.0-litre V8 with four valves per cylinder produces 388 hp, up from the 302 hp from the outgoing S500; and the three-valve twin-turbo V12 in the S600 jumps from 469 hp to 417.

2006 Mercedes-Benz S350
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During the launch program, we spent most of our time in an S350, and it was just fine in most situations, smooth and with decent passing power on the highway if not the torque to deal with twisting mountain roads. The V8 is much better: it has a steady surge of power from idle right up to redline, excellent passing power that didn’t require the gearbox to slip down a cog or two, and with a rich baritone sound when you were really gunning it. By any logical stretch of the imagination, the V12 seems to be totally unnecessary now that the V8 is so powerful, but I’ve driven the old one, and the rush of the turbos really is addictive, and you do get the benefit of additional standard equipment.

With increased dimensions in every direction – the new long-wheelbase S is 43 mm longer than the previous model, while the wheelbase is up by 80 mm, width is up by 16 mm and height by 29 mm – there’s more room than ever in which to pack all of that equipment.

2006 Mercedes-Benz S350
Click image to enlarge

The new S’ interior feels noticeably roomier than before, which is quite some achievement when you notice just how wide and tall both the centre console and dashboard have become to accommodate the additional electronics. The good news is that those pieces’ extra volume – as well as the thicker door panels – also incorporate numerous practical storage areas, such as a large drawer at the bottom of the console, and lidded trays in the doors (above the traditional map pockets) which are perfect for cell phones, credit cards, and pens. The seats are bigger and more comfortable than ever, too, with standard 12-way adjustment and optional climate control, massage, and side-bolster adjustments.

More impressive, though, than the cabin’s increased volume, its upgraded equipment, or the airy feel endowed by an optional full-glass panorama roof, is the substantially improved quality.

2006 Mercedes-Benz S350

2006 Mercedes-Benz S350
Click image to enlarge

Though the design is pretty conservative – some would say the placement of the COMAND screen up high beside the instruments apes BMW’s 7-series – the materials used in the new S’ interior are first-rate, indeed perhaps an over-reaction to some criticism levelled at the last-generation car. The various wood and leather options beautiful to look at and touch; the only downside are the slightly cheap-feeling switches – they have a metallic finish but aren’t really metal. Thanks to the integration of so many systems into COMAND, with its central control knob and number keypad, the dashboard is also quite uncluttered, with the major functions selected by a single row of switches under the screen; you can tilt the screen, too, in order to minimize reflections.

As you would imagine for a top-of-the-line Mercedes, the range of optional equipment on top of the laundry list of standard features is extensive, ranging from custom “Designo” paint and trim finishes to rear-seat entertainment to an AMG body kit and an Active Body Control suspension which offers an even higher level of body control and handling prowess than the three-way-adjustable stock set-up. Like most Mercedes options, they won’t be cheap, and will inflate the bottom line more than you’d like given the starting price. At least a CD changer is now standard equipment.

Two options are particularly noteworthy, both based on seven radar sensors embedded in the car’s front grille and a pair of infrared headlamps: a night-vision set-up that offers better clarity and detail than the set-up previously available in the Cadillac DTS, and a cruise-control set-up called Distronic Plus that allows the car to start and stop itself in urban situations.

2006 Mercedes-Benz S350
Click image to enlarge

Mercedes’ engineers are quick to point out that the driver always has the ultimate control in all situations with the new S-class – you still, after all, need to steer – but Distronic Plus certainly is a whole new level of active cruise control. In town driving, you can pre-set a speed, and the system will automatically brake the car, even to a halt, in traffic, and maintain a set distance from the car in front of you while it accelerates up to a set cruising speed. Even on a tight mountain road with numerous blind corners, Distronic Plus worked brilliantly; in fact, it was slightly eerie.

Should things go wrong, Brake Assist Plus monitors the same sensors and can pre-pressurize the brakes, and beyond that, apply maximum force when you touch the pedal. If an accident isn’t avoidable, an improved version of Mercedes’ Pro-Safe system closes the windows and sunroof, and moves the seats into a position where they provide the best support for an impact.

With all this wizardry in the car, I started wondering about whether it would really be that bad if the new S could drive itself. It’s not that the car isn’t perfectly pleasant to drive – for it’s fast, capable, and composed well beyond the pace most owners will drive it at.

2005 Mercedes-Benz S350
Click image to enlarge

It’s just that, if the technology exists (and it does; both BMW and Lexus have programmed their stability-control systems to induce steering corrections as well as brake and throttle intervention) to make a car deal with the morning rush for you while you get some work done, or simply relax, and if that technology would then get out of the way when you want to blast out the cobwebs on the way home, or on the weekend, why not? Airplanes flying on autopilot have far better accident records than humans driving in cars, and can go faster and more efficiently when the computer’s doing the work anyway.

Such, I guess, are the things your mind wanders to when you’re in the new S-class. It is so composed, so comfortable, so totally capable, that you’re absolutely never fussed about the task of driving, no matter whether you’re scything through the Swiss Alps or trundling through downtown traffic. It seems the engineers really have, through the car’s mechanical and electrical magic, found some way of reducing your stress level. Simultaneously, they’ve once again elevated the level of performance and technology in the S to a point where it not just eclipses its competition, but also gets you wondering about the future of the automobile in general.

All of which means that the new S-class is back to doing what it has always done: it has comprehensively moved the goalposts forward for all cars in terms of luxury and technology. So long as you like its new bulging fenders – they’re a lot better in person than in photos, trust me – this may once again be the best car in the world.

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