Doing the laps of luxury

The latest Mercedes S-class is, quite simply, the best car in the world. By Gavin Green Gavin Green

IT WASN'T until we passed 150mph - and cruised at that speed for some distance - that it really dawned on me what an awesome car the new Mercedes S-class is.

My mate Steve, sitting alongside, commented that only at that speed did he have to raise his voice (slightly) to be heard. The car tracked straight and true, and was quieter and more fuss-free than most cars travelling 100mph slower. Porsches, hot BMWs and an Audi A8 - all of which we encountered on our blast up the German autobahn, from the Swiss border to Stuttgart - were visibly more nervous at speed than the rock-solid Mercedes.

Our car, an S500, the top-range V8 model until the new V12 version arrives in 2000 (why would you need any more power?) did not have the optional Distronic radar guidance fitted, which would have made life even easier. Linked to the cruise control, it automatically slows the car when you get too close to the vehicle in front.

Neither did it feature the optional voice-activated controls, which allow you to bark commands rather than have to fiddle with switches. Nor did it have the optional Keyless Go system, which enables the owner to start the car without a key. Instead, a credit card is enough for the car to identify you, and allow you to exploit its charms.

Options, options... Mercedes cars always have options lists as long as the Rhine. Never mind, we did have the automatic headlamps which come on whenever it gets dark (useful when speeding through tunnels) and automatic ride control, which lowers the car at speed, improving stability and reducing fuel-consuming drag. We also had ventilated, pulsating seats which massage your back, reducing ache. In short, the new Mercedes S-class is the most hi-tech car ever launched, as well as being the most capable.

Best car in the world? It must be. All Mercedes S-class models, since the first version was unveiled in 1972, have been described as such. The early Seventies coincided with a big jump in Mercedes' research spending and the simultaneous collapse, in quality, of its former rivals for the "best car in the world" crown, Rolls-Royce and Jaguar.

Since then, Mercedes has had the very top end of the car market to itself. It dominates the automotive chase for rich people's money with an almost disdainful ease. Despite new competition from Lexus, BMW, Jaguar and VW- owned Bentley, it expects half of all top-end car buyers, worldwide, to plump for the new S-class. Few rival makers would gainsay that.

They'd be even less likely to argue when they drive the latest version. It is a car of supreme ability. It is the world's best-riding car at low speed, around town, and one of the world's most adroit at handling big speeds (as we discovered). Much of this is down to the new electronically controlled air suspension, a pricier but superior alternative to the normal steel springs worn by cars. "One day every car will have them," said a Mercedes engineer on hand. "But we'll have to wait for the costs to come down."

It is big and supremely roomy inside and yet, partly due to the air suspension, it handles with a nimbleness and agility which belies its bulk. It feels small as you tackle winding roads but, look behind at the cabin disappearing into the distance, and it quite clearly is not.

The cabin is functional and simple, considering the level of technology. It lacks the ostentatious luxury of a Rolls-Royce (no thick pile carpet, no chrome-plated switches) yet is so superior to the latest Rolls-Royce, on any objective level, that there is almost no point in a comparison. It is a car on which a great deal of clever engineers, and a great deal of Deutschmarks, have been lavished. It shows.

Criticisms? The 5.0-litre V8 version, as tested, does only 21mpg on the EC combined fuel cycle, which probably means the chairman of the Green Party in Germany won't have one (although Mr Schroder undoubtedly will). That's not great, but it's not bad for a car that will seat five in absolute luxury and is clearly aimed at people who are more likely to know the price of a magnum of champagne than the price of a litre of petrol. Plus, there's just the odd piece of cheapskate plastic in the cabin, evidence that Mercedes is cutting costs and, in some cases, quality.

Back on the autobahn, Steve and I powered our way on to Stuttgart, at speeds you would never dare approach in Britain. Such arrogant ease at pulling in the horizon is not without its relevance over here, of course. At the 70-90mph speed range at which British S-class owners will cruise, the car is sublimely safe, immensely quiet and hugely unstressed. It almost feels like you're standing still.

Which, given the traffic on British motorways, is probably just what you'll be doing. Or rather, it would be but for another technical novelty. The S-class is the first car to offer a satellite navigation system which takes into account traffic conditions. After all, what's the point in having the best car in the world if you can't use it?

Mercedes-Benz S500

Price: About pounds 68,400 (UK sales start in March).

Engine: V8, 4966cc, 306bhp at 5600rpm.

Performance: Top speed 156mph (governed). Acceleration 0-60mph in 6.2 seconds. Average fuel economy 21.0mpg.

RIVALS

BMW 750i: pounds 69,920. Great car, but lacks that final finesse of the S- class. Also, a very thirsty vehicle.

Daimler V8: pounds 52,575. Tinselled Jaguar XJ8 is big on style and has a fabulous V8 engine, but lacks the refinement of the Mercedes.

Lexus LS400: pounds 49,975. Dull looks mask huge capability. If you can't quite afford an S-class, it's the next best choice.

Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph: pounds 155,000. A mobile palace, but can't match the Benz's abilities.

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