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Mercedes Magic: Banishing the Limits of Boredom

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to learn the S500 if you don't have an engineering degree. Here's a vehicle that simply can't be mastered without a thorough read of the instruction manual, or a short instruction course, or both. But for anyone with a thirst for the future, it's time well spent.

With the learning curve mastered somewhat, and a grasp of the dozens of gadgets, it begins to make absolute sense how these complex things (most with electronic controls) can work together so simply and well. With goodies everywhere, too numerous to mention, you just keep finding more. Even the ignition is controlled by the key fob's infrared beam.

You'd expect electronically operated side view mirrors on this flagship luxury auto (in the low $80,000 range as tested), but these also have built-in indicator lights, plus a push button remote to make them fold flush against the side. Presumably that's for safety in carwashes, for inching into tight European parking spaces or to avoid being clipped on a narrow road.

Weary road warriors can get tender loving care from the seat massage function that omits the need to squirm for comfort at times.

And there's more: Little water jets slide out below the high intensity headlamps to spritz them clean...Towaway protection keeps a thief from hoisting up the car and hauling it away...A self-leveler lowers ride height slightly for better control during super high-speed cruising...Doors not closed securely finish closing themselves.

The S500 doesn't lack for airbags, including side and head ones at all four doors. And there are speakers, speakers everywhere. Mercedes topped off the crystal clear Bose sound system with some nice driver-settings (done on the navigation system screen), to mix sound for "near," "mid-range" and far" with enough echo for a music hall effect.

DURING EVALUATION, an unexpected emergency that arose was an excuse to try the glowing red "SOS" button overhead instead of the permanently installed cell phone. It connected with Mercedes troubleshooters and worked as it should. Despite it being a weekend, a polite, local technician (never called a "mechanic") assigned to help arrived nearly an hour later and removed a plastic engine splash panel damaged by a previous driver.

But too few cupholders, begrudgingly installed, still seem small by U.S. standards, more oriented to the Continent than to American drivers who are notorious for dining on the road. (Yes, even Mercedes drivers have been known to steer with one hand and cradle a cup of joe in the other.)

And the S500's navigation system could use some tweaking. It's the one item too slow and awkward to use without more time than it should take. Software improvements would do wonders for a time-strapped driver who shouldn't have to spell out the entire name of a city or street for directions on how to get there. The American nameplates are better with this one.

The S500 without its performance pedigree could be strictly arcade-style magic: lots of flash and motion leading to nowhere.

But this is a vehicle that just won't let the driver go. On a long, arrow-straight track of freshly paved road during an Arizona desert test, with nothing but horizon in every direction, the S-Class found its home. It surged forward underfoot, then climbed to a smooth 120 miles an hour and loped along without any sense it was nearing its peak. It wasn't even a stretch for the S500 that could muscle about 165 miles an hour with the proper tires and no "governor" to shut it down around 155.

"A QUIET STORM," is one assessment of the vehicle's perfect balance of resonant power, agile mobility, and elegant style that never loses its characteristic Mercedes panache.


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