2001 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

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2004 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

This 2004 review is representative of model years 2000 to 2006.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 9

Bottom Line:

Still considered by most to be the world's top luxury sedan.
Pros:
  • Rock-solid
  • Stirring performance
  • Advanced safety features
Cons:
  • Too high tech?
  • Costly
  • Low fuel economy

No reasonably informed neighbor will question your purchase of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class model because it's gotten the reputation of being the top full-size luxury sedan.

The S-Class once stood all by itself apart from the crowd, but now has more competition from prestigious sedans such as the Audi A8, BMW 7-Series and Jaguar XJ-Series. And there also are very costly extravagant new models such as the $300,000-plus Maybach.

But, in the end, the S-Class (the big Mercedes CL coupe shares a similar design) seems to make the most sense in terms of prestige, luxury and performance for the money.

Long History
Mercedes has prided itself on making top-line, technically advanced sedans since at least the 1930s. Even the engine for Mercedes' most famous sports car—the 1954-57 300SL "Gullwing" coupe with flip-up doors—was from the automaker's big Type 300 sedan. That sedan was Mercedes' first entirely new model following World War II. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright's son-in-law owned a 300SL, but auto fan Wright owned a Type 300 sedan in the mid-1950s.

The S-Class sedan—except for the low-volume hot rod S55 AMG version—often gets a bum rap in that it's viewed as being rather stodgy—or at least less fun to drive than the rival BMW or Audi top-line sedans.

Fast and Safe
That's mainly because Mercedes has a more somber image than those automakers, particularly BMW. While too big and heavy to be as agile as smaller sports sedans, the various S-Class sedans are very fast with safe, secure steering, handling and braking. They have firm rides that are comfortable, but still let you feel severe ruts and bumps—Mercedes never wanted to completely isolate drivers from the road.

The 2004 S-Class sedan features the world's first 7-speed automatic passenger car transmission, which comes in the S-Class S430 and S500 sedans.

New Seven-Speed Transmission
Most automatic transmissions have four or five forward speeds. Seven gear ratios provide a wider spread of ratios between first and top gears and give the transmission more flexibility in maximizing fuel economy and improving acceleration.

Not that there's anything wrong with the 5-speed automatic transmission in other S-Class versions. It adapts to a motorist's driving style, whether it be conservative or spirited. Both the 5- and 7-speed automatics have manual shift gates and operate smoothly.

The hot rod $110,250 S55 AMG S-Class sedan has a supercharged, hand-assembled 493-horsepower V12 engine that propels the S55 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. It's aimed at car buffs who want the fastest big Mercedes.

Variety of Trim Levels
There are a variety of S-Class trim levels. They all cost a lot, but resale values are high. They start with the $74,250 S430 V8 model with 275 horsepower and end with the $122,900 S600, which has a twin turbocharged V12 engine, also with 493 horsepower. The V8 delivers a mediocre, estimated 12 mpg in the city, but decent (for a big 5.5.-liter V12) 19 mpg on the highway.

Standard in the S55 AMG and S600 sedans—and optional for the lower-priced S430 and S500—is Mercedes' innovative ABC active suspension, which virtually eliminates body sway in cornering, squat under fast acceleration and dive during hard braking.

That suspension took 20 years to develop and uses hydraulic, electronic and mechanical parts to reduce body roll by 68 percent. A "sport" switch alters that to 95 percent reduced body roll if a driver prefers sportier handling.

No Tradeoff
That suspension solves the age-old tradeoff between ride comfort and handling precision; you get the comfortable ride of an S-Class sedan with air suspension while gaining crisp handling that compares with some high-performance sports cars.

The S430 4Matic model I tested had a cleverly engineered all-wheel-drive system, also available on the S500 4Matic. The 4Matic system automatically and normally directs 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels for confident rear-wheel-drive handling on dry roads. Even if three wheels lose traction under slippery conditions, the light, compact system can direct power to just one wheel, front or rear, left or right, to keep the car moving.

A Technology Showcase
All S-Class sedans are a showcase of advanced technology. Besides many comfort and convenience features, even the "lower-line" S430 and S500 have an air suspension system, GPS navigation, TeleAid assistance system, leather upholstery, an advanced Bose audio system, a sunroof, traction control and an anti-skid system.

Costlier S-Class versions add items such as heated and ventilated front seats.

Volvo often has gotten the most media credit for safety features, but Mercedes long has featured advanced safety items, such as the first auto anti-lock brakes.

Another example: the S-Class's Distronic adaptive cruise control, which automatically maintains a preset distance behind a vehicle in front with the help of a radar sensor.

Many Safety Items
Other safety items include front and rear side airbags and side-curtain airbags—besides anti-lock all-disc brakes with a brake assist feature for surer panic stops. There's also a tire-pressure monitoring system.

Optional is Mercedes' Pre-Safe system, which recognizes an impending accident and does such things as readjust seats to an optimum safety position, tighten seat belts and even close the sunroof.

All S-Class sedans feel rock-solid. Big outside door handles allow easy entry to the quiet, roomy, tastefully luxurious interior. It has supportive front seats that help provide comfortable long-distance travel and nearly limousine-style rear seat room.

Some gauges have rather odd placement, and some controls are overly complicated. But the often-used power window and seat controls are nicely positioned, and all doors have storage pockets. The luxuriously finished trunk area is large.

While many feel that the S-Class remains the top luxury sedan, others feel it's too costly and needlessly high tech. As always, though, it's thoroughly competent.

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BB06 - 8/27/2014 2:40:15 PM