bottom line
  • Small-car agility
  • Vast backseat space
  • Serene at speed
  • Fantastic multicontour seats
  • Exotic performance of AMG models
  • Hybrid breaks new ground for brand
  • Sky-high price
  • Balky COMAND controller
  • Styling's not for every taste

The S63 AMG may sit in the middle of the price sheet, but smart jocks and non-brain-dead celebs know it's the sweet, hot spot between the "base" S-Class and the exorbitantly priced, nose-heavy V-12s.

The S-Class four-door spans a wide gulf at the top of the Mercedes range. The largest Benz sedan short of the princely Maybach 57 and 62, the S-Class nudges $90,000 in its least expensive form and more than doubles that in AMG tune. Across the spectrum, the S-Class models share plenty of good things, from the latest safety technology to serenity at high speeds to a very spacious backseat fit for anyone with more than a "Mr." or "Mrs." prefix in their name. New in 2007, with a facelift this year, the big S-Class cruises in the pack of top-rated luxosedans along with the BMW 7-Series, the Audi A8, the Lexus LS, and the Jaguar XJ. AMG versions can rightly be compared with the Bentley Continental, Rolls-Royce Ghost, and Aston Martin Rapide.

The S-Class has veered from bank-vault thick lines in the early 1990s to a more feminine sculpting late last decade to the current shape, a more masculine mix of crisp creases and subtle arcs. It's not entirely cohesive, but the S-Class' sheetmetal conveys great road presence, especially from the rear quarters, where the perfectly blistered fenders intersect with a rising bumper line. This year the sedan gets a reshaped grille, new and smoother front bumpers, new rear bumpers, and LED turn signals in the headlamps. AMG versions also wear a new grille (louvered on the S65), deep air dams, and new 19- and 20-inch wheels. Hybrid versions can be identified by their round fog lamps and daytime driving lights. Aesthetics are calmer and more relaxed inside the S-Class, where a wide, ornately grained wave of wood bridges the cabin, capped by a large LCD screen for secondary controls and adorned by a minimum of buttons and switches. Gauges are lit in bright white. The shift control sits on the steering column, which frees the dash from the clutter that afflicts some competitive cars. Only a glitch or two, like the tacked-on ergonomic pad behind the COMAND controller, disrupts the cabin's design clarity.

Five distinct models make up the S-Class range; two offer V-8 engines, two have V-12s, and one melds V-6 and electric power. The mainstream model is the $92,000 S550, powered by a 382-horsepower, 5.5-liter V-8. Coupled to a seven-speed automatic and driven by either the rear or all four wheels, it can spool up to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds while earning an EPA-rated 15/23 mpg. That's abundant, somewhat thirsty power, but it pales in comparison to the rear-drive S600's $150,000 price tag, its 510-hp twin-turbo V-12, its 0-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds, its peaceful whir-and its 11/17 mpg fuel economy. The V-12's five-speed automatic has manual-shift programming, but could use more gears for no other reason than total world domination. Thanks to a host of electronics, these S-Class sedans handle quite well. The standard air suspension gets adaptive damping in the S600, which tailors ride quality to suit rough roads or fast-change switchbacks. Even without it, the S-Class has a very absorbent, well-settled ride that manages to soak up small potholes with little jarring inside the cabin, while remaining remarkably quiet. One note: The base S550 adopts electric power steering that can feel relatively lifeless compared to the hydraulic-steering systems in other versions.

Two AMG models flip the S-Class' intensity switch to exotic mode. The $134,000 S63 AMG installs the in-house tuner's 6.2-liter V-8 worth 518 hp, a 0-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds, and fuel economy of 11/18 mpg. The $202,000 S65 AMG throttles the turbo V-12 for a stupendous 604 hp, ekes out a 4.3-second time from 0-60 mph, hurtles to a limited top end of 186 mph, and gulps premium gas at the rate of 11/17 mpg. The former uses the same seven-speed automatic as the S550, while the latter gets the five-speed automatic; both adopt AMG's SpeedShift controls, with three shift modes (Comfort, Sport and Manual) for near-total control of power changes. New algorithms for the AMG cars' Active Body Control settles the suspension more firmly in crosswinds, while a torque-vectoring system applies brakes to inside wheels to give the sports sedans better, quicker turn-in. Adaptive braking primes the pedal and pump so that drivers can call on full brake force more quickly, too.

