Class Traction: Ditch the diamond-encrusted SUV
If you need proof that ostentation is out and subtlety is in, look at all the towering wings that aren’t showing up on the new Asian sport compacts. In that same vein, if you want a luxury all-wheel-drive machine to get you to your Aspen chalet, why put up with a lumbering, dub-wheeled, glorified pickup truck?
Enter the new 4Matic-equipped Mercedes-Benz S550 luxury sedan. Building on the system first developed at Steyr-Daimler-Puch for the 1987 E-Class, Mercedes has set out to create a no-compromise all-wheel-drive car boasting best-in-class traction, handling, stability, driving dynamics, comfort, NVH, fuel economy, and weight–no small feat, given the excellence of rival systems from Audi and BMW.
The new 4Matic’s torque split varies from 45/55 front/rear on low-friction surfaces to 30/70 when friction is high; in between those extremes, it optimizes the split depending on surface conditions. The system offers three center-lock modes that work in concert with the standard electronic stability program: ESP off delivers more traction and less control, ESP on and traction control off allows the driver to throttle-steer around snowy curves, and switching both ESP and traction control on provides the most control from the system. The transfer case uses “compact, efficient beveled gears” integrated into the 7G-tronic automatic for optimal weight distribution and relatively low mass. The 4Matic system adds about 154 pounds to the S550, with about 139 pounds of that distributed to the car’s front half.
Mercedes has mounted the rack-and-pinion steering unit forward of the four-link front axle for better control. Steering feel is on par with any Mercedes, which is to say it’s still rather numb, but it’s improved over the previous S-Class; and there’s enough power and handling responsiveness for the S to feel light on its feet. Yet, the big Benz is softer and less sporting than, say, the Audi A8.
Switch the ride-height control from “sport” to “comfort,” and the S550 rises 0.4 inch. For special situations–like a snowstorm–the chassis can rise another 1.2 inches. Even with the long-wheelbase S550 on its tiptoes, we managed to high-side the car in deep snow during our drive in the Swiss Alps. But for most of the trip, the new 4Matic system provided plenty of reassuring traction and control–not to mention superb comfort. In fact, we’d take a sleek, elegant S550 with a ski rack on its roof over a diamond-encrusted SUV with the skis inside any day.
|2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic|
|Base price||$88,500 (est)|
|Vehicle layout||Front engine, AWD5-pass, 4-doorsedan|
|Engine||5.5L/382-hp/391 lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8|
|Curb weight||4630 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||205.0 x 73.7 x 58.0 in|
|0-60 mph||5.6 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||16/22 mpg (est)|
|On sale in U.S.||November 2006|