Road Test Merc's S-Class is getting on a bit but the latest model still manages to impress.
Geek and chic: 2011 Mercedes-Benz S 500
A rolling, leather-lined dispenser of wasta. That is possibly the best description you could make for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class saloons, especially in these parts. Let's face it, when you see one of these large cars coming down the road, it's difficult not to speculate who might be behind the wheel. It could be anyone from a well-off executive to someone very, very high up indeed. You could even argue that not even the mighty Rolls-Royce Phantom has the same cachet as an S-Class in the UAE; for where the Rolls might impart something overtly imperial and conspicuously affluent, the big Merc does the same in a more stealthy manner that just can't help but make you wonder if it's someone important trying to keep a lower profile. And, of course, the higher the number on the boot, the higher the status.
The current S-Class is admittedly getting a little long in the tooth; this version debuted in 2005 and the new iteration is expected to show itself this year or next. But as the flagship for Mercedes, the S-Class has always led the fleet with its innovations, and this one is no exception.
Oh, of course, it's best known around here for the luxury. Sure, it still has that in spades; just a few moments in this big V8-powered S 500 will have you wishing for a major increase in your pay packet. The softest of leather all around the cabin ensconces passengers, while the dashboard is rich and elegant, and cleverly devoid of the usual clutter of buttons normally found in many of today's cars. Most functions go through the car's Comand stereo/climate/sat-nav system with a mouse-like controller that falls right at hand on the console. The cushioned pad that supports your arm here cleverly hides the number keypad for Bluetooth phone calls. The drive is tomb-like in its silence; all four seats recline and massage and other nice touches include an ambient lighting system with colours that can be changed depending on your mood; I liked the soft yellow light myself. There is nothing left wanting for a passenger used to a more luxurious lifestyle.
Really, though, you could argue that all this is to be expected in the flagship Mercedes. But the S 500 surprises in other ways. Take the new-for-2011 twin-turbocharged, 4.6L V8 under the bonnet; it has 15 per cent smaller displacement than the previous V8 yet produces 47 more horsepower and is about 16 per cent more efficient - actually its rating of 9.3L/100km is astounding for a car this size. And yet, you feel that 435hp when you stomp on the throttle; it gets from zero-to-60kph in just five seconds and seems to have enough power to send you to the moon, channelling this through an ultra-smooth seven-speed automatic.
Handling is also surprising; despite the ride being soft and luxurious, it stays relatively calm and flat in quick turns. The only indication to the big car's softer leaning is the steering; it's vastly overboosted and offers little feel to the driver. But, considering the type of car the S 500 is, that's not really a deal breaker; the added assist to the steering just gives a calming feel to the drive, and, seriously, it would be delusional to consider clipping apexes and wanting the subtle feel of the tarmac under the wheels at the limits of adhesion on a track with this car.
But if the V8 has the power to rocket to the moon, the technology on board is enough to control a manned space launch. And I only exaggerate slightly; there is more computing power in an S-Class than there was on the Apollo space missions in the 1960s, and it's utterly amazing what the car is capable of. You could literally set the radar-assisted cruise control and sit back to read the newspaper - though I wouldn't recommend that at all. But the lane-assist system senses when the car is crossing a white line on the road and actually gently steers the car back into the lane.
As well, there are monitors on board for everything from the speed limit of the road you're travelling on, to whether you're beginning to get tired at the wheel, giving you a gentle reminder in the form of a coffee cup on the TFT gauge screen on the dashboard. Pre-Safe is another system, linked to the on-board radar, that senses if there is an unavoidable crash and applies full braking instantly, giving the driver a split-second more of stopping and reducing the force of impact. A revised night-vision system can actually sense the presence of pedestrians in your path. And this is only a short list of the highlights; I can't possibly get into everything this car is capable of.
It's overwhelming, and though some might think some of this technology as intrusive, the sheer amount of features is astounding. But despite my fascination with all of this tech, my time behind the wheel of the S 500 is marked less by the geek factor and more by a raised sense of importance; the presence of the big Merc will do that to its driver. With the car back at the Mercedes head office, my wasta is back to where it was before, which is zero. Oh dear.
Price, base / as tested
Dh400,897 / Dh556,712
Engine 4.6L twin-turbo V8
Gearbox Seven-speed automatic
Power 435hp @ 5,250rpm
Torque 700Nm @ 1,800rpm
Fuel economy, combined