Distinct from all these models, the $88,000 S400 Hybrid is new for 2010. It pairs a lithium-ion battery pack with 20-hp-equivalent electric motors, a 275-hp V-6 gas engine, and a seven-speed automatic to provide relatively brisk acceleration and much better fuel economy than the V-8 S550. With 0-60 mph acceleration of about 7.2 seconds, it's the slowest and most fuel-conscious S-Class, with EPA figures of 19/26 mpg. The only thing missing from the S-Class experience with the Hybrid, aside from some steering feel lost to its electric power steering, might be engine noise at parking lot speeds, when the Hybrid runs on battery power alone.

No matter which drivetrain fits, the S-Class' seats will accommodate four adults very, very well. The cabin's spacious and well designed, with tall and wide door openings for easy access. While the standard front seats are power-adjustable, leather-trimmed, and suitably wide and firm, we like the dynamic multicontour seats even more. They're padded with air bladders that inflate and deflate at your command-or even in a massage-like order-to keep backs and shoulders in alignment on long road trips. With those front seats raked and powered all the way back, there's still admirable rear-seat legroom because all S-Classes sold here are of the long-wheelbase variety. The backseats are sculpted comfortably, too, and can be heated and contoured, and trimmed in sueded fabric in AMG models. The S-Class' glovebox and console are large enough for small handbags and bigger electronic gadgets; the fold-down armrest in back has its own hidden stowaway space and a pass-through to the 16-cubic-foot trunk that holds suitcases and golf bags aplenty. Space is rarely at a premium. The S-Class' cabin has some of the richest textures and finishes, particularly the lush wood trim applied to the dash, doors, and consoles. It's all fitted tightly, with few flaws visible in the various Hybrids and AMGs we've driven over the past three years.

The 2010 S-Class hasn't been crash-tested by either NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) or the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). Still, it enjoys a long-standing reputation as one of the safest vehicles in the world, but we'll revisit its high safety rating when more data is released. The S-Class has comprehensive safety features, such as front and rear side airbags; full-length side curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction and stability control; active head restraints; adaptive brake lights; and the PRE-SAFE system, which tightens seatbelts and locks doors when it senses an imminent collision and can now apply full braking force to mitigate injury and damage from accidents. New features include Attention Assist, which detects sleepy drivers and asks them to pull over for a rest via a coffee-cup icon; Nightview Assist PLUS, which uses infrared sensors to highlight unseen objects ahead on dark roads; Lane Keeping Assist, which alerts drivers wandering out of their driving lane and nudges them gently back on track; blind-spot alerts; adaptive cruise control; and automatic high beams. Visibility is excellent in the S-Class, though parking safety's improved with the available rearview camera and front and rear parking sensors.

The 2010 S-Class hardly can be outdone in its exhaustive luxury and entertainment features. Even the "base" S550 has a wood and leather steering wheel; active ventilated and heated front seats; new wheels; ambient lighting; and a power trunk lid. Its audio and navigation systems are upgraded to include Bluetooth; Sirius and HD radio; USB and SD ports; better voice recognition; 4GB of music storage; and Zagat travel information. A sunroof is standard, along with a power tilt/telescope steering wheel, 14-way power heated front seats, and leather upholstery. The S400 Hybrid shares all this gear, minus the automatic high beams and front-seat ventilation. Options include Active Body Control on rear-drive S550s; both versions can be fitted with keyless entry and push-button start, better seats, parking sensors, and a rearview camera. Those features are made standard on the S600 and on the AMG sedans, which also wear 20-inch wheels, distinct aero-add-ons, and a sport-trimmed steering wheel. Optional on the S400 Hybrid, S550, and S63 AMG are a rear-seat entertainment system; four-zone automatic climate control; and multicontour rear seats. All those features are standard on the S600 and S65 AMG. Other features offered on various models include a heated steering wheel, a panoramic sunroof, and a power rear sunshade.

Of all its features, the COMAND screen-based interface is the most improved and the most in need of improvement. The latest edition refines some of the knob-driven system's navigation, but it's not always as intuitive as it could be. We're not convinced it's a better idea than simple buttons and switches, either.

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