ST. MORITZ, Switzerland – Subtle, these Mercedes-Benz types.

They not only choose an inspiring vista as a backdrop to unveil their all-new S-Class, they do it in a land famed for meticulously crafted watches and sinfully rich chocolate.

Kind of sums up what the '07 S-Class is all about: precision and decadence.

But begin with the clean, elegant exterior styling.

'07 Mercedes Benz S-Class

The cabin rises in graceful, but predictable fashion from the long, gently sloping hood. At its apex, this fluid line becomes taut and races down the C-pillar in dramatic fashion, blending seamlessly with the ample decklid.

The overt bulges over the car's wheelwells – a relatively new design cue for Mercedes – evoke a restrained boldness. Like lean, well-defined muscles bursting through a tight T-shirt, these convex shapes correctly suggest effortless power ready to uncoil.

There is a well-proportioned nose to frame a trapezoidal Mercedes grille. It easily could have been ostentatious, but is not, and for this, its designers deserve a tip of the Alpine hat.

Dressing a car that is brimming with advanced electronics and powered by a sophisticated new torque-laden V-8 could invite excess. But the sheet metal is only slightly more overt than the unengaging previous-generation S-Class while expertly disguising this new car's larger proportions.

Designers were mindful, perhaps, that the new ninth-generation Mercedes flagship offers many indulgences easily enjoyed in the privacy of its interior.

S-Class COMAND control


S-Class Night View Assist

Mercedes is particularly proud of its reconfigured Cockpit Management and Data (COMAND) system. It integrates into a single controller and display screen the numerous entertainment, climate-control and navigation-system functions that usually dictate a throng of individual switches and buttons.

One can be forgiven for drawing a comparison with BMW's pioneering iDrive system. Mercedes, however, claims COMAND is easier to use than BMW AG's widely-criticized – but curiously much-copied – driver-interface system.

COMAND's controller is more precise than iDrive's, but ultimately, its ergonomics are only slightly better. The telephone-style keypad, hidden in a handrest, feels intrusive and serves as a barrier between COMAND's main dial and the stubby-fingered among us.

More successful is Mercedes' new Night View Assist technology, which debuts on the S-Class.

The system uses a pair of infrared headlamps to illuminate the vehicle's path and extend the driver's vision range when motoring after sundown. This enhanced view is projected to an auxiliary instrument panel screen.

Daylight limited testing to a momentary glimpse of traffic in a dark tunnel burrowed into the nearby Italian Alps. But the infrared image of the surroundings is surprisingly clear.

Another of the copius “driving aids” for the new S-Class is Distronic Plus. Like Jaguar's Adaptive Cruise Control, it ensures the vehicle maintains a safe distance from those ahead.

But Mercedes goes one further. Distronic Plus can bring the car to a complete stop, then relaunch, in stop-and-go traffic situations, for example. (See related story: S-Class Stop-and-Go Take Rate Pegged At 40%)

And if the driver does deign to do his own braking, Brake Assist Plus, an option that works in tandem with Distronic Plus, primes the system in advance to make optimum stopping power immediately available.

Despite these layers of electronics, the S-Class affords a most entertaining drive, if not necessarily affordable.

It ranges from $70,000 for the V-6-powered S 350 to $130,000 for the V-12-powered S 600, and that excludes higher-performance AMG models that will arrive in U.S. showrooms later in 2006. (See related story: S-Class Tops Out at $130,000; AMG Buyers Must Wait)

Mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission, the S 500's new aluminum-intensive 5.5L DOHC V-8 makes 391 lb.-ft. (530 Nm) of torque and 388 hp.

This output is 26% greater than the 5L SOHC V-8 it succeeds, while delivering the same fuel economy: approximately 20 mpg (11.7 L/100 km) combined, says Mercedes.

The “S” in S-Class could stand for stiffness, which it demonstrates consistently on a winding mountain circuit to Lake Como, Italy. And despite long stretches of challenging twists and turns, we arrived rested because – here comes the decadent part – the seats have multi-directional massage capability.

In addition, undulating seat bolsters keep the driver and front passenger planted. Sensing speed and the ever-so-slight body lean, the bolsters alternately hug and release their occupants to counteract G forces when cornering.

Mercedes believes comfort enhances safety because it fights fatigue. Corporate parent DaimlerChrysler AG even conducted research that revealed the average heart rate of an S-Class driver was five beats per minute slower than those who covered the same 311-mile (500-km) route in a competitive vehicle.

And, the study reminds, stress is linked to elevated heart rates.

In short, the S 500 tested here is a technological tour de force that would be as magnificent on a dusty Carolina back road – electronic stability control is standard; all-wheel drive becomes available a few months after the U.S. showroom debut early next year – as it was in the Swiss Alps.

And we ain't just yodeling Dixie.>

emayne@primediabusiness.com