S express

The world’s most refined motor car? Possibly. One of the world’s more charismatic? Palpably not . . .

Luxury. It is defined as enjoyment of all things opulent, an appreciation of indulgences, rather than necessities. And there has been rather a lot of that within our chosen road test subjects of late. The Lexus 400 for instance: as tranquil as a goldfish in its bowl, but, some would argue, just about as charismatic. Or the BMW 740i: have your cake, and eat it while watching the optional colour TV . . . Kitchen sink not listed as an option. Yet.

Both are pitched squarely into an exclusive segment in which, connoisseurs will tell you, the Mercedes S-Class rules as the ultimate example of automotive indulgence. But if you want an S-Class for the same price as a 740i, you’ll have to aim a bit lower than the S500 Coupe tested here. Price? At £78,700 on the road, plus £353.89 for the electrically operated rear roller blind, your company car tax bill will more or less equate to a living wage. Or, put another way, that’s enough to purchase either a Lexus or a 740, a Caterham for weekend use and still leave enough to finance decent skiing holidays for two . . . for a decade or so.

To give the Coupé a fairer chance, it is closer in character — and price — to an 850 than a 740, though the aforementioned comparison still makes you wonder about just how far beyond certain criteria you need to go. When you cross the £40,000 threshold, any variation in degrees of refinement is relatively minuscule. How much leather does one need?

As you sink back into the cabin of an S-Class and engage the ignition key, the front seat-belts automatically come out to meet you, hovering by your shoulder until you accept the courtesy. Does this enhance the driving experience? Not really. But does it give you a minor superiority complex?

You bet.

That’s the thing about the S-Class. It cossets you like little else this side of your grandmother.

The trouble is that, despite its technical recipe, it struggles, in some respects, to match gran’s home-baked scones for pulsating excitement . . .

The S-Class range kicks off with a 2.8-litre straight six saloon, and rises to a 6.0 VI2. The S500 features the most potent of the V8s in the range, with 32 valves, double overhead cams, 315 bhp at 5600 rpm and almost enough torque to move mountains (347 lb ft/3900 rpm). It is, in the Mercedes idiom, impeccably smooth. It feels plenty fast in a straight line, and its capacity to reach 60 mph from rest in around seven seconds is testament to its reserves of torque, boosted at low speeds by the electro-hydraulically variable inlet cam and always accessible via the well-matched ratios of the excellent four-speed automatic gearbox. (Manual transmissions, never one of Mercedes’ long suits, remain a dirty word in the Stuttgart vocabulary.)

However, from your leather perch, separated from the world outside by layers of double-glazing (which helps to reduce demisting), it doesn’t feel terribly invigorating. The stopwatch tells you that this is faster than anything weighing 2080 kg has any right to be, but the integrity of the soundproofing and the absorbent properties of the suspension (double wishbones at the front, and a complex multi-link arrangement at the rear) are such that the visceral sensations are pretty much the same crawling up the M6 at bicycle speeds on a Friday evening as they are at almost two miles per minute. Was that a sleeping policeman, or a minor change in the road surface? It’s hard to tell. ..

This is yet another impressive engineering statement from Mercedes.

But is it fun?

Not really, no. And one has to assume it isn’t meant to be. The S-Class is designed as the ultimate high-speed carriageway conveyance: deactivate the remote alarm, release the flick-knife key, ignite and go. This is a world of recycled trees and once-upon-a-time cattle: nature reconstituted in the quest to produce the ultimate statement of one-upmanship from a volume manufacturer. Everything is smothered by leather and walnut: there’s not a stitch out of place, nor a knot unpolished. The space between the individual rear passenger seats (this is strictly a four-seater) is filled by what looks like an old-style radiogram, except it probably has more buttons. There are a few electric toys within, a storage locker deep enough to accept a decent-sized hardback or two and, nestling between the electronically retractable headrests, a first aid kit which would keep Casualty in props for a whole series.

Despite the origins of its cockpit furnishings, Mercedes has made the usual concession to the might of its local Greens, electronically limiting top speed to 155 mph, and has placed a heavy emphasis on environmental compatibility: it is free of CFCs, devoid of asbestos, coated in water-based paint, has a catalytic converter the size of a Fiat 126 and. if you do ever manage to wear the S500 out, it is almost 100 per cent recyclable.

If only every journey one had to undertake was in a dead straight line, on a derestricted, billiard table-smooth highway . . . Away from that bland scenario, i.e in anywhere bar Germany and, given recent legislation changes, parts of the . United States, the appeal of the S500 is less apparent. Make no mistake, this is a big car; it looks it and, from behind the wheel, it feels it. Do not be fooled by the compact, though comfortable cabin dimensions.

Its steering responses and handling are a touch ponderous; there is exaggerated body-roll; it may look like a sports car, but it does not feel like one, not in the true sense of the word. There’s plentiful grip; it’s just that the chassis’ reactions are, as aforementioned, a trifle dull.

That’s not to say that you can’t make decent progress along B-roads. You can, but it’s not a terribly passionate process. Smooth and effortless? Yes. Invigorating? Not at all.

The only concession to ‘sport’ is the switch by the transmission, which encourages the gearbox to hang on as long as possible before making its next indiscernible change.

By 5000 rpm, you can just about hear the V8…

A switchable electronic skid control comes as standard, and caps the power as soon as slippage is sensed at any corner. Deactivate the system on a slippery surface, and you’ll appreciate its benefits pretty quickly.

The S500’s braking ability is, naturally, impeccable, the large central pedal providing powerful, fade-free deceleration in all conditions. High-quality materials apart, glitzy cabin appointments include a perfect driving position (seats and steering wheel are electrically adjustable, and can be positioned with millimetric precision), effective air conditioning, illuminated vanity mirrors (front and rear!), automatic anti-glare rear-view mirror, superb eight-speaker radio cassette (there’s no CD, but then again not all Mercedes-Benzes feature radio equipment as standard), heated front seats and electric adjustment of more or less everything.


Much of the aforementioned might appear a trifle critical; so, have we missed the point of the S500 Coupé?

I prefer to think not. The disappointing thing is to find a car which has such a high level of technical specification and overwhelming opulence, but which is not terribly entertaining to drive. When the BMW 850 first came out, it was slated for placing a greater emphasis on its technical plumage than its capacity for bringing a smile to its driver’s face. The consequence is the 850 CSi, which offers a better balance.

In the past, Mercedes has combined its traditional blend of build quality and comfort with flair. One only has to look at the AMG-badged machines in the current range, which now come under the official Mercedes umbrella, to know that such cars still exist.

You will struggle to find anything more solidly put together, or more refined, than the S-Class, no question. But given the overwhelming depth of engineering expertise which has gone into creating this luxury apartment on wheels, the potential must exist to create something with a little more panache, without unduly compromising its admittedly outstanding virtues? SA