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February 14, 2006

Review: 2006 Mercedes-Benz S 350 LWB

Just last weekend, I was checking the classified ads looking for how much a new house might cost these days. After a few flips, I found an interesting middle-class real-estate project with prices that start at P8 million. The units have no furnishings—just painted concrete shells with metal tin roofs. This took place just a few minutes before I got to drive the similarly priced Mercedes-Benz S350. And after spending the better part of the day in the flagship Merc, all I can say is that the house will definitely have to wait.

As the Iridium Silver S350 drove up, I couldn’t fathom the air of majesty that this car brought with it. Although most people complain that the new S-Class doesn’t have the same clean lines as its predecessors’, the level of attention to detail is amazing.

The crisp sheet metal remains unadorned (no protective strips or body moldings) and yet it doesn’t look like a bar of soap. The creases that run through the top and bottom of the body help mask the S-Class’ mass even if it’s significantly larger than the model it replaced. The S-Class typically doesn’t polarize in terms of looks, but this one’s different.

The most controversial aspects are the exaggerated fender flares and boot lid lines that, for some people, echo those found on the BMW 7-Series. According to the S-Class design team, these bulges exist not to outdo Chris Bangle (BMW’s infamous design chief) but to give the new S-Class unequalled passenger and luggage space. Stepping into the cabin confirms this.

Opening the door gives off a whiff of high quality. Sitting in the driver’s seat is like settling down in a lounge chair: soft, relaxing and comfortable. The black-and-gray interior makes the S-Class visually inviting, while the walnut wood trim and chrome accents add a bit of warmth and hominess.

Despite the complexities of the S-Class’ interior system, the cabin is clean and without fuss. The center cluster is simple with just a colored eight-inch LCD screen, ventilation control adjustments and an analogue clock. The rest of the controls are now incorporated into the COMAND system, located where the shifter usually sits. The system uses a control wheel with a center button to navigate through the complex list of features that even this “base” S350 has. Everything is customizable on the S-Class—from the way it reacts when you unlock the car to how the trunk lid opens and how sensitive the parking sensor should be.

After five minutes of tinkering with the COMAND system, it was time to get down to the business of driving. Before you do that, you adjust the driving position—after which you can’t help but grin at Mercedes’ trademark electric seat-adjuster icon. This makes the 14-way adjustable seat easily adapt to any sort of shape and size. Even the rear seats are electronically adjustable—in no less than six directions—making everyone extremely comfortable inside the S-Class.

The parking brake is electronically actuated, but for old time’s sake, you still have to gently nudge on a handle to release or to push the handle to engage. The new S-Class also uses a new column-mounted shifter that’s fairly straightforward with just Reverse, Neutral and Drive selections (Park is engaged by pushing on the shifter stalk itself).

With all the vast on-board sensors, computers, wirings and servos, it’s surprising that Mercedes has kept the weight down to 1,925 kilograms—around 50 kilograms lighter than a Ford Explorer.

The steering is responsive and accurate, making the S350 a delight to toss around. Of course, the surprising agility of this Mercedes doesn’t hamper its riding comfort as it can smoothen out any sort of bump and rut. The NVH insulation is equally impressive, making 100 kph feel more like 40 and countryside roads feel like the autobahn.

As wonderful as the S350’s chassis dynamics is the very drive train. At the heart sits Mercedes-Benz’s universal 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V6, an engine shared with the new E-Class and the SL-Class roadster. For service under the S-Class, it generates 272 horsepower (modest) and 350 Newton-meters of torque (impressive). The engine is excellent, providing instant overtaking pace thanks to its diesel-like low-range punch.

Equally suited to the S-Class is the new 7G-Tronic automatic transmission. With seven forward gears, it provides smooth and seamless progress.

Aside from the usual myriad of airbags, the S350 has ABS, stability control, traction control and adaptive braking. Making its debut on the S-Class is Pre-Safe—an intuitive detection system that lessens occupant injury even before the collision can occur. Basically, it preps up the car for a possible collision by adjusting seatbelt slack, steering wheel and seat adjustment and so forth. In addition, the S350 has Parktronic, a parking assist system that uses sensors and a rear-view camera to assist in even the tightest of spaces.

After a day inside the luxurious cabin of the S350, it’s hard to imagine people comparing it to an empty shell of a house. Getting a new house merely fulfills a need. It’s not exactly the most passionate of purchases, but you do need a place to sleep in at night. On the other hand, the S-Class fulfills a desire—an individualistic statement of wealth and power that only a few could ever achieve.

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