– Elegant exterior
– Luxurious interior
– Some fast engine choices
– All models are too pricey
– Expensive to maintain
– Isolated driving experience
Mercedes-Benz completely redesigned its top-of-the-line S-Class sedans back in 2000. This generation of S-Class models feature a sharp coupe-like profile and a unique front end reminiscent of the company’s smaller models. Safety, performance and appearance headlined the changes in the 2003 model year.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan’s coupe-like profile that is highlighted by its low nose and higher tail end. A sloping grille and smooth underbody improve airflow, which keeps the massive sedan’s coefficient of drag at a very low 0.27, better than most sports cars. All S-Class sedans got a new front end in 2003, with new headlights and taillights.
There are too many engine choices, ranging from an underpowered 2.8L unit to an overpowering 6.0L powerhouse. The most basic models were the S280, with a 197 hp 2.8L V6 engine and the S320 CDI with a 204 hp 6-cylinder turbodiesel.
The earlier S-Class model range before 2003 included the S320 with a 221 hp 3.2L V6 and the long-wheelbase S600 with the old 362 hp 5.8L V12 engine. In the AMG range there was the S55 AMG with the older 354 hp 5.5L V8 engine, and the very limited production S63 AMG with an old 444 hp 6.3L V12 engine and a long wheelbase.
Intermediate models from 2003 onwards were the S350 with a 245 hp 3.7L V6, the S430 with a 279 hp 4.3L V8 and the S500 with a 306 hp 5.0L V8 engine, with the S600 with a 500 hp twin-turbo 5.5L V12 engine topping the basic range. The S400 CDI came with a torquey 250 hp 4.0L diesel V8 engine. The S350, S430 and the S500 also came in all-wheel-drive 4Matic trims. The S350 also came in long wheelbase trim, while the S600 only came with a long wheelbase.
The two sports models in the newer range was the S55 AMG with a 500 hp supercharged 5.5L V8, available in both short and long wheelbase form, and the top-of-the-range S65 AMG with a 612 hp twin-turbo 6.0L V12. Only the S65 AMG is available in both short and long wheelbase trims.
All S-Class models came only with an automatic transmission with manual mode controls–five-speed auto in all models except the V8 and AMG models, which got a fancy new 7GTronic seven-speed auto from 2004.
With its standard three-seat rear bench, the S-Class seats five occupants. A split, rear bench seat with power adjustments is optional. The front seats have 14-way power adjustments, as well as head restraints that can serve as pillows. Full leather upholstery, COMAND computer system and a Bose audio system are available all models. Unique features include doors and trunk lid that close at the slightest touch, using sensitive motors.
Matching its price, the S600 got a higher level of wood and leather trim, four heated power seats, four-zone climate control, a CD changer and a voice-controlled digital phone. Features in the AMG models include active ventilated front seats. Radar-based Distronic Adaptive Cruise Control and a Keyless Go feature are offered as optional equipment.
The Distronic Active Cruise Control system is now being offered in many other luxury cars, but Mercedes-Benz was the first to introduce it, back in 2000. 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, and even apply some braking force in order to maintain a safe distance.
The S-Class, loaded with excessive technology, almost makes it seem that the car can drive itself. The S-Class is a smooth and very capable highway cruiser that may feel a little too detached from the road itself, but that sensation is supposed to be part of the S-Class character. Despite its super-quiet ride and variable-assist power steering, the steering wheel still feels just a little too light.
Nothing less than the S500 offers straight line performance that approaches the level of stunning. The automatic transmission’s response is quick. Even though the ride is smooth, the S500 hits a few bumps rather hard, as the suspension is slightly stiffer than the lower models to account for its sportier nature. In fast curves, the big sedan stays remarkably upright, but it is scary to take such a big boat around corners fast. The AMG models increase confidence with even stiffer suspension tuning.
The AirMatic suspension replaces the usual steel coil springs with air-filled rubber bellows. At speeds over 100 kph, it lowers the car slightly. There’s also an Adaptive Damping System, or ADS, which automatically adjusts shock-absorber settings to match driving conditions.
An innovative Pre-Safe system was big news for the S-Class in 2003 and continues to be offered in the big Merc. Up to 5 seconds before an unavoidable impact, additional electric seat belt tensioners are activated and the seats adjust to the optimum safety position. The backrest is raised and the seat bottom is lowered and moved rearward. The sunroof closes automatically if skidding occurs, and the tensioners relax when a crash is averted.
Side-impact airbags are fitted in each of the four doors, and inflatable side curtain-type airbags in the front and rear deploy from the roofline to protect occupants’ heads. The automaker’s Electronic Stability Program combines traction control with lateral-skid control technology. Antilock brakes are standard, and a Parktronic parking aid system is included in the higher models.
The flagship of the Mercedes-Benz range, excluding the offbeat Maybach, is a symbol of success for owners, or just as easily a symbol of excess. Mercedes-Benz got everything right with their S-Class in terms of style and luxury. Maintenance is expensive, even for just oil changes. And cars out of warranty are a big risk to the used car buyer, since Mercedes-Benz quality has not been the best in the past couple of years. Any problems with the air suspension or the computer system could cost thousands to fix, so make sure everything electronic works right before buying.