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Mercedes S-Class: Does anyone want to trade an old-style S600 with that lovely 12-cylinder engine?

By Philip Kozloff

When has an industry reached full maturity? When the industry has been around for a long time, when competitors consolidate, when its products reach a development cul-de-sac? Has the automobile industry reached that point?

Take DaimlerChrysler. It boasts that it is the oldest surviving motorcar maker, producing vehicles for well over 100 years. Few modern industries are older. Second, Daimler recently combined with Chrysler to form a huge single, global company. So, this industry seems to fit the first two criteria admirably.

But what about product development? DaimlerChrysler would have us believe that the new 2000 S-Class Mercedes-Benz is a major development in automotive design. The superseded model had been designed and engineered in the 1980s and appeared in showrooms in the early 1990s.

That car never sold in the numbers it should have. Was this due to weak economic conditions or were there problems with the car? First, the car was huge, even by Mercedes’ standards. Rail transport carriages had to be rebuilt to accommodate the unprecedented bulk. And the car looked big, “plutocratic” rather than “patrician”.

Many innovations were neither welcome nor necessary. Perhaps the most flagrant was the pair of four-inch snail-horns that sprouted from the rear corners of the car when reversing. This silly feature quietly disappeared midway through the design’s life cycle. Double-glazed side windows were introduced to improve thermal insulation and to reduce sound penetration. All of this added up to a package that was the heaviest conventional car on the road. A 12-cylinder, 6-litre engine was made available to keep it up with Autobahn traffic.

I bought a new S-Class in 1995. As a motorway/autoroute/interstate/autobahn cruiser, it could not be faulted. It silently, stably, and even efficiently gobbled up the miles at whatever rate of speed the driver chose. It even handled the twisty bits pretty well, if the road was wide enough.

Late in the decade, we began to hear about a successor to the old S-Class that, through a miracle of German engineering, would reduce weight and external bulk without sacrificing internal capacities. The motoring press wrote article after article on the marvels of this new model and re-proclaimed this to be an even better car than the S-Class of the 1990s and, once again, the best all-round car on the road. But does the car live up to its advance reports?

The car makes a good first impression. Its sleek lines give it showroom appeal. Long-order queues in many of the car’s market attest to this. I bought in on the hype and ordered an S430. After a long wait, it only took a few days of ownership to discover that the new car suffers quite badly in comparison to the previous model in several key areas.

For instance, Mercedes has reverted to conventional single-pane windows. Although a great deal of development was devoted to minimising noise in the passenger compartment, if not totally successfully. Tire noise from nearby vehicles now penetrates into the passenger compartment. This is a step backwards.

Computer-controlled pneumatic tubes (called “Airmatic Suspension”) in place of the classic steel coil spring and damper configuration is one of the highly touted technological advancements. Some of the motivation for doing this must have been to save weight in the new car. Mercedes-Benz offered air suspension 30 years ago but was ultimately phased out in favour of the “older” coil spring technology.

All this sophistication still does not offset the inherent deficiencies of this approach. The problem is that the suspension is simply not as compliant nor as absorbent as before. Certain conditions seem to flummox the suspension computer and the passengers are subjected to a series of small, but sharp, jounces. In practice, the “bank-vault-on-wheels” feeling is missing from the new car.

Whereas the S-Class of the ‘90s happily tracked down its appointed lane with little steering input from its driver (an occasional one-finger adjustment to helm was usually more than enough), the S-Class of the new Millennium reacts much more nervously to cross winds and road surface irregularities. It is best handled with both hands at all times for a more tiring drive.

Some of the changes masquerading as improvements are dubious at best. Foremost is the satellite navigation system, but that might best be left for a future column. And doors that lock as soon as you set off. At least this feature can be disabled.

There is a compartment built into the base of the driver’s seat that seems suitable only for something as small as say a 9-milimeter pistol. Perhaps this is a selling point in Moscow. Front seat cup holders are conveniently located but only large enough for shot glasses. The design of the roof and doors allows spent and dirty windscreen wash to totally smear the driver’s-side window so that you cannot see out the side at all.

The quality of some of the materials used in the car’s cabin seems to have been downgraded. But some new owners have had other quality problems from quarters where you would least expect them. I know one who has had problems with the power windows. This feature has been in use for 50 years. One would think that this would be a fully sorted discipline for a car in this market segment.

To be fair, the V-8 engine/automatic transmission combination is a superb drive train. Also, there are many improvements, if minor, brought on by the newer technology. The seats are softer, the radio and headlights are better, the steering wheel lifts out of the way when you exit, and service intervals are longer.

So, with all the faults and compromises of the superseded S-Class, does the new model represent worthy advancement? My answer would have to be “no”. It is the clinching indicator that the automobile industry has reached advanced maturity. Suddenly, the new model looks arriviste and exploitative compared to the solidity of the old model. Anyone want to trade an old-style S600 with that lovely 12-cylinder engine?

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