The new S 500, unquestionably the best car in the class, and arguably the most complete road car in history, is the perfect riposte to the bleak news that has hounded Daimler Chrysler throughout 2005. Forget pension deficits, healthcare burdens and errant CEOs names after small crustacia, this is Mercedes showing us what it does best. Building big saloon cars to a standard that will leave rival manufacturers contemplating whether they shall ever catch-up. They have been trying –and consistently failing- for thirty years now. This new model, priced at £69,770 perpetuates the situation.
With the S 500, the horseless carriage is finally reaching the point at which little further silence can be expected within the confines of piston-power and radial round rubber. Mercedes has paid obsessive attention to the noble art of tranquility and the result is a driving experience like no other. Never has a driver felt so remote from the outside world, and yet remained connected to the car to such a helpful degree.
This is not a beautiful car. It lacks the grace of its predecessor, but it has enough presence to justify the badge. The cabin is a revolution for Mercedes and should raise a few smirks at BMW because the basic architecture is very 7-series.
But before Munich chuckles too loudly, it should closely scrutinise what Benz has achieved with this interior. It has managed to make a complicated environment far more approachable than ever before. There is a rotary control for just about every aspect of the car's entertainment, navigation and heating systems, but there is also a bank of one-touch switches for the most commonly selected functions, plus a separate keypad for the telephone. This is intuitive multi-function control design.
Meets considerable shove. The 5461cc V8 now produces 388bhp at 6000rpm, and with seven forward gears Mercedes has managed to trim the 0-62mph time back to just 5.6sec. Being so silent the performance doesn’t seem that strong, but watch the speedo needle at work and you’ll be both impressed and alarmed at the rate at which the numbers build. Up-shifts are felt with the faintest shimmer, but the gearbox can be slow to respond to a kick-down demand and occasionally thumps an awkward change. You get the distinct feeling that the only reason you can hear the engine is because Mercedes felt that occupants might enjoy some background V8-grumble. This has been judged to perfection.
At 1940kg, it would be reasonable to expect the S 500 to flatten the surface beneath it, but sadly it still has to contend with the vagaries of the British highway. Comfort is the primary reason for the existence of the luxury saloon because the class below is now so competent and spacious. Drive an S500 on the optional Airmatic suspension with ABC body control and (inhale) optional dynamic multi-contour front seats with massage function, then jump into an E 320 CDi and it will feel, sound and irritate like a ratty Ford Cortina. The S 500’s chassis is so well adjusted to its role as the filter between occupant’s bodies and road surface that it makes very competent exec saloons seem harsh. Virtually every aspect sets new standards: body control, medium and high-speed ride, head-toss, overall fatigue. You drive an S 500 and you relax. You passenger an S 500 and you doze.
Only in low-speed ride is this not the finest car made. So much of the pillowy levitation that characterised the best Jaguar XJ saloons of old was bound up in a fleshy sidewall. The S 500’s optional 18in Pirelli P-Zero Rossos have a 45 profile that no manner of air-sphere trickery can compensate for. They do however allow this two-tonne lummox to scamper where it should loaf: no owner will drive their S 500 in this way, but between jobs their driver will find great sport annoying 330is. I truly enjoyed flinging this car about, in the main because it has a brilliant traction control system that allows a degree of slip and the most subtle intervention imaginable.
Now is not the time to expand on the technology in the S 500: we haven’t the space. Sifting standard gear from options isn’t easy, naturally some of the trickiest toys are costly add-ons. But I have never before driven a car with night-vision (£1,200), and can only say that it is staggering. Nor have I experience of a car stereo half as majestic as the Harmon Kardon unit fitted here (£820), or of a digital telly (£820) with a better picture and more channels then the unit I have in my sitting room. I have used a car with a reversing camera before, but not one that integrates the radar function to outline how best to complete a three-pointer. And Brake Assist Plus (£1840) – a function that practically does all the middle-pedal work for you when the creek gets choppy and one’s paddle is missing- is currently more than I can deal with. Hopefully it is something I won’t need to use during my brief time with this immense expression of what the motor car has become. To look at, let alone purchase any other car in this sector would be lunacy. Talking of which, the outcome of next week’s group test is a closely guarded secret.