A Mercedes in a class by it­self

Los Angeles Times - - HIGHWAY 1 - By Charles Flem­ing charles.flem­ing@la­times.com

The car you’ll be driv­ing to­mor­row? It’s what rich guys are driv­ing to­day.

To­day’s flag­ship Mercedes ve­hi­cles boast semi­au­tonomous safety fea­tures that will prob­a­bly be avail­able on less-ex­pen­sive cars in the near fu­ture, as their costs come down and their abil­ity to re­duce ac­ci­dents is proven. They may even be man­dated.

For now, they can all be had for $132,000. The cur­rent S-Class sedan, with all the toys and trim­mings, can steer it­self, watch for ve­hi­cles and pedes­tri­ans nearby, stop it­self in case of an emer­gency and main­tain a safe dis­tance be­tween other ve­hi­cles on the free­way.

This re­quires lit­tle op­er­a­tor in­put and makes the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence ex­tremely com­fort­able. Af­ter an hour in the S-Class 550 — lulled by heated, mas­sag­ing driver’s seat and the Burmester 3D Sur­round Sound mu­sic sys­tem — I started won­der­ing which but­tons to push for a mani-pedi and a cap­puc­cino.

The self-driv­ing func­tions will im­prove the skills of the in­ex­pert, lazy or inat­ten­tive driver. (Every­body, in other words.) But they have their lim­i­ta­tions too.

The Pre-Safe func­tion will slow the car when traf­fic be­gins to stop, bring the car to a halt un­der emer­gency cir­cum­stances, and then will start up again — with­out re­quir­ing the driver to hit the brakes or the gas. The Distronic Plus Steer­ing As­sist pro­gram is just that — it as­sists. It will ex­e­cute a turn grace­fully with only the slight­est touch. But you can’t take your hands off the wheel and ex­pect the car to do the steer­ing for you.

That was a bit of a dis­ap­point­ment. I had a crossword puz­zle handy, and my knit­ting nee­dles. But the dash­board quickly started blink­ing, order­ing me to re­turn to my driv­ing du­ties.

Sim­i­lar semi­au­tonomous and safety packages are al­ready avail­able, at much lower rates, on less-ex­pen­sive Toy­ota, Lexus, Honda, Acura and Subaru cars. GM, Ford and Nis­san have said they would of­fer even more com­pli­cated self­pi­lot­ing packages in the near fu­ture. And high-end ver­sions of some of th­ese sys­tems al­ready come on some Tes­las, BMWs and Audis.

But few of those ve­hi­cles will par­al­lel park them­selves as el­e­gantly as the S-Class. The car’s Park­tronic pro­gram, with “Ac­tive Park­ing As­sist,” is bril­liant.

On a city street, pull up next to an open spot, put the car in re­verse, and an­swer “OK” to a dash­board prompt. The ve­hi­cle does the rest — quickly and ef­fi­ciently, get­ting into tight park­ing spa­ces with far less trou­ble than I had when I parked it my­self.

The S-Class also per- forms regular driv­ing tasks with Mercedes’ usual el­e­gance and elan.

The bi-turbo V-8 en­gine puts out 449 horse­power and 515 pound-feet of torque, and gets from zero to 60 in un­der five sec­onds. The ve­hi­cle can be in­structed to run in Econ­omy or Sport mode, and with Com­fort or Sport sus­pen­sion set­tings. Be­cause this model was fit­ted with the patented Magic Body Con­trol sys­tem, it felt like it was rid­ing on air — scan­ning the road ahead, and mak­ing minute ad­just­ments.

The Warmth and Com­fort Pack­age added a heated steer­ing wheel, heated and ven­ti­lated rear seats (the front ones come that way, stan­dard), and even heated front and rear arm­rests. The stan­dard Magic Vi­sion Con­trol fea­tures a heated wiper sys­tem, which keeps the wind­shield crys­tal clear. The Es­teem Man­age­ment Sys­tem lights the dash­board with the words, “You look fan­tas­tic to­day.” (Kid­ding on that last one.)

Such per­for­mance and luxury don’t come cheap. This S550 has a base price of $95,000. But this par­tic­u­lar model also had that Burmester sound sys­tem, which adds $6,400, and a “Silk Beige/Espresso Brown” Nappa leather in­te­rior, which adds $4,450, and a sport pack­age with spe­cial wheels, bumpers and side skirts, which adds $5,900.

Those op­tions may not make the S-Class safer, or mark it as the car of the fu­ture. But they cer­tainly add to the plea­sure of driv­ing one to­day.

Myung J. Chun Los An­ge­les Times

THE MERCEDES S-Class 550 of­fers a host of semi­au­tonomous safety fea­tures.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.