New Car Technology   
Business sweet: Mercedes' new S-class
Yes, it's rather expensive. But you get silky smooth ride in a car that can practically drive itself.
By Peter Valdes-Dapena, staff writer

NEW YORK ( - Traffic was heavy and slow on the interstate heading out of New York City. In the midst of that slowly surging sea of north-bound brake lights, I sat in a big Mercedes-Benz S550 sedan getting a really nice back rub while the car handled the brakes and gas by itself.

When the car in front of me moved, my left fingers flicked the steering wheel-mounted cruise control stalk. That signaled my permission to drive. The S-class started up, maintaining a safe distance behind the car ahead. It got up to about 20 miles an hour before all the cars ahead stopped again. My feet stayed planted on the floormat as the S-class slowed and braked.

Cruise control? How very 90s. These five models can make you a better driver (one even parks itself). (Click here)

While that Distronic Plus "adaptive cruise control" system is probably the high point, the S-class is packed with technological goodies.

Thanks to a new knob-based interface and a few wisely-placed buttons, the S-class's new COMAND system, which controls navigation and entertainment features, is much easier to use than its predecessors.

A touch screen would be more intuitive and less distracting, but this wheel -- an improved adaptation of BMW's i-Drive - is at least better than the confusing mosh of buttons on other Mercedes cars. Inputs are relatively easy to manage and you don't have to use the knob for everything. Many functions are repeated on buttons mounted on the steering wheel, the center console, or the door.

The front seats, for example, can be adjusted using a seat-shaped arrangement of buttons on the door. But pressing a button on the center console brings up an interactive image of your seat on the center computer screen. Sliding and twisting the big silver knob on the console allows you to fine tune virtually everything about your seat including firmness, angle of the side bolsters, height of the thigh support and style of massage. (You can choose anything from "slow and gentle" to "fast and vigorous.")

Put the car into reverse and the rear-view video display includes a helpful grid of colored lines showing where the car would go given the current steering wheel position. With that sort of help, even the parking-challenged should be able to place the S-class like a world-class valet.

From the outside, the car looks ominous, with thick arches over the wheels and body colored bars stretching across the taillights. Inside, an art deco theme is played out in wood and chrome with a square-faced clock centering the dashboard. As the sun sets outside, a ring of warm orange light peaks out from under the wood trim surrounding the inside of the S-class's cabin.

Underway, ride quality is appropriately rich and creamy. Any bump smaller than a coconut is swallowed up by the car's air-filled suspension with little more than a hiccup reaching your custom-cosseted buttocks. Around town, there is a controlled sense of ease. The speed-sensitive steering is a bit too easy to swing around at low speeds, but it firms up nicely as speed rises and this big car handles quite well going fast.

The S-class isn't a car one would call "fun," exactly, but it is genuinely pleasurable to drive. Things stay comfy and settled as the car charges through a twisty stretch of road. There's no gritty sense of connection with the car and the asphalt but there's also no sense that the S-class is out of its element.

This may not be the car for those who seek to push a vehicle to its limits for the sheer thrill. But for those who might occasionally need to drive fast and to do it well -- outrunning a well-financed kidnapping attempt, for example -- the S-class should save you plenty in ransom money and can do so in great comfort.

It's most at home on the fast side of a cruising pace. In that mode, the S550 feels just about perfect, like a dessert that's sweet but never cloying.

None of this comes cheaply, of course. For the S550, prices start at about $85,000. My test vehicle included $10,000 worth of options, including the massaging seats and rear-view camera. With a $1,000 gas guzzler tax added on, the full cost rose to $104,000.

Expensive? Certainly. Wasteful? Perhaps. Tempting? Sure is.

Details and Prices:

Mercedes-Benz S-class


Beyond cruise control

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