The S-Class is the top sedan at Mercedes-Benz, which has prided itself on making top-line, technically advanced four-door models since the 1930s.
The engine for Mercedes' most famous sports car -- the 1950s 300SL with flip-up doors-- was from the automaker's big Type 300 sedan, which was Mercedes' first completely new model following World War II. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright's son-in-law owned a 300SL, but auto buff Wright owned a Type 300 sedan.
Skip to 2004 and you find the S-Class sedan has the world's first seven-speed automatic car transmission for the S-Class S430 and S500 sedans. Seven gear ratios provide a wider spread of ratios between first gear and top gear and give the transmission more flexibility in maximizing fuel economy and making the transmission's reaction time very fast. It can skip gears during downshifts to help the transmission choose the perfect gear ratio for quick acceleration.
Other S-Class models have a responsive five-speed automatic transmission that adapts to a motorist's driving style, whether it be spirited or conservative. Both the five- and seven-speed automatics have manual shift gates and are very smooth.
The S-Class models often get a bum rap in that they're viewed as being less fun to drive than the top rival BMW or Audi high-line sedans. That's because Mercedes has a more somber image than those automakers. The S-Class sedans are too big and heavy to be as agile as smaller sports sedans, but are very fast with safe, secure steering, handling and braking. They have firm rides that are comfortable, but still let you feel severe ruts and bumps.
There's a hot rod $110,250 S55 AMG S-Class sedan with a supercharged, hand-assembled 493 horsepower V-12 engine that propels it to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. But that's a limited-production model aimed at car buffs who want the fastest, most luxurious Mercedes sedan.
Standard in the S55 AMG and S600 sedans -- and optional on the S430 and S500 sedans-- is Mercedes' amazing ABC active suspension, which virtually eliminates body roll in cornering, squat under acceleration and dive during hard braking.
That suspension took 20 years to develop and uses hydraulic, electronic and mechanical parts to reduce body roll by 68 percent, compared with a regular suspension. A "sport'' switch alters that to 95 percent reduced body roll if a driver prefers sportier handling. This suspension solves the age-old tradeoff between ride comfort and handling precision; you get the sumptuous ride comfort of an S-Class sedan with air suspension while gaining crisp handling that compares with many high-performance sports cars.
There are a variety of S-Class models. None are cheap, although resale values are high. They start with the $74,250 S430 V-8 model with 275 horsepower and end with the $122,900 S600, which has a twin turbocharged V-12 engine, also with 493 horsepower. The V-12 delivers a mediocre, estimated 12 mpg in the city, but decent (for a big 5.5-liter V-12) 19 mpg on the highway.
I tested the $76,750 S430 4Matic, which has a cleverly engineered all-wheel-drive system also available on the $85,200 S500 4Matic. The 4Matic system automatically and normally directs 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels for confident rear-drive handling characteristics on dry roads. Even if three wheels lose traction under slippery conditions, the light, compact system can direct power to just one wheel, front or rear, left or right, to keep the car moving.
The S-Class models are a showcase of advanced technology. Besides a long list of comfort and convenience features, even the "lower-line'' S430 and S500 have an air suspension system, GPS navigation, Tele Aid assistance system, leather upholstery, advanced Bose audio system, sunroof, traction control and anti-skid system.
The costlier S-Class models add items such as heated and ventilated front seats.
Volvo often has gotten the most media credit for safety features, but Mercedes long has emphasized advanced safety items, offering such things as the first auto anti-lock brakes. For instance, the S-Class' Distronic adaptive cruise control automatically maintains a preset distance behind a vehicle in front with the help of a radar sensor.
Other safety items include front and rear side air bags and curtain side air bags -- besides anti-lock all-disc brakes with a brake assist feature for surer panic stops. There's also a tire-pressure monitoring system.
Optional is Mercedes' Pre-Safe system, which recognizes an impending accident and does such things as readjust seats to an optimum safety position, tighten seat belts and even close the sunroof.
My test S430 felt sold as a rock, as do all S-Class sedans. Big outside door handles allow easy entry to the quiet, tastefully luxurious interior, which has very supportive front seats and almost limo-style rear seat room.
The tachometer, fuel and engine temperature gauges have rather odd placement near the speedometer, and some controls are overly complicated. However, the often-used power windows and seat controls are nicely positioned and all doors have storage pockets.
The big, luxuriously finished trunk has a low, wide opening for easy loading -- and quick unloading at places such as airports.
The Mercedes S-Class once was the undisputed luxury sedan. Some people think it still holds that title, while others think it's needlessly high tech and too expensive.
2004 MERCEDES-BENZ S430 4MATIC
Rock-solid. Fast. Good handling. Advanced safety. All-wheel drive.
Mediocre fuel economy. Complicated controls. Needlessly high tech?