Driving the Mercedes Benz S550 4Matic

The Mercedes-Benz S550 defines automotive precision and elegance. The black on black example I drove was fast, comfortable, and stylish and built to the legendary quality standards that have made the three-pointed star synonymous with luxury and performance.

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4Matic all wheel drive adds about $3000 to the $89,700 base price of this S-Class vehicle and for drivers in Colorado or any place where driving conditions get a little slippery, it’s a modest amount to pay for peace of mind and increased safety. 4Matic is an electronically controlled system that employs locking central and rear differentials that provide additional traction in slippery conditions. It uses inputs from the ABS system and steering wheel angle sensor to decide when to intervene but I never had a chance to put it to work on this summer’s day drive.

The S550 I tested was equipped with the Premium III ($6190) package that includes front seats that can give you a (no kidding) 4-stage massage, which would be great on those cross country drives, a task to which this S-Class vehicle is ideally suited. Even without the massage, multiple adjustments make the leather seats fit anyone even if just driving to the Loaf N’ Jug for a gallon of milk. Premium III also includes what amounts to night vision goggles in Night View Assist. Using infrared technology, it’s activated when your low-beam headlamps are on and can detect objects nearly 500 feet ahead and display on a black-and-white screen in the instrument cluster. The AMG Performance package includes a body kit that makes the S550 look great and those elegant 19-inch AMG wheels. These packages brought the as-tested price to $105,290.

For an AWD car, the S550’s ride is precise and subtle until the surface changes to concrete. While driving on what appeared to be smooth concrete road, I heard loud thumping noises. Its sounded like I may have had a flat and not wanting to damage a $100,000 car I pulled over and checked the tires. No flat. What I think occurred was a perfect storm of AWD meeting AMG components, and the low profile 225/40R 19 Dunlop SP tires. If it were my car I would forego the 19-inch AMG rims for a pair of 18-inch chrome Mercedes Benz (more blingy on a black car) wheels and Michelin tires with not so low a profile but that’s just me.

The S550 is a big car but doesn’t feel like when driving it. Inside it feels like a big car, while handling like something decidedly smaller making it the best of both worlds. At 295-inches overall it’s just a tad longer than the 204.4-inch Audi A8 L that, to my eyes, looks longer. Part of that is due to the Audio’s blocky, conservative styling, while the S550 like most recent Mercedes models offer elegant, understated, yet undoubtedly contemporary styling.

The 5.5 liter V8 engine hauls the 4630 pound S550 4Matic along at a brisk pace producing a zero to sixty time of 5.4 second, not bad for a heavy car. (An ML 320 weighs only 187 pounds more.) The Airmatic Semi-Active Suspension lets you tailor your driving with selectable driving modes for either Sport or Comfort at the touch of a button on the center console. You can minimize that concrete road bounce by keeping it in Comfort. The vehicle’s superb and precise handling is assisted by Electronic Stability Program aka ESP that monitors the vehicle’s motion to keep you going in your intended direction. If it detects wheel slip, severe understeer (plowing) or oversteer (fishtailing), ESP brakes individual wheels and reduces engine power to bring the vehicle under control. While all this sounds a bit like race driver tech it’s an important safety component of the way the S550 drives.

As befits a perfectly modern luxury car, the S550 is endowed with all the latest electronic gizmos include a pretty good nav system and a great sounding 600-Watt Harmon/Kardon stereo emanating from fourteen well-placed speakers filling the cabin with beautifully balanced sound. An integrated microphone monitors vehicle acoustics and adjusts frequency response to deliver the optimum sound experience. The Command system offers precise control of the audio, climate, telephone and Navigation systems, front-seat adjustments and numerous vehicle settings on an 8–inch color-LCD that’s located within your line of sight to help you keep your eyes the road. While you can control all these electronics from a console-mounted joystick/dial, you can enjoy hands-free communication, navigation and other features simply by speaking up via the S550’s voice control system.

Safety is am important component of the S550 4Matic’s design. There are active front head restraints, dual-stage front air bags, and a Pre-Safe package that prepare the occupants for a collision before one occurs. If Pre-Safe senses a accident based on brake pedal application, steering-wheel input, or ESP, it takes action to protect you by electrically tensioning front seat belts, adjusting the front passenger seat for more favorable air bag and seat-belt effectiveness, and closing side windows and sunroof if a rollover is detected. You can take your family on along trip and feel you’ve done everything possible to protect them. Speaking of road trips…

Then there is that whole deal about the $1300 gas-guzzler tax included in this car’s as delivered price. An EPA rating of 14mpg city and 20mpg highway is not surprising for an AWD vehicle and I’m guessing that the purchaser of a six figure automobile isn’t also going to worry about the $2812 estimated annual fuel costs based, as are all these stickers, on a nostalgic $3.00 per gallon.

The Mercedes Benz S550 4Matic is everything a modern luxury car should be. It’s equipped with all the electronic gadgets that the most tech minded driver could want while wrapped up in a package of precisely tuned, metal, wood, and leather to provide the best sort of driving experience—the one that’s measured by the seat of your pants. And as the lady sand “Nobody does it better…”

Special thanks to Mercedes Benz of Littleton and Robert Toth for providing the 2008 S550 4Matic for this test drive.