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2011 Mercedes-Benz S550 Test Drive

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First Impressions

A while ago, we read an article about what it’s like to make it big in Hollywood: the changes in your lifestyle, how differently people treat you, and the sudden infusion of cash in your bank account. What was most striking about the story was a quote from a car dealer in the area: “They always come in wanting the same thing: the biggest Mercedes. It’s always the Mercedes.”

Aspiration. It’s the hope of every part-time waiter scanning the trade papers for a bit part that will propel him into the first big role, every software engineer scheming to create the next FaceSpace phenomena and every mother hoping that her daughter will marry a nice doctor (then is pleasantly surprised when said daughter becomes the doctor). In all of these scenarios, chances are that there will probably be a Mercedes-Benz S-Class in the garage at some point.

We can’t say that we blame them. The 2011 Mercedes S-Class (view photos), the flagship sedan of the Benz fleet, is pretty much the best of the best when it comes to automotive engineering excellence. And its exterior does not disappoint, as its fluid lines eloquently meld with its stately, powerful haunches. It doesn’t strut with the braggadocio of something so ostentatious as a Bentley; it merely states that this is the vehicle of someone who has arrived. Its grille and sharply expressive headlamps give the right amount of glimmer and panache, and though it is anything but boxy, the massive dreadnaught has the air of grandness to it. However, we felt like the standard, silver-painted 18-inch wheels were a bit underwhelming for its size; we would probably opt for shinier 19s.

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About Our Test Car

We couldn’t help but grin when the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S550, with a base price of $93,000, showed up in our driveway, although Diamond White paint isn’t the most flattering color to showcase its classic gorgeousness; we were also miffed that Mercedes charges $795 for it. Adding to our test car’s final $110,420 tally were the Sahara Beige/Black trim leather ($2,290) with contrasting stitching ($300), Active Body Control with wind stabilization ($4,090), Night View Assist Plus with Pedestrian Detection ($1,780), a SplitView in-dash navigation and entertainment screen ($710), and a Driver Assistance Package ($2,950) containing adaptive cruise control with PreSafe brakes, active blind spot assist and active lane keeping assist.

Further offending our sensibilities was the Premium Package ($3,630), which includes inflating seat bolsters, keyless start and parking guidance with a rear view camera. Those last three features are amenities that you might find in economy cars costing a fraction of what the Benz does. Ya gotta pay extra for it? Really? Really? Sheesh.

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 Safety Reliability and Value

To delve deeply into all of the safety systems of the S-Class (view photos) would make for reams and reams of reading, as its technology is copious and complicated. Overwhelming, actually. We’ll superficially touch on some unique features, but suffice it to say that a lot of thought has gone into keeping the car, and you, safe from harm.

Remember the song “Someone To Watch Over Me?” The multitudes of cameras and sensors in the Benz do just that. There are cameras to help you stay in your lane; should you inadvertently stray, the sound and feel of a rumble strip alerts you. Ignore it and the Active Lane Keeping Assist will steer the car within the painted lines, although we noted that it refused to read some double-yellow line on our loop. White lines were not a problem, except when faded by dirt and time.

Should the vehicle detect that you’re nodding off, it will disapprovingly (and figuratively) rap your knuckles with the Attention Assist feature. We, of course, didn’t engage this system, but we’re imagining the voice of a stern German frau armed a whip. Blind spot assist sensors let us know when a car had entered the invisible zones flanking the Benz and alerted us to their presence when we activated the turn signal. The cameras of the Distronic Plus Adaptive Cruise rigidly maintain safe distances from traffic ahead, and the system is calibrated to decrease and resume speed in stately rather than abrupt fashion.

The Nightview Plus with Pedestrian Detection feature uses infrared radar to present a clearer view of darkened roads ahead. Its display replaces the LED picture of the speedometer when engaged, and we’re not convinced of its usefulness as most people are looking through the windshield while driving, and not at a two-dimensional image in the dashboard. Plus, in our street light-free neighborhood, Nightview Plus seemed to do a better job of showing detail about the trees lining the road and the houses tucked beyond them, while the excellent headlights capably revealed the street surface and parked cars. We never did find a pedestrian stumbling blindly through the darkness to assess the Pedestrian Detection feature. Maybe if we lived in Charlie Sheen’s ‘hood.

In addition, the S-Class has the usual list of safety equipment such as stability control, along with extras like 10 airbags sprinkled around the cabin and active headlights that point where you steer to help see around corners. The car’s Pre-Crash technology tightens the front seat belts, re-adjusts the seats and headrests, and even closes the windows and sunroof if the sensors detect that you may be in for a collision.

Thus far, the S-Class hasn’t been crash tested by the government or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, so we have no concrete evidence of how it’ll perform in a collision, but we get the idea that if you have to be in a crash, you’ll want to be in this vehicle.

We’re also missing data from J.D. Power and Associates in terms of predicted reliability, but Consumer Reports says that it rates above average. That’s the same score the consumer watchdog agency gave the Benz for its ability to retain its value over time, while Automotive Lease Guide rates the S-Class as below average. Warranty-wise, Mercedes will cover you for four years or 50,000 miles, with roadside assistance gratis. And if you service your S-Class at the dealer, roadside assistance continues for as long as you own the car.

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