2000 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Still big, but no longer a behemoth.
Mercedes-Benz has completely redesigned its top-of-the-line S-Class sedans for 2000. The S430 is powered by a 4.3-liter V8, while the S500 uses a 5.0-liter V8. The two S-Class models sport a striking coupe-like profile and a unique face reminiscent of the company's oval-headlight models.
They aren't as long overall as the previous generation of S-Class cars, but they are roomier, faster, lighter, more efficient and far more sophisticated.
The S-Class earned the 'Best of Show' award at the most recent Paris Motor Show. Mercedes cars are vastly improved from where they were nearly a decade ago: When the last-generation S-Class debuted, it became an object of derision. It was a masterpiece of engineering, but it became a symbol of an era that had come and gone. It was too heavy, ostentatious and expensive and it guzzled gas.
The shortcomings of the S-Class made it clear the automaker needed to break with its smug tradition. It was time to listen to the customer and watch the competition--particularly a newcomer called Lexus.
This newly redesigned 2000 Mercedes-Benz S500 is proof that Mercedes has seen the light, a symbol of a turnaround. It debuted in Europe last fall and is now making its appearance at U.S. dealerships -- 18 months ahead of the company's original schedule.
Two models comprise the S-Class lineup: the $70,295 S430 and the $78,445 S500. (Prices include the $595 destination charge.)
The old S-Class was among the world's most refined automobiles, but it had a Germanic formalness that was never truly inviting. One felt more admiration than aspiration. Not so the 2000 edition S500. It is still very Teutonic in design, clearly expensive, but far less imperious. It is a much warmer, inviting and contemporary vehicle, softer and, yes, even sensuous. The S500 is now more than just a car you'd like to be seen in. Now it looks like one that would be fun to drive.
The old S-Class was the definition of overkill. To minimize wind noise, for example, the windows consisted of two thick panes of glass sandwiched together. It's an example of why the old S-Class was so massive, weighing a daunting 5000 pounds. The new S-Class still has double glass, sandwiched around a noise-reducing plastic sheet, but the panes are half as thick yet just as quiet. They're also notably lighter. Mercedes engineers paid painstaking attention to holding down the new car's weight, ultimately trimming 500 pounds off the new S500.
They've also downsized the wheelbase and overall length by more than 2 inches. It's 1.3 inches narrower and nearly 2 inches lower. There's a modest loss in shoulder room, but it is a statistical anomaly in a car this big. What you're more likely to notice is that there's more leg- and headroom due to clever engineering and better component placement.
The old S-Class interior was luxurious, functional, comfortable, yet cold and forbidding, like the home of a rich widowed aunt where children are firmly reminded to remain on their best behavior. The 2000 S500's cabin is warmer and more inviting. There's an almost Mediterranean influence in the way Mercedes designers have melded wood, metal and leather. You feel like you could stretch your feet out and relax on the sofa.
The new S500 has a cockpit-like feel and a formidable array of electronic features.
The most notable is the Distronic Active Cruise Control system. Set your desired speed, and it uses a radar system to scan the road ahead. If you come upon slower traffic, or someone unexpectedly pulls into your lane, Distronic will back off the throttle, downshift, even apply up to 20 percent of the car's braking force in order to maintain a safe distance. You can set a following distance of between 1 to 2 seconds behind the car ahead. The idea of handing control of your car over to a computer might seem a little bit disconcerting, but we found Distronic a near-miracle on wheels, requiring us to touch the pedals only once while driving a crowded, 30-mile stretch of Autobahn outside Zurich. The setting you choose for Distronic can be displayed on a neat little video display mounted just below the car's speedometer.
The read-out is also used for other features, including navigation. Like other mapping systems now on the market, the S-Class will plot the best route to your destination using a small display below the speedometer, a larger monitor in the center of the instrument panel or it will speak to you in a pleasant voice.
Even the seats in the S500 have gone high-tech. Heated seats are standard fare in many cars these days, but S-Class seats are fitted with 10 small fans that blow cool air through the upholstery, onto the driver's body. An optional massaging seat is equipped with air bladders in the lower back and shoulder areas that automatically inflate and deflate as you're driving to reduce stress on long journeys.
Another system, called Parktronic, uses sonar to help you park in tight places without playing bumper cars. When you're down to the last few inches from an obstacle ahead or behind, it flashes a warning and sounds an alert. There's also a new key card ignition system coming that will replace the traditional car key with a credit card-sized transmitter you can stick in your wallet.
Bigger-is-better' seems to be the automotive mantra in the age of the full-size sport-utility vehicle. The old S-Class proved the fallacy of that logic. The new S500 is just big enough, and the result is a modestly downsized sedan that's markedly more nimble and aggressive, as we discovered driving a looping route through the foothills of the Swiss Alps.
The 2000 S500 is powered by a 5.0-liter V8 pumping out 302 horsepower. That's slightly less muscle than the old car, but you're not likely to notice. Stomp on the accelerator, and you feel an extra kick, the most immediate payoff of trimming the car's weight. And it's more than just throttle feel. Steering is more precise, with far more road feel than the last-generation S-Class, a car that seemed numb by comparison. The suspension is firmer, but certainly not harsh. Setting the transmission into S, or Sports, mode, yielded crisp, aggressive shifts, and there's a new Tiptronic-style mode. In manual mode, you tip the shift lever left or right to downshift or upshift, or simply leave it in 'D' for fully automatic operation.
The old S-Class was always a chore to drive in Europe, especially on the hills and lake country roads we roamed outside Zurich. The new car is still quite imposing, and more than a few times we found oncoming traffic meekly yielding to us as we raced down a narrow lane. Yet this car feels surprisingly agile for its size. Give some credit to the AIRmatic suspension, which replaces the usual steel coil springs in the suspension with air-filled rubber bellows. At speeds over 68 mph, it lowers the car a half-inch. There's also an Adaptive Damping System, or ADS, which automatically adjusts shock-absorber settings to match the moment's driving conditions.
As the flagship for Mercedes-Benz, the S-Class is as much a symbol of corporate aspirations, as it is a mark of achievement for buyers. That's why it was so important for Mercedes to get things right with the 2000 model. And the automaker's engineers have succeeded.
Mercedes has big plans for the new S500. It's forecasting a sizable jump in sales. Based on our initial ride-and-drive, it has good reason to be optimistic. With this all-new edition, Mercedes is in a good position to win over skeptical buyers who thought the old S-Class was nothing but a bulky, Teutonic dinosaur.
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