Mercedes S550 — sweet elegance and a tour de force

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It was a 20-minute demonstration.

Astonishingly, it turned out to be enough to get us on the road with the radio tuned to our favorite satellite station and the climate control regulating the interior temperature at 72 degrees.

The guy who delivered the Mercedes-Benz S550 was very thorough considering he was interrupted several times with our questions.

This is high praise for the delivery man, but even more so for the all-new Mercedes S-Class because German-engineered cars — particularly high-end models — have become so computer intensive that few people can slip behind the wheel and do much more than start the engine — and perhaps not even that — without instructions from a person or a book.

And what made his efforts even more difficult, our 2007 model test car was loaded to the fenders with high-tech options. Fortunately we had also attended the introduction event for the S-Class earlier this year in the shadow of Camelback Mountain just outside of Phoenix. But we sure needed the refresher course.

But back to the instructor in the driveway, “These things are really easy to operate,” the man said more than once as he went from one command to another. He knew we needed convincing having experienced the original BMW iDrive, a real headache inducer, and the previous Mercedes COMAND system, no award winner for simplicity either. “It’s really not hard to use these features,” he said again as he demonstrated how to access this and then that. Fortunately some of what we learned in Arizona was coming back.

Even with what we knew and what he showed us, he didn’t convince us.

But we convinced ourselves, failing memory or not, in just minutes much seemed so familiar, and after just a hour behind the wheel operating many of the sedan’s daunting functions on the surface we concluded Mercedes has done an incredible job in making the difficult easier.

But should a car be this complicated, even on the surface? The honest answer is no.

But when a car is designed with so many gee-whiz features, it comes with complications.
The Germans — specifically BMW and Mercedes — decided several years ago that the best way to handle the ever-growing myriad of features was through the use of a hand-operated control.

Mercedes has redesigned its COMAND (Cockpit Management and Data) system, operated by a round computer mouse-like aluminum knob in the center console where the transmission shifter is usually found. And it’s more user friendly than the previous iteration, easier to follow the prompts and reach the desired goal. Once past the fright it even became easy for us.

The center console knob activates menus in an eight-inch dashboard display screen including audio, telephone, navigation, climate control and other functions.

Mercedes, gratefully, has created backup systems for most of the operations. For example, it’s possible to access many of the climate controls through more conventional dashboard buttons. There’s a simple on/off switch for the audio system and a separate volume control. And there are redundant buttons on the steering wheel and if all else fails, the driver can turn on voice activation and use voice commands to navigate through the maze of features.

Once inside and underway you can easily reach the conclusion that you are not only sitting in the most technologically advanced sedan in the world, but possibly the best sedan in the world.

Start up the ultra-quiet 5.5-liter 382-horsepower V-8 via the push of a button and then glide ahead on Mercedes’ plush-riding air suspension using the tiny stalk to the right of the steering wheel which substitutes for the conventional transmission shifter. Hit the accelerator and experience a rush of quiet energy that will push you back into a wonderfully designed seat.

Reach highway speeds and marvel at the library-hushed interior that is all but devoid of wind and road noise. It is sweet elegance and a tour de force. You will find that the steering has point-and-shoot accuracy, and that the brakes are delightfully receptive.

Turn on the audio system — which we recommend you set up and tune to your favorite channels before moving the car — and be amazed at sound quality that will rival the most expensive home systems.

Can life be this good? It can if you have $86,175 to purchase the base S550 and another 15 to 20 grand to add those options that even the most experienced car fanatic would not believe existed.

The new luxury sedan is currently offered in two trim levels, as the S550 and with a twin-turbo V-12 as the S600. It will soon be available with a 4.6-liter, 335-horsepower V-8, designated as the S450.

The 5.5-liter V-8 in the S550 makes 382 horsepower, (80 more than in the outgoing 5.0-liter V-8) and 392 pound-feet of torque. The engine’s smooth, aggressive power is delivered through a new 7-speed automatic transmission, which can be regulated manually through rocker switches on the back of the steering spokes.

If you spend nearly six figures for a car (and you will if you buy the S600) — no matter what kind of car — you expect commensurate performance. And the S550 delivers with a 0-to-60 time of 5.3 seconds as measured by a automotive publication and a quarter mile time of 13.7 seconds at 102 miles per hour.

The list of standard equipment is longer than our weekly grocery list and includes such state-of-the-art features as Mercedes Pre-Safe system that senses an impending crash and prepares for it by doing such things as tightening the seatbelts and repositioning the power seats for maximum airbag protection

The list of options is almost as long as the list of standard equipment, with many of the extra goodies costing thousands of dollars. You will have to decide the size of your candy-store budget. It has been estimated that most buyers will run the price of their S550 close to six figures. Our test car was loaded with a bottom line of $110,155. Our house cost less.

But it’s some of the high-priced options that really astound.

The dynamic front seat option allows for heated and cooled surfaces, side bolsters that automatically stiffen in reaction to cornering forces, and “magic fingers” that provide everything ranging — your choice — from a gentle to a vigorous back massage to
Distonic Plus adaptive cruise control that uses a pair of radar beams to brake and accelerate the car as needed, taking the speed all the way down to zero and then back up once traffic is moving. Distronic Plus is about as close to remote control driving as you can get. The thing that impressed us most was the rapid acceleration back to speed once a slower-moving vehicle was out of the way.

Perhaps the most impressive feature (at $1,775) is night vision, called Night View Assist. The system throws out one infrared light beam from each headlight assembly. The result is captured by an infrared camera creating an astonishingly clear black and white video image on a screen displayed over the speedometer on the instrument panel. You can look far into the night with an image so clear that road signs can easily be read.

Without question if you stick to the base price car, you will still be driving perhaps the most elite sedan in America. And we suppose that’s comforting – all things considered.


Base price: $86,175; as driven, $110,155
Engine: 5.5-liter V-8
Horsepower: 382 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 391 pound-feet @ 2,800 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Turning circle: 40 feet
Trunk space: 20 cubic feet
Wheebase: 124.6 inches
Length: 205 inches
Curb weight: 4,688 pounds
Fuel capacity: 23.8 gallons – premium fuel
EPA mileage: 24 mpg highway, 16 city
0-60: 5.3 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: BMW 750i, Lexus LS430, Jaguar XJ

The Good:
*Strong V-8 engine delivers exciting performance at any speed.
*State-of-the-art equipment takes motoring to a new level of sophistication.
*Costs less than the vehicle it replaces.

The Bad:
*COMAND system has been simplified, but it’s still too complicated to safely operate while driving.
*Expensive options run up the price – fast!

The Ugly:
*We can’t afford the down payment.