– High quality inside and out
– Good power and handling
– Extremely comfortable
– Conservative interior design
– Not built for driving fun
– Tight fit in parking spaces
It’s not often you buy a car that you didn’t intend to buy. That’s what happened when we ordered a classic car from one of those Japanese used car auctions and paid an advance, but the cash-strapped dealer couldn’t deliver for whatever reason, and offered us a car of equal value off their lot instead of giving us a refund. So we picked this one — a Japanese-spec Lorinser-tuned 2009 Mercedes-Benz S550. This will also give us a chance to talk about the pros and cons about used cars imported from Japan.
The S550 was basically known as the S500 in the GCC. We bought this car last year and kept it for a month before donating it to charity. There’s something to be said about owning an S-Class at least once in your lifetime, and whether you love it or hate it, the Lorinser version definitely felt more special since stood out from the limo crowd. The original Lorinser kit costs US$ 18,000, not including the wheels.
It’s one of those cars that looks better in person, when you can see the stunning 21-inch turbine wheels and the clean workmanship of the Lorinser kit that includes the plastic front fenders with mesh grilles, side skirts with gills, new bumpers front and rear, rear window and boot-lid lip spoilers and brake-caliper covers, aside from the electronic module that lowers the car’s air suspension. The drilled rotors are stock, but our car also had the 2010-facelift LED tail lights.
Stepping inside, you get to experience the best luxury on offer a decade earlier. The dash and doors are covered in either soft-touch materials, stitched leather, real wood, or carpeting as you go lower in the footwells. The dash design seems targeted towards conservative buyers, but some of the details such as the metallic buttons and soft-opening compartments are top notch. And unlike BMWs from the same era, there’s no obvious wear and tear on anything other than the driver’s seat.
Our car is the “L” version, so it has a 3165mm wheelbase instead of the regular one’s 3035mm. That gives the car slightly longer rear doors, and tons more rear legroom. Up front, the seats are upholstered in Nappa leather and fully power-adjustable, down to the headrests and extending thigh supports. The rear gets mildly reclining seats with massage and cooling functions. The massage functions are oddly hidden in the centre pull-down armrest. The three rear headrests can be power-folded down by the driver. Rear passengers also get powered roll-up window sunshades and flip-down lit mirrors on the ceiling. And there’s no shortage of cup-holders and cubbies.
The boot is of a decent size, but a lot of space is taken up by a carpeted rear wall that hides all the mechanisms for the fancy rear seats. There are two underfloor compartments and netted side pockets in the boot too. The boot-lid is power-operated.
Since we were considered too miskeen to test-drive this car back then, we didn’t know how advanced an S-Class was for its time. The gauge cluster is partially an LCD screen (in a car that debuted in 2006), there’s mood lighting all around, reading lamps in the rear-view mirror, and a dash-mounted LCD multimedia screen that can tilt left or right at the press of a button. The rotary controller in the centre console and an electronic column-mounted gear-shifter are still being used in 2018 Mercs. The 4-zone a/c is fairly good even on a May afternoon and the stereo is expectedly earth-shattering.
There’s a problem though. Japanese-spec cars have FM radios that don’t go beyond 90 Mhz. There is no way to reprogramme it on an S-Class, so owners generally switch out the entire system for a US-spec one and reprogramme that. Our car even has a voice greeting in Japanese when we start the car, to remind us of that. There’s a hard drive though, but we never figured out how to upload songs to it. There’s also a CD player and possibly a CD changer somewhere in the car as well. We didn’t bother looking.
Other features in the car include HID headlights, factory-tinted rear windows, fog lights, basic keyless entry, basic sunroof and no rear screens, but a smart key, panoramic roof and DVD entertainment system were all available options.
