We have high expectations when we get behind the wheel of a car that costs $100,000. If a sedan costs as much as a house, or at least a good down payment, then it has to be a cut above. In fact, if a sedan costs four or five times more than a regular sedan shouldn’t we expect it to be at least four or five times greater in every way?
At this price point we expect no compromises. We want to be pampered in luxury while not losing any feel of the road. We want to look smart arriving at social occasions, but not be so flashy that we get nervous parking on the street. Mercedes has specialized in this type of car for over fifty years. Our expectations are high.
The S-Class has always been about providing an understated performance. It’s a sports sedan wearing a tidy suit. The look of the first generations was a snobby sedan with a sinister grin. It let others know that this uptight and large sedan could hold its own on any road.
The previous generation of the S-Class reversed this look. Its slab sides with curvy edges and glass just looked out of place. Almost like an everyday sedan impersonating a sports sedan instead of the barn-burner in disguise that the S-Class was once know for. The current car is a return to the look of understated performance. The round exterior styling on our S550 makes this car look inviting, like a large Volkswagen Beetle. But getting closer to the car, those curvy lines are surrounded by hard edges. The overall effect is almost is almost like a Venus Flytrap, where unsuspecting people will see an innocent machine, but those who get lose see there are sharp teeth to this machine.
The interior is the easiest place to show off what the high sticker price is for. Mercedes has had a lot of experience making customers feel like they got their money’s worth. Everything that is seen is premium: real wood, soft leather and durable metals.
The centerpiece is the COMMAND center with satellite navigation. The entire car can be programmed from this screen and joystick combination. This center screen carries controls for everything from suspension adjustment to interior lighting intensity; from radio controls to DVD movies, and everything in between. Just like BMW’s iDrive, the COMMAND system is the nerve center of the car; but unlike the iDrive this one is much more intuitive.
But the COMMAND center is not the only TV screen in the car. The speedometer is actually a representation of a gauge on a small LCD screen. On our car this meant that we had helpful reminders flash in the middle of our speedometer, those willing to pay $5,000 more for an optional package will get a very cool night vision system projected in that area.
A nifty option (as part of a $10K package) was what Mercedes calls Drive-Dynamic Multicontour front seats. We can program these seats to inflate air bladders in the side bolsters to provide extra support in the turns. This can be put in four settings of intensity with one being a little gentle help and four feeling like a phantom hand grabbing your butt. As an added bonus these seats will also massage you all the way home.
We’ve avoided using the word “ultra” so far in this review so we could save it up to describe the drivetrain. The S550 comes with an ultra-quiet and ultra-responsive 382 hp 5.5-liter V8. The seven-speed transmission can only be described as ultra-smooth. Even under hard acceleration, there is no break in the ultra-luxury feel.
The adaptive air bladders in the seats are somewhat helpful. On its highest setting, it became more of a novelty only because we couldn’t find a place to drive the car so hard we need the seats to inflate so much and so fast.
The car is a supercomputer on wheels. It would take volumes do describe all the different drives that are capable between programming the different ride settings including the Airmatic adjustable and adaptable suspension. But no matter the setting one thing is constant with this car, it does not feel like a 17-foot, 4400 lbs car. Somehow Mercedes set up the driving dynamics of a much smaller car. It doesn’t give up any luxury ride, but the driver has so much input from the road that it’s easier to park than some cars half its size.
The overall impression is the S550 is a lion in waiting. We never got the car to break its stride, no matter how hard we drove it. If we threw it into a corner, the ESP would bring us right through; if we punched the gas pedal, the suspension leveled and the transmission would adapt so there were now abrupt shifts. Mercedes did its homework; no matter how hard we tried, the S550 would not show its teeth.
The S550 is the base model in the S-Class lineup. At a starting price of $86,950 (our tester topped out at $99,675) there is nothing basic about it. There are other models with bigger engines and higher price tags, but were happy to stop here. Our S550 provided a correct mix of performance sedan, passenger room and luxury options (with a dash of anonymity,) that made this a very endearing expensive car.