Mercedes magnate

BY David Booth. Mar 04 04:00 am

This is the car bankers turn to when they want to impress other bankers. It’s the vehicle movie stars get chauffeured around in after they’ve drunk-driven their third Ferrari into a Corral Canyon wall. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is to the rich what the Honda Civic is to the rest of us. No matter what time you’re reading this, somewhere on the planet some VIP is being jockeyed around in the back of a big black Benz. And most likely in a long-wheelbase version of the 2016 S550 4Matic I test drove.

How dominant is the S-Class in the uber-luxury sedan segment? Well, Mercedes-Benz Canada sold some 1,126 of its rolling testament to hedonism in 2015. That’s more than BMW sold 7 Series, Audi moved A8s and Jaguar meted out XJs — combined.

It’s not hard to see why. Driving around in an S-Class is to feel as secure as gold in Fort Knox. It’s to understand what auto journalists mean when they claim a car’s frame feels like it’s carved out of a solid piece of granite. It rides as if on a magic carpet (quite literally, as Mercedes dubs its road-sensing, semi-active adjustable suspension Magic Body Control) yet never feels squidgy.

Driving the S-Class is to wonder how one ever managed to get by without massaging seats (14 pneumatic chambers in each, offering a spa-like selection of massages ranging from Active Workout to Hot Relaxing, with Classic and Activating thrown in for good measure). Or how anyone manages the summer heat without the S-Class’s six ventilating motors sucking heat and perspiration from your pampered posterior.

And why don’t lesser cars have a choice of four computer-controlled scents? The Air Balance system masks even the most malodorous. If that isn’t enough to set the proper mood, you can change the interior’s ambient colour via adjustable LED lighting. I don’t know what it says about me, but after a quick foray through all the choices, I just stuck with light blue and the Nightlife Mood parfum.

And, why, oh why, did we ever doubt Mercedes’ ability to get the COMAND infotainment system right? I now love the ultra-simple SiriusXM channel selection, thanks to its huge 12.3-inch LCD screen and Apple iOS-like icons. There’s another huge LCD screen right beside it, identical in size but housing all the speedometer dials and gauges in almost perfect analogue replication. Better yet, surrounded in piano black, and projected out from the (exquisitely quilted) leather-covered dashboard as they are, they look like ultrathin OLED TVs mushed into the centre dashboard. Cool!

As for the entertainment part of the infotainment system, the top-of-the-line 3D surround-sound audio system claims 24 speakers and 1,540 watts of concert-replicating decibels.

Driving the centrepiece of the entire Mercedes lineup also allows a first glimpse of the many active safety/semi-autonomous driving technologies that the rest of us will see in five years or so. Even in traffic jams, the S550 maintains a safe distance between you and the stop-and-go traffic ahead, all without you lifting a finger. OK, a foot.

The big Benz will also — at least for a brief period of time — drive itself back into the middle of the road should you start drifting out of your lane. Collision Prevention Plus, as the name implies, stops the car even when you forget to. Night View Assistant, way nifty for we oldsters with failing vision, helps you see pedestrians at night. It’s all fairly convenient, especially the adaptive cruise control.

The fly in the (future’s) ointment is the hyper-intrusive lane monitoring device. In its quest to prevent any wandering out of a lane, it cuts the throttle abruptly, slowing the big Merc quite dramatically, and 99 per cent of the time it is for nothing at all. If Active Lane Keep Assist be the future of self-driving, methinks we’ll be keeping our hands on the steering wheel for some time to come.

Besides, if a computer is driving you around, you won’t get to enjoy Mercedes’ monumental 4.6-litre V-8. The twin-turbo engine pumps out the requisite 449 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque required to get the 2,165-kilogram S550 to 100 kilometres per hour in less than five seconds. That said, the S550’s fuel consumption meter only registered as high as 20 L/100 km, and despite a 14.8 L/100 km official rating, the big V-8 spent most of its time during urban driving pegged at 20.

That said, someone spending this much money on this much car is probably not worrying about the cost of fuel.

More important is an exhaust note that is almost soulful and a seven-speed transmission that shifts more smoothly than Mercedes automatics of the past. It’s quite the dichotomy, but considering the number of automated driving functions it boasts, the S550 can actually be fun to drive.

If there’s a fly in all this technological goodness, it’s that you are never allowed to forget that you’re driving a complex car.

ou are always aware that this car is smarter — scratch that, way smarter — than you are. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have to fork over $150,000 to get someone — or something — to make me feel stupid.

Incipient inferiority aside, this is the most enjoyable S-Class I have ever driven. Complex it may be, but unlike with past S-Class cars that also tried to be technological leaders, Mercedes has taken the edge in its eternal quest for technological superiority.

There may be no fewer than 30 million lines of programming code and more than 100 comfort-enhancing electric motors inside a new S-Class, but more than ever before, Mercedes has made all that technology work for you.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016






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