Review: 2012 Mercedes-Benz S550

Mercedes-Benz has slipped a new, high-torque V8 under the hood of its S550. We investigate.

The automobile as an event. Driving a particular car can, as we have seen many times, put you in a different state - both literally and figuratively.

Lately, though, few have moved us like the 2012 Mercedes-Benz S550. Barely removed from the top shelf sedan in the Daimler garage (in these money-crunching times, is an S600, an AMG or a Maybach really a prudent purchase?), this happening on wheels continues to move along and become more refined as time marches on.

So hop in with MG as we get this party started.

What is it?
A five-passenger sedan, the Mercedes-Benz S550 is the basis for the company's flagship model. Equipped in varying degrees ranging from diesel-powered, hybrid, 12-cylinder, 4Matic all-wheel drive and AMG high-performance versions, ours was the anything-but-mundane 4.6-liter, V-8 powered version simply known as the S550.

Don't let the anything-but tag confuse you. This is an example of the automobile as high art, even if it almost seems plebeian compared to the rest of the lineup.

Why isn't it an S460, you ask? Until last year, the S550 was powered by - you guessed it - a 5.5-liter V8. But in these fuel-sipping times, the engineers in Stuttgart have slipped below the S550's lengthy bonnet a twin-boosted 4.6-liter for 2012. It boasts 429 horsepower, yes, but the more important figure here is its 516 lb-ft. of torque available from just 1,800 rpm all the way to 3,500 rpm.

What's it up against?
The Mercedes-Benz S-class runs in a rather pedigreed crowd. Members of the same club include the Audi A8, the Lexus LS, BMW's 7-series, The Jaguar XJ and the Maserati Quattroporte.

We will even add to that list the Porsche Panamera.

All of these models are also available in varying degrees of sports tuning and equipment.

Any breakthroughs?
Technologically, our S-Class is so buck that the only thing not ticked off on the order sheet would be armor plating. Active Lane Keeping Assist and Active Blind Spot Assist with ESP brake intervention uses a windshield-mounted camera to watch the lane stripes and sends a rumbly feeling through the steering wheel should you accidentally veer off course. A lane change using the turn indicator cancels this intervention. First-timers, like the spousal unit, might mistake it for a problem with the steering system, as was the case when she was behind the wheel. The same ESP system also offers torque-vectoring control, which applies inside breaking to help pivot the S550 for faster handling response.

Distronic Plus active cruise control actually slows down the car when it gets too close to a vehicle, as predetermined by the driver settings. Helpful in stop and go traffic, it can slow a car from 125 mph to a complete stop, and then start up again, once traffic has cleared. It's a little disconcerting rushing toward slowed or stopped traffic, but we found that it did work, even if we were covering the brake pedal just in case.

How does it look?
Looking stately enough to transport, appropriately, a head of state, our S-class is imposing and confident at the same time. But just for added emphasis they've equipped it with the Sport Package Plus One. That means that in addition to its normal good looks and the princely sum of $6650, this Merc is now riding on 20-inch AMG wheels with high-performance tires, and sport body styling which delivers new front and rear fascia as well as sport rocker panels.

Generally, though, the S550 is starting to look a bit common, especially since the fresher E-Class boasts heritage-inspired bulged fenders that seem way better integrated than those on this big brother. A new S will be on the road in about a year, so all we can do for now is sit back and wait.

And on the inside?
If you love milk chocolate, you've come to the right place. Looking as though covered with Hershey's finest, the interior of our test vehicle was handsomely outfitted with some of the best sets of mobile living room furniture, we have experienced in quite a while.

Add to that the reclining, ventilated and heated rear seats, and you have what amounts to a rolling mobile spa. And that's not even considering the dynamic bolsters that cinch you in place when pushing the limits of the sharp right turn up ahead. In-seat massage functions also help to iron out the kinks, and are just firm enough to keep you relieved of back pains, but not enough to lull you to sleep.

Our tester was ordered with the Mercedes-Benz COMAND system with hard drive GPS Navigation and the optional Bang & Olufsen sound system with Dolby digital surround-sound. Sure, we love a good navigation system and over-the-top audio as much as the next guy. But what really got us jazzed was the Splitview dual-content, eight-inch monitor, which allows the driver to view navigation and other vehicular information, while the front seat passenger can watch a DVD from the passenger seat angle on the same screen, at the same time.

But does it go?
Checking in with a curb weight of 4,740 lbs., our S-Class is hardly a featherweight. Sure it can make-do with a six cylinder-based hybrid version, but that flies in the face of what the S550 is all about.

Which is all the more reason why we love this S-class with its new 4.6-liter twin turbo direct-injected V8 engine. With its EPA estimated 15/23 mpg numbers, it now manages a 20-percent increase in efficiency over the 5.5-liter engine it replaced. At a svelte 4.6-liters, the engine's displacement is also 20-percent smaller. This boggles further, considering that its 429 horsepower and 516 lb.-ft. of torque is 32-percent more than the old mill.

Power from this new engine is sent to the drivetrain by a new seven-speed automatic transmission with an advanced torque converter lockup clutch for quicker gear changes and smoother runnings. M-B even claims that the new transmission fluid used by this slush box is good for lower friction and increased mileage.

The Mercedes-Benz attention assist system is also included on the S550. It monitors each driver's behavior for the first 20-minutes or so, and after that, switches over to big brother mode where it identifies erratic steering inputs and triggers a warning asking if it's not "Time for a rest?" A great idea for those times when you find yourself driving with eyes closed. You know how it is. First you decide to give your left eye a rest, and next thing you know, your right eye wants in on the action, too.

We're just glad to see that Starbucks hasn't (yet) found a way to slap its logo on the coffee cup icon that appears with the warning message.

Acceleration in this Mercedes flagship is smooth and almost effortless in its theory as well as its practice. The speed sensitive rack and pinion power steering transmitted good road feel in a variety of conditions set in South Florida that ranged from dry and fast to wet and sloppy. The four-wheel independent active Airmatic suspension was constantly monitoring the road surfaces and adjusting on the fly.

This S550 is not a car for your typical track day event. But it is definitely a "˜bahn-burner, just the same.

Why you would buy it:
Power. Performance. Panache. All in one place.

Why you wouldn't:
You were planning to show up at this year's Golden Globes in a plug-in electric car.

MG's bottom line
While it's not the most expensive offering in the superluxury market today, Mercedes-Benz's S550 flagship still manages to make an event out of a trip as mundane as a run to the local grocery store.

With all their high-tech and comfort accoutrements, they practice coddling and cosseting as high art.

Add in 2012's twin-turbo V8 and suddenly the S550 is more than just a luxo-barge for 1 percenters.

2012 Mercedes-Benz S550 base price, $94,500. As tested, $126,135
Chestnut interior, $2,290; Power rear window shades, $750; Active Body Control, $4,090; Bang & Olufsen audio, $6,400; Splitview, $710; Premium Package, $3,630; Rear Seat Package, $3,040; Driver Assistance Package, $2,950; Sport Package Plus One, $6,640; Special Order Charge, $250; Destination, $875.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.

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