Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Home Wrecker

New Benz may make you want to sell the house

By Marc Stengel

JULY 5, 1999:  "Thanks a lot, Marc," was the first thing Susan said over the phone. "Now Rick says he wants to sell the house."

How was I to know that a perfectly innocent gesture the previous evening would turn Susan's world upside down? Rick had overheard me telling some fellow guests at a party how much I was enjoying--nay, worshiping--Mercedes-Benz's new 2000-model S430 that had arrived for an evaluation. Not the most enthusiastic car nut, Rick initiated the challenge himself. "C'mon," he said. "It's just a car. For crying out loud." All I did was make an offer: "Wanna go for a drive around the block?"

It was a sucker punch, I readily admit. Only I couldn't have known that Rick has a glass jaw. When he slid into the passenger seat, I suggested he not slam the door. So he pulled the armrest toward himself gingerly until an electro-pneumatic controller sneaked the door away from his grasp and gently but firmly latched it shut. His eyes bugged. "Hit that button in the door panel there labeled 'E'," I said. When he did, a microchip calculated Rick's body weight and approximate dimensions, then adjusted legroom, back angle, head restraint, and shoulder-belt height to a general fit. "After you fine-tune 'em," I said, "just save the settings for future use." The faint whistling noise I heard next sounded like a gasp to me.

I started up and inserted a CD. "Tunes?" Rick asked. "Nope," I said. "CD changer's in the trunk. This will blow your mind," I predicted. Accurately, as it turns out.

A video display in the center of the dash blinked to life. I scrolled through the Web-like "pages" that controlled telephone operation, radio tuning, audio EQ, and CD disk and song sequence. In a moment, a crystal-clear map materialized from the navigation CD I'd just installed. Our location was centered within it. Using an unusual but efficient "spin and punch" knob that controls Mercedes' COMAND [i.e., COckpit Management ANd Data] system, I entered a specific street address as our destination. Lola, I'll call her, replied promptly that she was calculating our route. When she was ready, she directed us to the street out front and to the left. I asked her to instruct us again--in French. Ooh-la-la! Rick was in love, poor sap. Poor Susan.

Precisely how much poorer is likely to be $71,915, if Rick follows through with his blind-sided infatuation with M-B's new S-Class. Base price for the new S430 is $69,700; the six-CD changer in the trunk and the integrated, voice-recognition telephone bundled up for $1,620 as the only option on my tester. The car shares its 4.3 liter, 275-horsepower V8 with the mid-size E430 sedan and brutish ML430 All-Activity Vehicle. Right there, however, stops the similarity between this new S-Class sedan and any other vehicle on the road.

Mercedes strides right into the lion's den with this top-of-the-line sedan. Hungry rivals are poised to take advantage of any weakness, real or perceived. The short list includes BMW's 740iL for $66,400 (base) at 282 horsepower; Audi's A8 4.2 Quattro ($65,000/300 HP); the Jaguar XJ8 Vanden Plas ($64,300/290 HP); Infiniti's Q45t ($49,900/266 HP); and Lexus' LS400 ($53,805/290 HP). It would be hard to gripe with any of these premium luxury sedans, particularly with Audi's stunning A8. And the Japanese contenders at least concede something to price. The significance of the gauntlet that Mercedes has cast down for the 2000 model year, however, is that these rivals remain just cars, while the S430 has attempted to transcend onto another realm altogether.

Perhaps Rick is unwittingly prescient to consider trading his bricks-and-mortar home for the mobile habitat of a new S-Class. Mercedes-Benz has accomplished a fundamental, if subtle, shift in the function and purpose of the automobile with this latest ultra-sedan. It is not a means of transportation between two points. It is the point. This car enmeshes its driver and occupants in a sort of feedback loop of locomotion. You sit; it comforts and literally massages you through ventilated Nappa leather. You get hungry; its navigation system proposes nearby restaurants and taverns. You steer off course; it recalculates and gently reins you back to bearings.

If you're too hot, but your passengers are not, the S430 "zones" you into personalized micro-climates. Available SmartCruise technology employs radar in the car's grille to maintain a precise gap between you and forward traffic. In other words, when this gap narrows, the system throttles back and even applies up to 20 percent braking to maintain your preset distance until traffic congestion clears again. Road-sensing AIRmatic suspension lowers the car about half an inch at sustained speeds over 68 miles an hour, for the sake of fuel efficiency and ride quality. But if you're determined to veer down that tempting gravel road, a dash control lets you raise the ride height by an extra inch. And if you happen nonetheless to high-side the transmission on that rutted back road, a three-button TeleAid emergency phone link directs emergency assistance to your satellite-tagged location.

Driving the S430 is no longer point-and-squirt toward an endpoint destination. It is a full, extra-sensory immersion into the journey itself. The electronic, drive-by-wire throttle spurs an eerily hushed acceleration to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds. If, at this point, you happen to blink, the next sight you see will be a speedometer reading three digits. An Electronic Stability Program (ESP) seems to know whether you're about to skid before you do--and it intervenes accordingly to save you from yourself. Semi-automatic gear changes are a tip-of-the-finger proposition. Or just keep it in Drive if you've no pretense to sportiness.

Best of all, the new S430 introduces itself to the world wearing a muted, stylish envelope of sheet metal that is a far cry from the conspicuous, boxy status-crate it replaces. It's almost a svelte sports coupe in silhouette, and yet the interior volume is nominally larger than in '99 (rear legroom particularly). There will, for this reason, be luxury car prospects who will steer clear of the new S-Class and its polite unpretensions. For some, after all, a luxury sedan should display what you've done to get this far in life, not what you're capable of doing en route to your next destination. I can only assume, however, that Susan and Rick will not mind appearing a little less conspicuous within the cityscape. Having traded in a house on a sedan, it might be that much easier to pull over to the curb for a good night's sleep.

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