Motoring: The world's best saloon

Road Test: Its stunning looks, superb handling and amazing technology makes the Mercedes S-class unbeatable. By John Simister

WHERE DO you begin with a car such as the new Mercedes-Benz S-class? We'll begin by saying what it is not: a dinosaur, a behemoth, a fat car for fat cats oblivious to any notions of planet-friendliness.

This new one, which has just gone on sale in the UK, is no eco-sylph, true, but it's a lot less gross than the last one. And this new leanness makes it much more appealing because it looks so much sleeker, so much more like a normal car instead of the transport of a Third-World dictator. The new S is lighter, too, by up to 300kg depending on the version. Getting rid of the double-glazing has helped. Yet it has more room inside.

The smooth, round, slightly wedgey shape is the work of British designer Steve Mattin, who trained at Coventry University. He says that he wanted to get away from monumental dimensions, while visually stretching the car. The result is a big car with the proportions of a smaller one.

Mercedes-Benz has another reason for shunning the monumental route. There is no V12 version of the new S-class, because a giant limousine with the resurrected name of Maybach, an ancient German maker of vast cars, is planned. It is the company's answer to rivals BMW and VW-Audi, which between them own the Rolls-Royce and Bentley marques.

Today's S-class, then, is a return to the way S-classes used to be: big, but not steroidal. However, if you ordered the ultimate S, a long-wheelbase S500L with a V8 engine and a pounds 74,040 starting price, and loaded it with all the options, you would have an unbelievable showcase of technology.

For example, not only would the front seats have built-in fans to cool you through perforations in the leather, they would also have a built- in massaging service which inflates and deflates different parts of the seat in turn. And, from the summer, there will be a "Keyless Go" system which reads a smart card and unlocks the car as you touch the handle. Once inside, touch the gear selector and the engine starts.

Or try "Distronic" cruise control, which automatically keeps you a safe distance from the car in front unless you want to pass it.

But if you think you can manage without all this, except maybe some parts of the computer and stereo and a merely normal dose of electronic sybaritism, you can enjoy the opposite end of S-class travel. The S280, a short-chassis version with a 2.8-litre V6 engine, is yours for pounds 43,640, and an S320 for pounds 49,140. And, if you're likely to motor away from motorways and city centres, they give the most pleasing drive of all. Size, or the lack of it, still matters, and the smallest versions of the new, smaller S-classes do things their bigger relatives cannot.

Can a mere 3.2-litre V6 cope with moving such a beast? It can, rather well, although the 2.8 might struggle. The V6 is a creamy engine, delivering creamy progress through a creamily-shifting automatic transmission. That transmission features a "one-touch" manual mode, similar to the Tiptronic- type manual overrides seen on other German cars, but instead of pushing the lever forwards or pulling it back, the Mercedes system has you nudge it to one side or the other. It's completely counter-intuitive, which is surprising in a car otherwise so logically conceived.

Fortunately it's also unnecessary, even when you're tackling a fast but bendy road. And that is where the S320, more than the bigger S-classes, excels. All credit to the air-sprung electronic suspension and the super- rigid body structure: it's as agile as a BMW 3-series, changing direction with an ease astonishing in something so apparently bulky.

And your passengers, luxuriating in their individually-controlled climate zones, will barely notice your efforts, cocooned as they are by wood and leather and soothing curves and a pervasive aura of last-forever solidity, not to mention eight airbags.

No other full-on luxury car feels quite as complete, as integrated, as harmonious as the big Benz. The technology is impressive, but the way it looks and feels is what makes it such a desirable object, that makes it the best saloon car in the world. DaimlerChrysler, as the parent company is now called, expects to have half of the world's luxury-car sales to itself. That night follows day is a similarly safe bet.

Specifications

Rivals

Make and model: Mercedes-Benz S320. Price: pounds 49,140. Engine: 3,199cc, V6, 18 valves, 224bhp at 5,600rpm, 110bhp at 4,000rpm.

Transmission: five-speed auto gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Performance: 149mph, 0-60 in 8.0 seconds, 20-25mpg.

Audi A8 3.7: pounds 43,995. Mercedes contains lots of aluminium, but the Audi is virtually made of it. Lithe, elegant and recently revised, it has not achieved the credibility it really deserves.

BMW 735i: pounds 44,960. Beautifully built car which is high on gizmology, but the big BMW is strangely short of personality.

Jaguar XJ8 3.2: pounds 36,405. Britain's contribution seems a bargain in this company, but lacks space and modernity. It's a great drive, though.

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