Mercedes-Benz S550 — Afraid of no storm

By Al Vinikour

Often times we auto journalists test vehicles with heavy content of hazardous driving safety features, but in the middle of summer when there’s no chance to try them out under stressful conditions.

As my Grandfather Sam used to tell me, “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.” His sage words came back to me this winter when I was putting a 2011 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic five-passenger sedan through a test period. I had to get my taxes done at my accountant’s office, which is about an hour from where I live.

The evening before we were scheduled see the accountant we had  a 10-inch snowfall. On top of that we had about an inch of sleet. The local weather and traffic people on television were urging those who don’t have to be out to stay indoors.

However…no one told that to the S550 I was driving. It barely noticed the horrendous driving conditions it was being tasked with and it held the road the entire length of the journey; even on a freeway that hadn’t been salted or plowed. In the meantime my wife and I are sitting amidst one of the most luxurious interiors the industry offers — the S-Class Mercedes-Benz’s flagship sedan.

The test vehicle was equipped with a 5.5-liter four valves per cylinder DOHC V-8 engine with variable valve timing with 382 horses and 391 pound-feet of torque available mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission. All this power gives the S550 a 0-60 time of 5.4 seconds — not bad for a 4,455 pound vehicle. Equipped with the wrong tires in inclement weather conditions and you have a vehicle that will create more donuts than Baker Brown. However, when properly equipped like the test vehicle, there’s little chance of not making your destination…on time. (It’s just the other people you have to look out for.)

Among the 2011 S550’s new safety options are: Active Lane Keeping Assist and Active Blind Spot Assist. Both incorporate automatic ESP brake intervention. Standard safety equipment are four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and the 4Matic (all-wheel drive) System.

Also, the ATTENTION ASSIST system can alert the driver to the first signs of drowsiness. A steering sensor is coupled to smart software that uses 70 parameters to establish a unique driver profile during the first 20 minutes of driving. Between 50 mph and 112 mph the system identifies the erratic steering corrections drivers make as they begin to get drowsy and triggers an audible warning and a “time for a rest?” message with a coffee cup that appears in the instrument cluster.

Further safety items include standard Adaptive High beam Assist, Night View Assist PLUS, which allows a driver to see pedestrians up to 325 feet earlier than before. When the system recognizes pedestrians they appear in the display with an outlined frame highlighting each person; PRE-SAFE Brake can automatically apply full braking in emergencies; and a Torque Vectoring feature within the ESP that is designed to sharpen steering response during spirited driving.

Although the S-Class body style has been around a few years longer than some of its competition (Porsche Panamera, BMW 7-Series, Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ) it still draws looks from luxury car aficionados. Maybe it’s the old “luxury is timeless” line but it’s still a classic. Road noise is at a minimum thanks in part to the sleekness of the body. With a ground clearance of 5.75 inches it looks ready to pounce on the road.

And pounce it does. On dry pavement the power of this machine really shows. A smooth-shifting transmission and the S550’s huge reserve of power makes passing other vehicles in the shortest amount of time a piece of cake (or strudel, in this case). Whether poking through a school zone at 25 mph or going all out on the autobahn at speeds of 130 mph the feeling of safety is always there.

The interior is roomy and sweet. It’s evident that expensive leathers were used on the seats, and even the dashboard is encased in leather. Instrumentation is well lit. HVAC and audio system controls on the center stack work in conjunction with Mercedes Benz’s Cockpit Management and Data system (COMAND). The radio, CD player, DVD player, navigation system and a host of other functions are controlled by it. There’s definitely a learning curve and depending on your technical expertise it will be fairly short or somewhat longer. I grew to be very fond of it after a “break-in” period of less than an hour.

There’s a lot of passenger room for four. Even though it’s listed as a five-passenger sedan the legroom of the center, rear-seat passenger is minimal and uncomfortable because of a high driveshaft housing. Rear-seat passengers actually have almost half-a-foot more legroom than front-seaters. Total cabin volume is 125.0 cubic feet and cargo volume is 16.4 cubic feet.

EPA mileage estimate for the S550 4Matic sedan is 14 mpg city/21highway. MSRP is about $96,000 and with the options and delivery charges ($875) the test vehicle was over $109,000.

You’re always going to have some place you eventually have to go, and sometimes the weather is just not going to cooperate. So if you’re not inclined to live your life by the “microphones” on the Weather Channel, and you have the means to do it, buy yourself a vehicle like the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic sedan and run your errands in style.

You’re not going to find a Mercedes-Benz dealer — authorized or unauthorized — on the “other side” so take advantage of them while you’re here.

Base price: $96,000; as driven, $109,515

Engine:  5.5L 32-valve aluminum V-8

Horsepower: 362 @ 6,000 rpm 

Torque: 391 pound-feet @ 2,800- 4,800 rpm
Drive: all-wheel

Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3

Wheelbase: 124.6 inches

Length: 206.5 inches

Curb weight: 4,609 pounds 

Turning circle: 40.03 feet

Cargo volume: 16.4 cubic feet 

Fuel capacity: 23.8 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 21 highway, 14 city

0-60: 5.4 seconds (manufacturer) 

Also consider: BMW 7-Series, Audi A8, Porsche Panamara, Jaguar XJ

The Good

• Awesome control in hazardous winter driving
• Very good 7-speed transmission

• Extremely quiet on the highway
• Roomy luxury

The Bad

• Big cash outlay to own

The Ugly

• You’re kidding, aren’t you?