November 4, 2011

Mercedes S400 Hybrid

2010 Mercedes S400 Hybrid
It's not every day that I have a chance to drive a car that costs a gnat's fart shy of $100,000. The sticker suggested $98,085, but this is new-old stock, and you might talk the slick-haired ones into a few dozen grand off. At the very least, they'll throw in a “new car” scented air freshener.
The Mercedes S class is known as the oracle-in-a-tailored-suit of the auto industry. Whatever holy-wow new tech the S class has today will trickle down to Corollas and Civics in seven to ten years.

Base price: $89,000
As Driven: $98,085
Engine: 3.5L 295-hp V6 + electric motor
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Curb Weight: 4390 lbs.
Wheelbase: 124.6 inches
MPG rating: 19 city, 26 hwy.
The interior of this S400 lived up to that 1%er price tag. The subtle wood and alloy trim put me in mind of a high end home hi-fi system, where real materials, not faux finishes, makes the difference between good and great. It was almost unsettlingly quiet inside. On a windy day, even at highway speed, the cabin of the car was serene. The only obnoxious noise was coming from my questionable choice of radio station.
This S400 comes with Drive-Dynamic Multicontour front seats -- with massage. When I tell people about the S-class' magic fingers, almost to a person, their first comment is that the massage would put them to sleep. The massage seat is indeed comfortable, and it prodded my back juuuust right in some places that might normally get cramped and stiff on a long drive, but didn't come close to sending me into a hypnotic state of unconsciousness. The seats are a part of the P02 Premium package, which sets you back $4,950, and includes front and rear radar parking sensors, rear backup camera with parking assistance , and keyless everything (just have the smart card in your pocket).
The "Drive-Dynamic" aspect of the front seats means they adapt to driving conditions. When you take a sharp right turn, your body tends to get thrown to the left until it runs into something solid, like the Merc's vault-like door. To counter that most plebeian of experiences, the seat’s bolsters inflate and deflate to keep you perfectly placed in your seat. There are three settings for this function -- I left it in the most aggressive mode, because I was so delighted by the sensation of being hugged by my seat. When someone asks you what is so special about an S-class versus, say, a Camry, tell them about this. No more grabbing the oh-shit handle when the going gets exciting -- the Merc grabs you!
The rear seat is nearly as impressive. The boring measurement for rear legroom (42.3in) didn't mean much to me until I sat behind a driver's seat adjusted for my long legs with six inches to spare -- brilliant! Cup holders, vanity mirrors, air vents everywhere, and sun shades so my pasty skin never has to see the unguarded light of day. I could have spent very long periods of time back there -- next time I'll find someone to drive me around to get the full experience. All the sun shades can be controlled by the driver. If you've got kids, you never have to be shamed with the discount store sunshade announcing to the world that you've lost your man card. The S-class will shield their eyes and your pride all at the same time.
There are six combinations of leather to choose from for the interior. There are only three colors of leather, but each color has a premium choice, which just means the cows used to make the seats are younger (could be true).
The exterior is equally fantastic. The lines are subtle and regal. If I ever come to power of a third world country, I simply must have an (armored) S-class as my dictatorial limousine. Gaddafi can keep his oddball Fiat 500; I want an S-class.
The wheels are 18 inch alloys that are modern enough no one will make fun of you and conservative enough that you won't lose friends over them. The chrome dual exhaust tips would add to the  "Yes, I did spend a lot of money on this car" feeling, if you didn't find them on Hyundais nowadays.
The headlights are Xenon, which illuminate well -- for the area they cover. It seems even Mercedes hasn't figured out how to solve the sharp-edged look to the light field. There are nine exterior color options, but they're all bland. No citrus yellow or Ectoplasm green -- ballers will just have to take their Benzes to one of the many custom shops willing to pimp it.
Most of the features that really make this car special are in the interior and the driving experience. The exterior of this executive chariot needs to be understated, and it is. For those who like a little more spice, but still want the Mercedes ownership experience, there is always the CLS, or any of the AMG-tuned models.
The S400 hybrid comes with a 295hp, premium-only 3.5L V6 gas engine and a battery powered electric motor. The V6 is smooth and has sufficient power to move the Merc's heft without feeling like it's working too hard, but when you summon all she's got (Scotty!), the electric motor adds its significant torque to the V6's grunt, to rocket you through traffic.
As with all "proper" luxury steeds, the rear wheels are solely responsible for transmitting all of the torque to the road. Rear wheel drive would be a hassle if it snows, but that's why you also bought a $30k "beater" ML500, right? Nah! We get 3 to 5 hefty snow storms (3 to 8 inches each) a year, but the S400 has all of the latest electronic gizmos to keep you on the straight and narrow. Unless you find yourself plowing through deep stuff, you'll get there safely.  There is a feature to raise the chassis of the S-class if the white stuff gets too deep.
The safety feature that I didn’t get to try out due to the sun being up was the night vision system for night driving.  I could care less whether it works or not.  You get to walk into any business meeting, party, or opera (it is a dying art…) and say that your car can see at night.  Trump card (high falsetto voice)!
This particular S-class is not for hooligans. A hybrid is meant for smooth and reserved driving, and that is where it felt most comfortable. The hybrid drive is so seamless that it was impossible to tell which combination of gas and electrons was being used to move the car at any given time without studying the gauges. Luckily for the curious (like me --normally), you can choose to display an infographic on the media center that will tell you exactly when each motor is working. Sherlock Holmes wouldn't need the graphic and I never turned it on -- there are far better ways to entertain yourself in the S400.
$98,000 is a bit of money to pay for a car whose most advanced feature was pioneered on a cheap Toyota. But in this S-class, you get world-class. Everything you encounter feels like it costs as much as you paid for it. No other piddling car on the road is your equal, except another S-class. But with the hybrid drive, you're helping the environment as well (a bit -- 26 mpg highway isn't exactly Prius territory, but stomps all but the Europe-only diesel model), so you can lord your world-wise conscience over even your fellow S-class drivers.
In this car, you're driving the pinnacle of the pinnacle of finely-tuned German engineering.
With baby cows on the seats.

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