New Car/Review

The 2000 Mercedes-Benz S500, The Best for Less

by Larry Weitzman

Of all the automobiles I have driven, the new 2000 S500 Mercedes is the best automobile that I have ever driven. It's not the fastest sedan, the Mercedes E55, Lexus GS 400, the supercharged Jaguar XJR, and the BMW 540i Sport and M5 are faster.

It's not the best handling, the BMW 740i Sport and many others will out dual the big Mercedes in the corners. But because it is so close with respect to those cars in performance and handling and it does so many other things better, most automotive critics including this one would have to say this is the finest mass produced automobile, period. This is a car built for superlatives.

When I said that it doesn't get any better with the E55 AMG, I lied. This is better. Not faster, but still the best.

The new S500 is slightly smaller than the previous S class MBZ. Wheelbase has been reduced by 2.1 inches to 121.5 inches. Length is down by 2.5 inches to 203.1 inches and the new car is 1.3 inches narrower at 73.1 inches. Weight has also been paired down by some 700 pounds to a svelte 4,133 pounds.

Also reduced for 2000 is the price, with the base price down by almost $10,000. But in this case less is more.

I spent some time with the last generation and thought that it didn't get any better. Wrong again. One of the best features of the S class is rear seat legroom. No other car has as much rear leg room. Even with the slight downsizing, it still qualifies as the best way to transport the Sacramento Kings. There are some cars that are close, but this MBZ is the roomiest in the rear.

The lines are still unmistakably Mercedes. But the 2000 has a longer, lower sleeker look. The front end is smoother with massive HID headlights that mimic the sun at night. The grille has been made wider and lower. The sides of the car have a little more shape and the roofline flows into the body with more rake in the front and rear lights. The previous generation looks upright and boring by comparison, but the relationship is clear.

Under the hood is the familiar V-8's from the Mercedes family of modular engines. By modular, the 3.2L V-6 is the same as the 4.3L V-8 with two cylinders missing. The 5.0L V-8 is an enlarged version of the 4.3L. The Mercedes uses a SOHC valve train with three valves per cylinder, two intakes and one exhaust. By using a single exhaust valve, heat loss in the exhaust is reduced which promotes catalytic converter efficiency. That is important when you learn that the new S500 qualifies as an ultra low emission vehicle.

Power output from last year is down a couple of ponies to "only" 302 hanoverians at 5,500 rpm and torque is a tug boat size 339 lbs-ft at a basement level 3,000 rpm all the way to 4,250 rpm. This translates to tire burning, asphalt ripping performance. This S500 will move from a standstill to 60 mph is 6.2 seconds.

Passing is lightning quick. The big Merc will accelerate from 50-70 on level ground in only 3.33 seconds. Making the same run up a steep hill will only slow that time to a gravity defying 4.35 seconds. There are only a few cars that are quicker, but only by a blink of an eye. This thing flat out runs like a scalded dog on steroids. It even makes muted sounds reminiscent of a high performance V-8 during strong throttle applications. It's more than sweet.

The S500 drives through a silky smooth electronic five speed driver adaptive automatic with a touch shift control. There are only four indicators on the shifter, P, R, N and D. In drive the tranny operates in fully automatic mode responding to speed, engine loads and throttle input to select the appropriate gear. It always starts in first gear unless the winter mode is selected by a switch next to the shifter at which point the transmission will start in second gear. Even more clever is the fact when in winter mode a special second reverse gear is used to help traction. To engage Touch Shift, nudging the lever to the left and releasing will downshift the tranny one gear and a nudge to the right will upshift the tranny.

During maximum performance cornering, the exit gear can be preselected so the throttle isn't required for a douwn shift and better control can be maintained.

Also helping with traction is standard automatic slip control (ASR, which really stands for acceleration slip regulation) and the Electronic Stability Program. ESP senses plowing and/or fishtailing and instantly brakes the appropriate wheel to keep the S on course.

Not that it matters, the S500 is EPA rated at 16/23 mpg city/highway. I averaged 17.5 mpg with a lot of time having my right foot buried in the very thick and dense carpet. I would expect 18-19 mpg in El dorado County and 24 plus on the highway at legal speeds based on the trip computer. Knowing the way this car is designed and built, believe the gauges.

Quality ride an handling are the results of body tightness, chassis rigidity and the suspension. The Mercedes body feels like its chiseled out of granite and the chassis acts if it is made out of parts from the Golden Gate Bridge. It's that tight and solid. the state of the art fully independent suspension has a four link set up in front with pneumatic (air) struts, adaptive tube shocks, antiroll bar and automatic leveling. The rear suspension is similar to the front with the addition of one more controlling link.

The airmatic system lowers the entire car by .6 inches at higher speeds and by pushing a button it also will raise the ride height by almost an inch for added ground clearance. It self cancels at highway speed.

It works all too well. Sometimes I could envision the big Mercedes being more comfortable than anything in my family room. It is certain infinitely quieter and the sound system is better than anything I have heard in an automobile and maybe in a home. It even monitors ambient noise through the telephone's hand free microphone and adjust volume and tone to compensate.

This is the new Ponderosa Road ride champ. I could have thought that Ponderosa had three inches of new asphalt. It was that smooth and quiet. It was able to round the two 90 degree corners at speed without a waiver.

Roads like Green Valley, Latrobe, South Shingle and Willow Creek were simply effortless. It is not necessarily the fastest around the corners, but the combination of its sublime ride, composure, absolute quiet and responsive handling makes it my favorite car to drive anywhere. Big bumps in the corners do nothing to upset the line or track of the wonderful ride. It inspires confidence.

