by Scott Corlett
In a rivalry reminiscent of Frazier and Ali, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class always goes tire-to-tire with the BMW 7-Series in the title round for best heavyweight über-luxury sedan. Sure, the Audi A8 and Lexus LS make valiant grabs for the championship belt, and, if the competition were less blood sport and more beauty pageant, in which prettiness and poise hold greater sway, they could be true threats to the S and 7. However, this contest requires an exact and oh-so-elusive balance of refinement and raw power—you really do gotta float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. When the final bell rings, the only question is which Teuton remains standing: the all-new Mercedes-Benz S550 or the well-aged BMW 750i.
During the last days of spring, our mother’s arrival in San Francisco coincided with our evaluation of the mother of all cars—the 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550. While Mother had maintained her svelte figure, the girth of the S-Class has grown for 2007 an inch or so in all directions. Not only does the S550 require a slightly larger parking space than its predecessor, but its sheet metal is more rounded and flared, styling cues that contribute to a fuller figured look. With their Maybach-esque, tiered fender flares, the S550’s hindquarters are particularly voluptuous. Nothing wrong with that, because, based upon the number of hours spent on elliptical machines, bubble butts are all the rage.
Extrapolating the premise that a tired dog is a good dog, we keep the itinerary full when Mother pays a visit. To this end, we trundled Mother onto the S550’s fourteen-way, heated and cooled, front passenger seat and set out for a tour of wine country. For a woman who has yet to embrace ATM cards due to their technological complexity, Mother had no difficulty using the center console silver dial to harness the power of the S-Class’s COMAND system, which controls most seat, audio, navigation, and communication settings. Like an eleven-year-old working an Xbox, Mother whizzed through myriad onscreen menus to adjust her seat’s firmness, bolsters, lumbar support, and—this was the big motivator—rolling back massager. Thankfully, the programmers at Mercedes have made the latest iteration of COMAND more intuitive to use compared to earlier versions; however, unless you have an able copilot, dealing with the dollied up joystick while driving is daunting for anyone not certified to pilot an F-16.
Perhaps due to the optional Active Body Control System, which tames cornering roll, or the computer-controlled seat bolsters, which reassuringly hug riders during turns, the drive along the twisty Napa Valley two-laners at freeway velocities produced little complaint from our normally speed-wary passenger. The S-Class has always been a cruiser and the handling of the latest generation does not veer from that predicate. The steering communicates just enough about road conditions to keep drivers engaged and the suspension turns even the biggest bumps into gentle thump-thumps. Lulled by the sunlight streaming through the S550’s two moonroofs and the music issuing from the fourteen speakers of the harmon/kardon surround sound system, Mother was quiet as she enjoyed her massage and watched passing rose-bush-bordered vineyards. During parental visits, silence is indeed golden … or, at the very least, worth the S-Class’s $86,175 base price (our test car clocked in at just over $105,000 with options).
Even at freeway speeds, the cabin of the S550 is remarkably serene—there is little wind, road, or drivetrain noise. The S550’s silky smooth 5.5-liter, all-aluminum, 382-hp V-8 engine coupled to the seven-speed automatic transmission make short shift of reaching said speeds—5.3 seconds from zero to 60, according to the engineers at Mercedes. If you have an extra $50k to spend, a 510-hp, 5.5-liter, 36-valve, biturbo V-12 is available. Should all that power get you into trouble, the S550 has more safety systems than a nuclear submarine, including electronic stability control; computer-enhanced panic braking; eight, two-stage airbags; and the twenty-first-century version of a mother’s arm across the chest during short stops—precollision detection that senses impending mishaps and closes windows and moonroofs, lowers and backs the front passenger seat, tightens seat belts, and inflates seat air chambers for greater padding.
Each successive model of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7-Series pushes the envelope of automotive engineering and technology. With its high-tech safety systems, ample horsepower, Zen-like cabin, and easier-to-use computer interface, the latest generation of the S-Class has landed a hard right hook and sent the 7-Series up against the ropes. Not to worry, though, the fight isn’t over yet—BMW’s engineers undoubtedly are working late into the night on the next, groundbreaking 7-Series. Deep in the heart of wine country, we pulled the S550 into the parking lot of the ivy-covered restaurant at which we had reservations. Mother looked over at readout of the outdoor temperature—98 degrees—and then grabbed the COMAND dial. As she flew through the menus in order to increase the tempo of her seat massage, she said, “Why don’t we just find a drive-thru and eat in the car?”
Mercedes-Benz is a gay-friendly company.