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First drive: Mercedes-Benz refines S-Class

Classy: updated cosmetics and new engines freshen the Mercedes-Benz flagship.

A subtle midlife makeover aims to keep S-Class buyers coming into Benz showrooms

19 Feb 2003

MERCEDES-BENZ has moved to strengthen its grip on luxury car sales by offering more choice in the flagship S-class range, built around a wider line-up of engines.

Using the opportunity of a styling and features upgrade for the current series, which was first launched in 1999, Mercedes-Benz Australia has chosen to make the S-class more affordable with the return of a six-cylinder model.

The new S350 model starts at $175,900 and fills the niche vacated by the discontinuation of the S320 in August 2002. Since then the cost of entry to the S-class range was about $200,000 for the S430 V8.

The 3.7-litre V6 S350 comes in short wheelbase with an additional long wheelbase version for the limousine market at $190,900. The company expects the six-cylinder cars to dominate sales.

Bracketing the on-going 4.3 and 5.0-litre V8s are two dynamite performers: a sensational S-class version of the E55 called the S55 AMG (also a CL55 AMG) and a detuned version of the Maybach V12 which powers the S600 L. Both these cars top out the price list at $349,900.

The S600 5.5-litre twin-turbo V12 engine produces 380kW and 800Nm of torque at only 1800 rpm. This is 36 per cent more power and a massive 51 percent more torque than the old V12 S-class engine. (The Maybach engine produces 405kW and a considerable 900Nm of torque).

The S55 5.5-litre V8 supercharged engine is not that far behind with power of 368 kW at 6100rpm and 700Nm of torque between 2100rpm and 4000rpm. The factory claims that the S55 AMG and the CL55 AMG can accelerate from 0-100km/h in 4.8 seconds.

The revised S-class also features a new safety feature right across all models in which the car literally sets itself up when it senses an impending accident.

Call PRE-SAFE, it is what they term a pre-crash occupant protection system in which data extracted from existing on-board systems like stability control and Brake Assist can be used to recognise critical situations like loss of control.

Mercedes-Benz researchers found that in two thirds of accidents there is a relatively long time between the ability to sense an impending collision and the actual impact.

PRE-SAFE resets passenger seats front and back to the optimum position for airbag protection, pretensions the seat belts and, if the vehicle is skidding, closes the sunroof.

The S-class can now also sense the severity of an impending accident. This means that seatbelts can be tensioned ahead of impact and an assessment made to deploy one or two stages of the two-stage airbags.

A membrane in the seat also weighs the front passenger, which determines the firing of the two-stage airbag based on the size of the passenger.

Prices of existing models are between $4000 higher for the S430 and $24,000 higher for the S600 L (for obvious reasons), but PRE-SAFE, Parktronic parking sensors and TV are now standard across the S-class range.

The rest of the changes are window dressing.

The bumpers, grille and headlights are changed to separate the new from the old. Inside there are claimed to be 40 changes in terms of trim materials, seat features and functions and controls.

The brag book of various devices runs to many chapters. Basically the plan is to expand the range but not change too much to avoid making waves. The S-class commands a 45 per cent share of its segment worldwide and dominates the segment in Australia.

Since 1999, the S-class (2294 units) has doubled sales of the BMW 7 Series (1109) and left the Audi A8 languishing at just 78 units.

PRICING:Mercedes-Benz S350 $175,900Mercedes-Benz S350L $190,900Mercedes-Benz S430 $204,900Mercedes-Benz S430L $223,900Mercedes-Benz S500L $257,900Mercedes-Benz S55K $349,900Mercedes-Benz S600L $349,900DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:ONE of the great fears for a brand like Mercedes-Benz is that by trying to become all things to all people it will lose its distinction.

When a Mercedes starts at an A-class, you wonder about the potential to erode the cache that was built up from more than a century of catering to an exclusive segment of the market who were always prepared to pay for excellence.

And when the company is forced to introduce a Maybach over the top of the Mercedes brand, you wonder if this is not some insurance being taken over the potential erosion of the Mercedes brand values with the very upper crust of car buyers who made the brand what it is today.

That is a debate for another time. Suffice to say that the recently upgraded S-class remains testimony that the guys in Stuttgart, for all their mistakes in the "cheaper" end of the Mercedes range, have lost none of their expertise when it comes to the brand flagship.

Even the entry level S350, which brings six-cylinder performance back into the top-end of the brand and cuts in at a relatively affordable price of $175,900, is a car you can be proud of.

We drove the long wheelbase S350 L which offers 120mm more legroom in the back seat and comes with a slight weight penalty over the short wheelbase versionSix-cylinder S-Class Mercs have never really rattled windows under acceleration in the past so this return of a six brought back memories of lumbering acceleration from yesteryear.

Yet the 3.7 litre V6 has been upgraded for its S-class duties. Power output has been raised by 12.5 per cent to 180kW at 5700rpm and torque is up 11 per cent with 350Nm between 3000 and 4500rpm.

The torque is the key here. The S350 L, all 5.16 metres of it, responds well when called to action, and, providing you wring it out a little, you get strong pulling power for overtaking and keeping up with traffic.

It also impresses with quite leech-like grip in corners which means on quite tightish winding roads you can fairly hunt along without necessarily bending the speed limits.

Bumps? What are they?Cruising country byways, you get those inputs the Germans like to allow though to the occupants - road noise enough to tell you that you have serious rubber to work with, minimal wind noise but enough to let you know you are rushing along and, when stirred, you start to hear the engine as it gets on the job.

It reinforces what you often hear when discussing the traits of different car makers of different nationalities: "We Germans love to hear our engines."And that's what you pay for, thorough engineering overlaid by the gut feelings of generations of auto engineers to introduce sound and feel into the experience.

The car has more knick-knacks than a bric-a-brac bazaar. There are so many features you could spend hours explaining them to the neighbours and still not exhaust the handbook.

But we liked the way the cruise control turns off the speedo calibrations for all but plus or minus 10km/h from the speed selected for at-a-glance knowledge that it is on and what speed you have selected. Touch the brakes or turn cruise off and the full speedo calibrations return to let you know you are in charge again.

The on-board sensors also maintain a safe distance from the car in front (you can select the distance you want) which is handy when your fellow road users have their cruise control set a little lower than yours. Saves running over the top of them. If they speed up then so do you but only up to the speed you have selected.

It will even hit the brakes if you are closing on a car ahead too fast. The car is full of features like that.

Now we go from the sublime to the gloriously ridiculous.

The other car on our test drive diet was the S55 AMG.

At near as dammit to $350,000 this is one serious purchase and you have to question if boy-racer spec in an S-Class makes any sense at all.

Be assured, it does.

This is one awesome piece of machinery that makes car licences look like endangered species. But that does not have to be the case because, driven normally, it is as docile and has all the attributes of the more refined S-class sedans except there are more inputs from sound and seat.

In other words it's a little noisier and harsher. So what. So it should be.

The supercharged V8 has been given a most infectious growl and the exhaust has one of those rasps that man and boy know means serious machinery is at work.

And serious it is. This thing runs up to speeds that few would be game to commit to print in case the constabulary do some committing of their own. And it gets there riding on a torque level and curve that ignores the inherent weight of an S-class body.

So here is a car that offers the best of both worlds. Refined and respectable in any company going about its daily duties but capable of delivering a serious, full-on driving experience.

If $350,000 is play money, think about running it in the Targa Tasmania. That way you will learn all about what it has to offer in an event tailor-made for owners of such a car.

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