Motoring: The Independent Road Test: If you've got it, try not to flaunt it: Roger Bell finds Mercedes-Benz's attempt at restraint not altogether convincing

Mercedes-Benz's big luxury saloons have not been enjoying an easy ride. No matter how next year's rumoured facelift may try to camouflage their size, the S-class models will continue to flaunt conspicuous consumption. Such gross extravagance is a wonderful indulgence for those with the means (and contempt for the greens). As a marketing approach, however, it has lost its edge.

Big, thirsty leviathans were the first to suffer in the recession. (Mercedes was once reported to be sitting on an unsold S-class stockpile of more than 16,000 cars.) Britain's new price-based taxation system for company cars has now dealt another body blow to the luxury market, just when the economy was showing signs of recovery.

Mercedes's latest S-class model seeks to reverse these setbacks via a more parsimonious approach. Price, weight and consumption are down, though the car's bloated appearance remains. The S280 does not come cheap at pounds 38,050, especially as many items of equipment (powered seats, radio and sunroof, for example) cost extra. Dip into the options list and the price could easily soar to pounds 45,000 or more.

At more than 37cwt, the S280 is still no lightweight, either. It is, however, quite modestly powered by a 2.8-litre, six-cylinder engine identical to that in smaller siblings. If not exactly frugal, the S280 is at least less thirsty than the faster pounds 45,000 S320, the next model up in an S-class range which passes via the S500 to the mighty pounds 93,480 S600 limousine, powered by a gas-guzzling 6.0-

litre V12.

Performance is effortlessly sedate rather than scintillating, though the S280 will cruise the (unrestricted) autobahns at a fussless 120mph, the minimum demanded by many German drivers. Silky quietness, rather than vigour, is the refined engine's forte. The smooth-changing four-speed automatic transmission shifts almost imperceptibly, but even when switched to the sportier programme, a heavy foot on the accelerator is required to provoke a downshift.

Better response (and marginally better economy) comes with the optional five-speed auto. Manual transmission is not available.

Obesity and agility are usually incompatible. Not here. For a big, smooth-riding car with accomplished, comfort-biased suspension, the composed S280 handles remarkably well. It belies its girth and weight with a niftiness through the corners that encourages press-on driving. Steering is sharp, body control impeccable, stability reassuring and braking strong. Despite modest power and great mass, the S280 is far from boring to drive: chauffeurs will enjoy themselves. Only when manoeuvring is the car's size an embarrassment (guide rods pop out in reverse to aid parking).

It is not, however, free of minor irritations. The wiper switch is an ergonomic nonsense, and rear three-quarter visibility is bad. The traditional foot-applied, hand-released parking brake - a sop to the Americans - is a clumsy affair, too.

To ride in, the S280 is as cosseting as any rival. Up front, the cabin is so wide that the armrests are too far away to use comfortably. In the back, there is room for three long-legged passengers to lounge in comfort. Heavy sound insulation, backed by double-glazed windows (virtually immune to misting), restrict noise levels to a background murmur. Even this, the cheapest S-class model, is sumptuously trimmed and furnished (though leather upholstery is an expensive option). Standard equipment includes two airbags, anti-lock brakes, and walnut veneer.

Brief acquaintance rarely does justice to a Mercedes-Benz, least of all the compromised S280, which endeavours to provide top-drawer luxury in a cut-price package. You need to live with a car like this, ideally for years, to appreciate fully its quality and strength.

SPECIFICATIONS

Mercedes-Benz S280, pounds 38,050 ( pounds 40,950 as tested)

Engine: 2,799cc, six cylinders in line, 193bhp at 5,500rpm. Transmission: four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive. Performance (claimed): 0-60mph in 10.5 seconds, top speed 131mph. Touring consumption: 23.5mpg.

COMPARISONS

Audi A8 2.8 V6, price to be announced

New front-wheel-drive luxury car, coming soon, with revolutionary aluminium spaceframe chassis and body. Performance and economy benefit from huge weight saving. Very smooth, quiet and refined: both 2.8 and more powerful 4.2 V8 with four-wheel drive have won rave reviews.

BMW 730iSE, price to be announced

Conservative new model, on sale soon, camouflages its size better than the Mercedes. Super- smooth V8 engine, but weight blunts performance. Nice to drive, beautifully made and finished, lots of goodies and gadgets. The faster, 740i version is more satisfying.

Jaguar XJ6 4.0S, pounds 34,950

New Audi and BMW expose Jaguar's age but have done nothing to dim its strength of character. Not as roomy in the back as its rivals, and not quite as refined under the bonnet, either. Price, performance and panache are main advantages over the roomier, clinically superior Mercedes.

Lexus LS400, pounds 42,863

Scourge of Europe's grandees despite undistinguished pedigree and styling. Produced by luxury division of Toyota, comfortable LS400 is uncannily smooth, quiet and refined. Strong performance from V8 engine, impeccable build quality. Consistently tops US customer-satisfaction polls.

(Photograph omitted)

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