When the auto industry's luxury segment tries to keep up with the Joneses, it's the Mercedes-Benz S-Class that's often the benchmark. Whether luxury, technology or performance is the priority, Mercedes has you covered. The engine choices alone in the S-Class range from diesel to hybrids to V-12. The S550 we drove is the middle of the range.
Appearance: Regal, stately, authoritative. Choose your adjective. From the bold grille and three-point-star hood ornament, there's no mistaking this large sedan for anything other than a Mercedes. The S-Class manages to fuse Mercedes' classic lines with some modern flair: There's a sculpted hood to complement the angled grille. It's a subtle touch, and it's set off by triangular BiXenon headlights lined with LEDs. The fenders bulge impressively. Our tester also came with the optional Sport Package Plus One, which provides five-spoke, 20-inch AMG wheels and some body styling that includes a front air dam.
Performance: We were impressed with Mercedes' new twin-turbo 4.7-liter V-8, which we first drove in the CLS, and we like it in the S550. The "Bi-Turbo" has the right amount of power — 429 horses' worth — to carry the 4,455-pound sedan. It's not over the top (that would be the 621-horsepower powerplant in the AMG model) and hits 0 to 60 in an estimated 4.9 seconds. The exhaust note from the twin chrome tailpipes gave the car a hearty but classy rumble. The seven-speed automatic transmission, which has sport and eco modes, shifts flawlessly. One quibble: Lyra found the paddle shifters on the small side and a bit of a reach. The S550 is a rolling technology revue; there are a lot of systems to make the drive smoother and safer. A few examples: Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control slows the car when it's too close to the vehicle in front, and presafe brakes slow or stop the car when it senses a collision. (One nit: Peter doesn't like where Mercedes puts the cruise-control stalk — it's easy to confuse for the turn signal.) There is also Attention Assist, which monitors driver behavior and sounds warnings if it detects signs of drowsiness.
Interior: From the hand-polished wood trim to the top-stitched premium leather, the cabin is quiet and luxurious. The fit and finish are flawless. The comfortable front seats do your bottom and back proud: heated, ventilated and 14-way power adjustable. Did we mention they also massage? (Even the rear seats have eight-way power adjustments with the Rear Seat Package.) Again, there is enough technology for a Bang & Olufsen catalog (they did the sound system), but I think we've finally gotten used to Mercedes' sometimes confusing controls and interface.
Our 3 favorites
Massage: Anyone with back issues will appreciate the extra attention.
Feel: Just sitting in the solid and quiet cabin is a treat.
Bi-Turbo: Sure, it's a big V-8, but Mercedes says it's 20 percent smaller but 30 percent more powerful.
Dynamic bolstering: The seat hugs you as you corner. Love this feature.
Craftsmanship: Top-of-the-line materials, flawless finish.
Backseat luxury: Power seat adjustments are great for long drives.
The bottom line: This is what we think of when we hear the archaic term "motorcar." As long as a small carbon footprint isn't your priority, the S550 is as well-balanced a blend of luxury and technology as there is on four wheels.