The highway ride is most comfortable. It is very quiet, with the engine turning a very relaxed 2100 rpm at 70 mph. Road irregularities are simply eliminated and the way it devours the highway makes this the best of the Autobahn cruisers.

Steering is speed sensitive rack and pinion that goes exactly were you point it with perfect control. No dead spots with perfect on and off center feel. The rollercoaster rises and dips of Willow Creek cause little upset. This car is just plain unflappable.

If I were to fault this car I would be splitting baby hairs. Yes, the steering as good as it is, looses some feel under heavy cornering loads and there is some understeer, but everything is a compromise and the Mercedes compromises so little considering the incredible ride quality and effortless and confident handling.

The brakes are huge 13.1 inch ventilated and cross drilled discs in front and 11.8 inch vented discs in the rear. The calipers are fixed 4 piston Brembo. They haul the Mecerdes to a stop with little effort and in a very short distance. They are powerful with perfect feel and modulation. ABS, of course, is standard.

Safety may be the biggest concern with Mercedes Benz. This car had no less than eight air bags for the passengers with the front passenger being a dual inflation rates based on accident intensity. There is even a sensor that prevents the deployment of an airbag for an unoccupied seat.

Features on the inside abound. The interior is bathed in the finest of leathers and polished woods. The front seats are huge and armchair comfortable. However, to increase enclosed storage, Mercedes put some out of character plastic and a storage bin in front of the seat which sometimes bothers the back of my legs. In the Designo edition the leathers are golf glove soft Nappa. The heated front seats are 14 way power with memory as is the steering wheel location.

The instrument binnacle contains back lit crystal clear gauges with a large speed and a smaller tach flanking right. Fuel and temp gauges are to the left. There is an information center-trip computer at the bottom which will tell you just about everything that's going on with the big Merc and maybe someday electronic stock quotes. In the center of the dash/vertical console is the heart of the heart of the control systems.

A full color GPS with sound system information overlaid sits high in the console. Below in the front is one half of the four zone climate system, with individual controls for the driver and passenger. There are three small compartments for storage and the gear shift. The center console has storage, a built in phone and two cupholders that are only for cups, anything larger, your out of luck. I guess people who drive this car don't get Big Gulps at the local 7-11. Oh well, I can live only a demi-tasse within this motor vehicle.

I did find the GPS system very complex to use, but once mastered it was easy and most complete with respect to information and mapping. This car has more buttons than a shirt factory.

The rear seats are sumptuous with an option available for heated seats and power adjustments. The spaciousness compares to the grand ballroom at the Fairmount, but maybe the Fairmount isn't quite as elegant. The rear of the center console contains dual zone climate controls ($1,800 option) for the two lucky passengers. If there is a third passenger in the middle seat, he will have to suffer, if you could call any part of the passenger accommodations suffering. I would compare it to camping which to this writer is a hotel without room service.

If there is any area which isn't large, its the trunk. Mercedes claims 15.4 cubic feet so you can't bring you entire wardrobe with you on a trip. But it did carry four golf bags and for large guys to the golf course in a way that we may never experience again. The golf was forgettable, but the ride was most memorable.

What does the finest cost? Less than you may expect. With "ordinary" luxury cars now approaching the 60-70K range, this S500 will set you back $77,850 plus $595 destination and a $1,000 for the gas guzzler tax. This sedan averaged almost 18 mpg, hardly a guzzler, but the tax is more government control of behavior. My test car had three options, a trunk mounted CD changer ($400), rear air ($1,800) and heated rear seats ($595). The total was $82,240.

The S430 which comes with a 4.3L, SOHC 275 hp V-8 with just about the same list of standard equipment for $69,700 plus $595 destination. There is no gas guzzler tax so the total is $70,295 for the finest car in the world that will out perform just about every other sedan with 0-60 times at about 6.9 seconds and passing times about a half a second more than the 5 liter model. The only option I would order would be the CD which is a $400 option and the lighting package which HID headlights and washers ($1,195).

Van Housen Motors in Sacramento has a good selection of this finest of all mass produced motor cars. If you want to drive simply the best and have a motoring experience like never before, you must drive this car. It has raised the bar of excellence to a new level and for less money than before. I know it's a whole lot of money, but it's a whole lot of car. And I thought it was as good as it gets. It only gets better.

SPECIFICATIONS 

Price   $70,295 (S430) to about $90,000 for a loaded S500

Engines
4.3L, 24 Valve, SOHC   275 hp @ 5,750 rpm   
V-8 295 lb-ft of torque @ 3,000-4,000 rpm

5.0L, 24 Valve, SOHC   302 hp @ 5,500 rpm
V-8 339 lb-ft of torque @ 3,000-4,250 rpm

Transmission
5 speed electronically
controlled driver adaptive 
automatic with touch shift

Configuration
Longitudinal front engine
rear wheel drive

Dimensions
Wheelbase 121.5  inches
Length    230.1  inches
Width     73.1   inches
Height    56.9   inches
Weight    4,133  pounds
Track front/rear   62.0/62.0  inches
Turning Circle   39.7   feet
Fuel Capacity   23.2   gallons
Trunk Capacity   15.4   cubic feet
Coefficient of drag   0.27

PERFORMANCE
0-60 6.2    seconds
50-70 3.33   seconds
50-70 uphill   4.35   seconds
Top Speed Electronically limited to 130 mph and 150 mph in Germany.  But to acquire 
the money to buy this car requires sound and prudent judgement, so believe the
manufacturers claim and live to enjoy this car, unless you rent Black Rock Race Area 
Fuel Economy   
EPA 16/23 mpg city/highway, but figure about 18 mpg in El Dorado and 24 plus mpg on 
the highway at legal speeds.  Expect about one more mpg from the S430. 

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