VITZNAU, Switzerland - Okay, so we made a few mistakes. But Ward's Auto Dealer Editor Steve Finlay and I finally found this gorgeous spot on Lake Lucerne nestled among craggy Alpine peaks, some still topped with snow from last winter.
Our "mistakes" were small ones. It was primarily a matter of getting used to the COMAND (which stands for COckpit MANagement and Data system) function on the new model-year 2000 Mercedes-Benz S-Class we'd driven from-Benz AG's headquarters in Stuttgart.
We were here to test-drive Mercedes' first total redesign of the S-Class since 1991. The Mercedes flagship arguably becomes the first new model to be launched by what became, in mid-November, DaimlerChrysler AG. It goes on sale in the U.S. at around $75,000 next March. A coupe version designated S600 likely will arrive about a year from now.
Elegant though COMAND is, the nav system is perhaps the least important electronic feature on the new S-Class, a car so loaded with advanced technology that all you have to do, asis fond of saying, is sit back and enjoy the ride.
Steve sees upwards of 145 mph (233 km/h) on the autobahn.
We drive two different versions, the S430 powered by a 4.3L, 275-hp SOHC V-8 and the S500, toting a 302-hp, 5L version of the tasty Mercedes "modular" V-8; both had enough steam to be autobahn-stormers.
Once in Switzerland, COMAND takes us through some of the most steeply twisting roads in Europe. What better way to show the car's remarkable handling, braking and other attributes? I am reminded of the extensive driving I've done on West Virginia mountain roads in a variety of cars and trucks, where S-shaped curves meet you coming back and steep grades demand constant downshifting.
The S-Class should feel right at home in West Virginia. Here's where its "Sportshift" function gave us ample confidence that everything was under control. You merely flip the automatic transmission stick left to downshift and right to upshift. The 5-speed electronically controlled transmission, incidentally, is the only component carried over from the old model.
That's only part of the story. The total handling package includes Mercedes well-known ESP (electronic stability program) that senses potential slides and spins and keeps the car stable by applying selective braking. Full-range traction control reins in wheelspin on slippery roads, antilock braking is standard, and electronic brake proportioning modulates the percentage of brake force on the front and rear wheels to brake more effectively in a variety of dynamic conditions.
There's much more to the total safety/handling equation, including a pneumatic air suspension system, a newly developed 4-link front suspension for more precise handling and steering control, and a refined 5-link rear suspension.
All of this technology has been engineered to provide a harmonious driving experience. You can't see it or hear it, but you feel it, assured in the most demanding driving conditions that it's working. How so? Because you don't even have to think about it.
The interior and exterior design adds to the overall feeling of 'here's a car you can trust to perform as billed.' The hard edges have been rounded off, producing a slippery 0.27 coefficient of drag outside. Inside there's a pleasingly curvaceous instrument panel that replaces the harsher building-block appearance of the prior version.
The new model, which is slightly smaller in most dimensions and weighs 500 lbs. (230 kg) less, also feels more lithe, more sporty - a world-class luxury sedan with a youthful soul.
And the list of technical features - the car has 40 computers controlling 170 functions and uses fiber optics to convey the information - appears endless: "Smart" air bags that inflate based on severity of the collision; side air bag and curtain-type bags that deploy from the headliner; the industry's first radar-based cruise control that automatically keeps the car a safe distance from the vehicle ahead (see story p.115); laminated side-window glass and much more, including - are you ready - "heated power rear seatbacks."
The S-Class is available in both short- and long-wheelbase version, although only the latter will be sold in the U.S.
Representing a $1 billion (DM1.6 billion) investment, planning on the new model began 52 months ahead of next spring's introduction and will arrive 29 months following final design approval. Primary competitors are theAG 7 Series, Motor Corp. Lexus LS400 and Jaguar Cars XJ.
Mercedes, which sold 407,000 of the previous generation between 1991 and 1998, naturally has big aspirations for the new S-Class. Annual production capacity is set at 80,000, with Mercedes-Benz of North America pining for 25,000 sales during the car's first full year on the market, up from 15,000 sales of the old model this year, shortened when the old model was phased out in August. Mercedes-Benz expects a record 170,000-plus U.S. sales this year and a further gain in 1999 when the S-Class comes on stream.