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2011 Mercedes-Benz S550

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The commercials you see for the S-Class Mercedes, about the debate being over, are really true. Not because the Mercedes S-Class is so much better than its competitors, but because with premium vehicles, the choice is purely emotional. Competitors BMW, Lexus, Audi, Porsche and Jaguar leave nothing to chance, so it’s about what you prefer. I chose them as S-Class competitors because they all have a model costing more than $100,000. This doesn’t include Bentley, Maybach or Rolls Royce, because they are much more expensive. Frankly, these customers are another level of wealthy altogether.

If you are a person that is interested in the Mercedes-Benz, you will be delighted with what happens when you get into the S-Class, either to drive or ride. I doubt that will shock you, because it has been true for some time. However, the latest generation of the S-Class does everything just a little better than it did before. By that I mean the drive characteristics are notched up. In the S550 that I tested, the V8 engine generates 382 horsepower and 391 lb.-ft. of torque. This is more than enough power to do what luxury cars do. The suspension is reasonably taut without being stiff, making for cornering capability far beyond what rational people will do with their S-Class. Again, being in this class of car, there’s comfort in knowing it’s there. You can get the S550 with either rear or all-wheel drive.

When everything is top-of-the-line, manufacturers can spend time and money pushing the car’s capability closer to the envelope in areas other than luxury and performance. With the Mercedes S-Class, there’s a lot of attention on the safety advances technology has created.  It would be too much to go through all of them, but just a list of technological safety features on the S-Class is impressive.

Start with the Active Lane Keeping Assist and Active Blind Spot Assist. They watch the road with cameras, and alert you – and actually vibrate the steering wheel if you wander, or if you seem to be heading towards a car in your blind spot. Both systems use Mercedes’ automatic ESP brake intervention.

The optional PRE-SAFE Brake system has full 100-percent braking in emergencies, and models fitted with ABC active suspension include crosswind stabilization. The Attention Assist system watches your driving and tells you when you need a cup of coffee and a rest.

Then there’s adaptive Highbeam Assist on the lights, again using a camera to switch between high and low beam lights. Then there’s Night View Plus which projects infra-red light giving you a night vision look 500 feet down the road.

You can get Pre-Safe braking that goes to full braking when it senses an unavoidable collision. Distronic Plus is Mercedes’ adaptive cruise control, and is a central feature in integrating many of these systems with the brakes, suspension and powertrain as needed.

Then there’s Parktronic with Parking Guidance which “watches” parking spots and tells you if one’s big enough for you. If you’ve got the active suspension, then you get the crosswind stabilization which changes the wheel loads to compensate very quickly for the breezes. Torque-vectoring brakes use the brakes to sharpen turning response by cleverly braking particular wheels to pivot the car more effectively.

The luxury must match the competition, and this Mercedes does. That hasn’t always been true, as the Teutonic view of luxury is quite different from the North American or Asian views. The Germans have slowly come to the conclusion that they aren’t going to “correct” the rest of the world about this, and have insured that their luxury is no longer impacted by their steadfast perspectives.

The big difference in this is that there’s a bit more cosseting when you’re inside the S-Class, not a difference in the quality of the materials used. So there’s a softer look and feel inside, with a focus on how things feel. Seats are covered in sumptuous leather and are infinitely adjustable. The wood is more evidently real wood, in spite of the high-sheen polyurethane look wood finishes seem to have today.

The stereo system is so good your grandkids will be happy. When you touch something in the cabin, it feels good to the finger. This interior is well designed, and lets you know that you are not in an average car.

Are these things important? You bet. Once you get past the emotional issues, comfort, cosseting and no-compromise really count. Now I must grant a buyer’s emotional response is of significantly greater importance in the decision process for these cars than in most other segments. But that’s only because there’s little in these products that is a deal killer.

If you think price is a deal killer here, you’re not in the market for a luxury car. Value may be, but not price. In some cases that’s part of the emotional appeal: look, I can afford this.

But in spite of that attitude the Mercedes S550 is a joy to drive and ride in. Doing so makes you want your income to explode so you could consider owning one of these a good – and achievable – idea.


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