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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - S-Class - S320 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Interior space, on-road competence, build quality
Room for improvement
Can be mistaken for much less expensive C-class

17 May 2001

MERCEDES applied the less is more approach when designing its latest S-class range. In view of the fact its predecessor drew criticism for its more is less tendencies, this was entirely appropriate.

In terms of statistics, evidence the company succeeded in righting previous wrongs is certainly available. The car weighs, according to model, as much as 300kg less than an equivalently equipped predecessor and is actually smaller outside, yet offers more interior stretching space.

Fuel economy is improved to the tune of 13 to 17 per cent due to the combination of reduced weight and improved aerodynamic efficiency - the S-class is down to an exceptionally low Cd of 0.27 which makes it one of the most slippery cars on the market.

On top of that, the new flagship Benz scores highly in terms of road performance and safety.

The S-class protects passengers from frontal offset and side impacts at speeds in excess of legal requirements while still ensuring safe performance at lower speeds.

The inherent safety of the car's structure is enhanced by the use of dual front airbags plus side bags for both front and rear passengers.

The overall weight reductions came from extensive use of aluminium components - in the bonnet, for instance - and more than twice the amount of high strength steel than before.

From our experience, the accolades received by this new Benz are well justified.

The S-class, looking maybe smaller than its predecessor but still by no means diminutive, has undisputed presence on the road. Low slung, artfully shaped and undeniably Benz, it makes an almost discreet statement of affluence.

One of the most interesting phenomenons is the S-class feels to the driver like a smaller car. The impression of bulk is there but alleviated by a commanding driving position in which the driver, gripping a nice, smallish wheel, looks out and over a relatively short bonnet.

The impression of compactness is furthered by the use of multitudinous control systems that leave the driver with little chance of inadvertently doing something stupid behind the wheel.

As well as adaptive pneumatic suspension, the base S-class S320 comes with the Benz electronic stability program (ESP) to alleviate driver indiscretions, as well as deadly serious ventilated and drilled disc brakes claimed by Mercedes to be race car-like in dimensions and stopping abilities. In the long wheelbase S430 and S500, the rear discs as well as the front discs are ventilated.

Engines include variants of the modular V6 and V8 powerplants used elsewhere in the Benz range, starting with the 165kW, 3.2- litre V6 and topping out with the 225kW, 5.0-litre V8.

The S320's 3.2-litre engine develops 165kW and winds out 315Nm of torque between 3000 and 4800rpm - seemingly not a lot for the car's still substantial 1770kg but a remarkable effort for the engine capacity and sufficient to rarely leave the driver feeling a need for more acceleration. The factory claim for the 100km/h sprint is a very respectable 8.2 seconds.

The result is a car capable of moving very swiftly if asked, one that is never going to be an embarrassment during overtaking manoeuvres, or slotting into fast-moving freeway traffic of the entry ramp.

This Mercedes drives like a much smaller car, feeling relatively nimble at all times - more so than long wheelbase versions.

Suspension settings are alterable via a switch at the centre of the instrument panel, giving the driver a choice between a soft, boulevard ride or a tighter feel for press-on motoring. Regardless of which choice, the S-class steers and grips with calm tenacity, conveying a sense of security that cannot be matched by too many cars. The ride is outstanding in its ability to absorb road shock while remaining sure-footed and nimble.

Knowing that all the systems are working at keeping the car firmly planted on the road, the driver is free to enjoy the ambience of the top-line Benz.

In terms of equipment, there is not a lot that can be added. The S320 comes with electrically-adjustable front seats, electric steering wheel adjustment, the Mercedes "Comand" system integrating telephone, audio and satellite navigation, cruise control with a speed limiter for around town use that discourages the driver from exceeding a preset speed, rain-sensing windscreen wipers and an electrically assisted boot close facility.

The climate control system is clever too it actually adds up the number of passengers then decides on appropriate air volumes, while there is a sensor that samples the air outside the car and is able to shut down the intakes if the pollutant readings are above a certain level.

Despite the Benz obsession with simple ergonomics that have some of its cars looking almost spartan inside, the S-class at times overwhelms with complexity and throws in a few aberrations as well.

On the test car, for example, the radio defied ergonomic principles with its complex, non-intuitive push-button controls while the seat adjustment - and heating and cooling - buttons on the doors required a long, serious study before they could be mastered.

The keyless control system, with its gearshift-mounted start button and doors that seem to unlock at a mere thought, takes some getting used to. In particular, the engine start button - which also shuts the engine down - seems to leave the way clear for unintentional switch-off when selecting reverse as it requires little more than palm pressure to activate.

Other negative observations included a difficult to read liquid crystal display for the climate control and that tricky start button location.

There are a few of the expected Mercedes touches such as the familiar foot park brake, but the previous trademark heavy accelerator pedal appears to have been retired - for the S-class anyway.

The driver's environment is otherwise in keeping with S-class expectations with - there's some hesitation in saying this - excellent Lexus-style fluoro instrument needles and a steering column that lifts away from the driver's knees when the ignition is switched off.

Interior space, even in the short wheelbase S320, is excellent with German-style dimensions front and rear providing ample space for five adult passengers.

The boot is also exceptionally large, very wide and deep enough to swallow quite enormous loads. The electric-assist for the boot latch is a nice, secure touch.

Even at "entry level" the S-class Mercedes is an outstanding car, a bargain at the price considering there is really nothing out there that can touch it at the moment.

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