The S550 is powered by a 5.5-litre naturally-aspirated V8, and mated to a 7-speed automatic sending power to the rear wheels. It made a solid 388 hp at 6000 rpm and 530 Nm of torque at a low 2800 rpm, with a nice muted burble to boot. It’s supposed to do 0-100 kph in 5.4 seconds, but we got 6.9 seconds with ESP on during a summer afternoon. Our car had been sitting for a good while in the lot, and probably would do better with new fluids.
Fuel consumption was equally poor, at 20 litres/100 km (5 km/l), but it should improve as the car got more exercise.
Everything you’ve heard about the S-Class — any S-Class — is true. Even this old one rides like it’s floating above the road, with all bumps and bruises taken care of by the air suspension. It’s height-adjustable as well, if you want to drive over rougher terrain or climb sharp ramps.
If you like quiet cruising, this car is great. The steering and the throttle pedal both feel damped on purpose, so your driving is forcefully smoothened out for potential passengers. The steering lacks feedback, but it is light at low speeds and firms up once you’re going faster.
It’s a pretty long car, so it actually ends up being longer than certain parking spaces, which could be a problem in parallel parking. There are parking sensors front and back though, which make manoeuvring fairly easy.
But it’s not the most fun for spirited driving, even though it is entirely capable. The throttle pedal is responsive once you get moving and finally get access to all that power. There is tons of grip around corners from the 255/30 front and 285/30 rear tyres. There’s hardly any body roll either, but you can feel the active suspension artificially cancelling out any floatiness on speedy corners.
You can corner pretty hard on long curves, but you’ll be met with understeer on sharper turns, which can be offset by dialling in a bit of oversteer using all that V8 torque.
The brakes are pretty decent, with medium pedal weightage and linear response. We changed the front pads and brake-wear sensors, as well as skimmed the drilled rotors, for not a lot of money.
So far, we’ve established that his is a great car. Now let’s talk about what to watch out for, when buying a Japanese import.
First of all, until you can physically see the car on local soil, nothing is guaranteed. We used a dealer who verifiably had an operation in Japan as well as in Dubai. I never got a straight answer about where my ordered classic car was. Among the stories I was fed was that it was damaged in shipping, I was of the “wrong” nationality so I’m not allowed to import cars in my name, and that it was hijacked by the garage where the car was being repaired. No photos were ever shown to us aside from the standard auction ones. It was easier to just get a refund, which we thankfully got, indirectly.
Our car is indeed a Japanese-spec vehicle, even if it is left-hand-drive. Rich people like to drive around in LHD cars in RHD Japan, just to show off they have an imported car, and carmakers cater to them. Don’t ask us about their culture.
Aside from the radio issue, there are no real problems with Japanese imports in terms of a/c and engine cooling, but this probably varies by brand. A Mercedes-Benz S-Class is perfectly fine. Everything even works, which was a surprise. The person we sold it to later had an air suspension fault and a cracked wheel, but they weren’t as expensive to fix as a British luxury car.
Now, our car clearly had a couple of repainted door panels as well as the body-kit bits, but everything was straight so it is unclear it was ever in a major accident. Probably not, and it certainly wasn’t repaired by grease monkeys here, or the quality would be obvious.
And here’s a big one — Japan doesn’t have any requirements to mention the date of manufacture on the car, so most carmakers skip it. Luckily, you can get details on any Merc by entering the VIN on certain websites. As per the VIN, our car was listed as a 2006 model, and we verified this through the local dealer. However, in all official paperwork with the Dubai RTA, it is a 2009, as stated in the shipping papers, although there was a minor hiccup in Abu Dhabi where they briefly refused to register it as a 2009 there before agreeing. The “model year” of a Japan-market car is the year it was first registered. We don’t know why our car sat for so long before ending up with Lorinser.
So there you have it. Japanese imports are generally a safer bet than American imports, as long as the car is already here. Incidentally, this isn’t our first Japanese-imported car. The first one was also our first car — a 1990 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6 AMG which we bought in 2004. This site was born in that same year.
Current Model Introduced in:
Test Acceleration 0-100 kph:
Observed Test Fuel Economy: