In 2007, we judged the S550’s blend of bridge-girder solidity, advanced technology, pulse-raising performance, distinguished interior, quiet operation, and all-day comfort to be tops in this class—and depending on the owner’s driving priorities, that judgment is still defensible. Okay, the steering doesn’t deliver much information, particularly on center. We didn’t achieve test-crew unanimity on the active front-seat side bolsters—definite love-hate polarity there—and those front fender flares are still an acquired taste: a little too much Mazda RX-8 for some.
But those are minor asterisks. On serpentine roads there’s not really much to pick between the steering systems of the Benz and the Bimmer, at least in terms of feel. You can shut off the auto bolsters—or refrain from ordering them—and styling that doesn’t provoke a little controversy isn’t worthy of the name. As far as that goes, Mercedes styling has inspired plenty of competing designers over the years, most recently from Korea.
Like the BMW, the S550 is a big car with rear-seat space worthy of a stretch limo (suitable for having yourself chauffeured—politically incorrect, though exceptions are made for parking-hostile burgs such as Manhattan). Also like the BMW, the Benz’s center rear seat isn’t a place we’d care to perch for long. There are, of course, the usual goodies available: video screens set into the backs of the front-seat headrests, rear-seat climate controls, and a power source for laptops. It’s quiet back there, too, though not as quiet inside as the BMW, whose hushed interior rivals Lexus LS sedans.
One area where the big Benz still holds an edge is the overall look of the interior. The new 7-series is improved in this regard. But the simple design of the Benz’s saddle-tan interior, augmented at night by soft ambient lighting, is the height of automotive good taste.
Incidentally, Mercedes is planning some S-class updates for 2010, including a front-end face lift with LED running lights (reducing the Hyundai similarity), multihued interior lighting, a new variable-ratio steering option, and a hybrid version, the S400.
The S550’s saddle-tan leather and tasteful trim won best-looking-interior honors. Both cars have vast rear-seat space for two but not for three.
So what kept the S550 from the top step on the podium? Dynamics. The Mercedes was almost as quick as the more powerful (and heavier) BMW—5.3 seconds to 60 mph versus 5.2—and its midrange throttle response was a smidge better, the benefit of its seven-speed automatic and its naturally aspirated V-8 versus a turbo engine. And its exhaust note, though subdued, was distinctly more satisfying. The Benz stopped almost as well, too: 173 feet from 70 mph versus 171, fade-free. Adaptive damping and active body control kept cornering attitudes flat, without a hint of compromise in ride quality. And straight-line high-speed stability was above reproach.
But in our favorite game—back-road pursuit, no speed limit—progressive understeer limited the S550’s cornering speeds, and it couldn’t quite keep pace. One logbook observation summed it up: “The Benz is competent. The BMW is compelling. The Benz is willing. The BMW is eager.”
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COMAND control collective isn’t quite as user-friendly as the BMW’s updated iDrive.