Car Test   R0265
September 2002
Brief Test Mercedes-Benz S-Class
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Mercedes-Benz has an embarrassment of riches in its larger car range at present. This luxury S-Class model was hailed as a new benchmark just four years ago. Yet here we are with an important set of mid-term revisions to exterior styling, interior appointments and motive power.
   The reason is partly due to the arrival of newcomers like the Jaguar XJ, Audi A8 and BMW 7-Series; however, the recent advent of the new, much-improved ‘smaller’ E-Class creates a serious alternative (for less money) from the same stable.
   The S-Class is offered with a long-wheelbase that really puts serious distance between it and the E-Class saloon, in terms of both overall length and back seat space. However, the standard S body is seriously challenged by its E sibling for interior and boot accommodation, despite its still formidable length and width.
   Having said that, the back seat of an S is a good place to be, although we would like angled footrests and a less prominent centre tunnel. There’s full air conditioning control back there, and, on the long-wheelbase version, even an electric front seat adjuster – yet no way of removing the front head restraint. The boot isn’t enormous and there’s neither a seat-folder facility nor a ski-flap.
   Up front, there are some revisions to the switchgear, and a bigger TV/satellite screen, but nothing fundamental. What is significant, however, is that the S-Class incorporates its maker’s latest ideas on safety, called ‘Pre-Safe’.
   This is the first time that a car’s active and passive safety features have been combined; they act together if various sensors attached to the braking and stability control systems sense that a panic situation is developing. Excessive tail swing, nose drift or rapid brake-pedal depression alerts a computer that immediately tightens the front seatbelts, resets both (electrically adjustable) front seats to optimum safety posture, closes an open sunroof and even measures the occupants’ weight, so as to deploy the airbags in the best way, should the accident happen.
   Some of these measures are activated in an instant, but clearly, a sunroof doesn’t close very quickly and in this initial phase, an open door window wouldn’t be shut, either. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable extra safeguard and we’re sure it will be further developed and will spread to other models in the range.
   All S-Class models are automatics (so the foot-operated parking brake, which remains, is less of a problem than on a manual E-Class); there’s an interesting choice of new and ‘carried-over’ engines, however. The UK won’t be receiving any four-wheel drive variants, because there’s insufficient room underbonnet for a right-hand drive steering column.
   The trio of reworked engines includes the V6 petrol S350 which is now really 3.7 litres, delivering 12 per cent more power. It made a good impression on us, with a sufficiency of acceleration and excellent mechanical refinement, combined with sensible costs.
   However, there’s a new diesel ‘six’, as well (S320Cdi), although the larger capacity V8 diesel (producing a hefty 250bhp and a claimed 30mpg) yet again isn’t destined for the UK because of underbonnet space problems.
   The S’ ride and cornering prowess are a far cry from big Mercs of old. Gone is the vague steering and ‘don’t press me’ handling response. Pneumatic springing combines with active body control to make the car feel smaller than it really is, and it can be placed with confidence – within the space permitted by its significant width between mirror edges. Yet it always rides compliantly, as well – tyre rumble is virtually non-existent.
  considering size, price and rivals
Overtaking Ability
Fuel Economy  not available
Space/practicality  not available
Security, theft of  not available
theft from  not available
  • sensible steering effort on mid-range versions
  • superb door sill protection
  • perfectly positioned door armrest/steadies
  • plastic that looks (and feels) like suede
  • gear selector heavy-going/centre armrest obstructive
  • rain sensor has no sensitivity variation
  • nasty foot-operated parking brake
  • boot is smaller than an E-Class
Of course, the S600L (at nearly £88,000) with its V12/500bhp Bi-turbo engine represents the ultimate grandeur of S-Class motoring. Developed for the Maybach, but offered here for the first time, it’s both gorgeous and vastly extravagant. On the other hand, prospective buyers of the mid-range versions (at around 50k) should seriously consider the more compact E-Class, as well, if it’s the shorter-wheelbase S that they have in their sights. The mid-term revisions have made this large, luxury saloon even better – but the competition has improved, too.

size and type large/luxury saloon - long and short wheelbase   trim levels according to engine size and wheelbase
engines petrol: V6cylinder/2.8 litre/201bhp, V6/3.7/245, V8/4.25/279, V8/4.95/306, V12/5.5/500 (AMG: V8/5.45/500)
diesel: straight 6/3.2/204
  drive 5-speed stepped automatic with sequential manual mode; rear-wheel drive
notable features Pre-Safe injury avoidance system, electric front seats, cruise control, Airmatic pneumatic suspension, indicators/courtesy lights in door mirrors, metallic paint, auto wipers and headlamps, electric steering wheel adjuster

length x width (folded mirrors) 504x191
- legroom 94-124
- headroom 90-95
- typical legroom 101
- typical kneeroom 77
- headroom 92
- hiproom 137
load space(litres/cu ft) 525/18.6
load length 90
load width 99-137
load height 47
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