Mercedes-Benz S600

It is said that the most precious commodity among the upper echelon of America’s working class these days-more valuable than diamonds, Berkshire Hathaway shares, or even a full head of natural-looking hair-is time. And the net worth of every millisecond of “free time” will continue to skyrocket as our workdays lengthen, as urban sprawl extends commuting distances, and as traffic density chokes the existing road system. Road rage is a reaction to these pressures, and now multitasking is being proffered as a solution. Keep drivers busy enough, and maybe they won’t shoot one another. Behold the poster child for vehicular multitasking: Mercedes-Benz’s flagship sedan, the S600. For the hands-on plutocrat who refuses to be driven, there is no better self-propelled, land-bound way to get somewhere quickly while simultaneously keeping tabs on a corporate empire. Like all 2001 Mercedes-Benzes, the S-class comes standard with a Tele Aid cell-phone link to keep the driver in touch with the factory or emergency services. But Mercedes was first to market with an “Internet on wheels” telematics system, available for 2001 on all models equipped with a COMAND navigation system (standard on S- and CL-classes, a $2035 option on C-, CLK-, and E-class cars). CNN Interactive beams the Web content to the car for an annual fee of $125, plus air time.

Customers can have their own personal Web page on the site, and it can be personalized to track stocks of interest, news topics, sports, weather, etc. Text can then be downloaded and displayed on the screen at the touch of the “SVC” button in the COMAND cluster.

Calendar reminders are also available for the harried exec on a tight schedule. COMAND admonishes Mr. Big to wait until the car is parked to read the text, but it can be displayed on the fly. Expect many upgradable Web-related features to be added throughout the useful life of a new 2001 Mercedes, but for now all data transmission comes across at the protracted pace of 9600 bits per second.

File attachments and photos are therefore out of the question (eliminating a whole category of naughty driver distractions). Ah, the question does come up-do human beings, especially those who’ve circled the sun enough times to amass the wealth required to acquire an S-class, really have the excess mental processing capacity to manage steering, acceleration, braking, and Web surfing tasks simultaneously? Perhaps not, but never fear-Distronic intelligent cruise control offers to temporarily relieve his or her highness of the tiresome tasks of accelerating and braking to keep pace with the ebb and flow of rush-hour freeway traffic, for just $2800 plus tax.

The Technical Highlights sidebar examines the guts of this gizmology, but suffice to say that we were able to enter the freeway outside Hogback Tower, engage the cruise control at 75 mph, and commute 40 miles along four different freeways through moderately thick evening traffic without touching the pedals. Distronic slowed us to 30 or 40 mph following traffic around the various cloverleafs. It braked indignantly when oblivious SUV drivers swerved in front and then surged silently back up to cruising speed when the coast was clear.

The system can be set to follow between one and two seconds behind the car in front, which means the distance to the next car varies with speed. We found the minimal distance to be most effective in thick 40-to-70-mph traffic, as it left insufficient space for any but the most aggressive lane jockey to jump in front. Applying the throttle to drive into the “safety bubble” and around an obstruction countermands the braking function.

On an evening drive across the laser-infested Ohio Turnpike to Cleveland, we set Distronic to its maximum following distance (and the maximum set speed of 110 mph), and then latched on, tractor-beam-like, to whoever was driving fastest. We never hit 110, but we were traveling as fast as possible without making a target of the big black Benz. At 70 mph, one has about three seconds to react if the warning beeper sounds for an object within 300 feet, so paying attention is still a good idea, particularly considering the system occasionally loses track of a target car that is still very much in view. (This tends to happen mostly on curves, and for that reason, the system won’t accelerate to resume a set speed on a curve.)

For the record, during Distronic cruising we devoted our otherwise loafing foot-control brain cells not to the boredom of the Web but to glancing frequently at the “DTR” screen in the center of the instrument cluster. It shows a cartoon of the S-class’s nose on the right edge, while another cartoon car moves back and forth to show the speed and position of any vehicle within 300 feet in front, plus the boundary of the preset safe following distance. Distronic is available across the S-class lineup, so it’s the 362-hp, 5.8-liter 36-valve V-12 that makes the S600 the ultimate executive commuter car.

Acceleration is as smooth, silent, and swift as a bank window’s vacuum tube. Sixty mph flashes by in 5.4 seconds, the quarter-mile disappears in 13.9 at 103 mph-quicker than a Porsche 911 Tiptronic. And Porsche-strong brakes are part of the package, vented all-around, cross-drilled in front. They stopped this 4439-pounder in 164 feet from 70 mph, time and again. The active-body-control system (ABC), standard on S600s, maintains a very even keel when set to “sport” mode and contributed to the 0.82-g skidpad grip.

The penalty is a bit more pothole harshness-even in normal mode-than we expect in a car of this caliber. The numbers indicate a twisty-road proficiency that the S600 has little enthusiasm for demonstrating. The variable-assist steering provides artificially high effort and minimal feedback, and when driven hard, the car’s body language seems to say, “Hey, pal, where’s the terrorist pursuit?” Rather, this big beast is built for comfort. Four adjustable heated seats, quad-zone climate control, extra leather and wood trim, and an Alcantara headliner are all part of the S600 bargain, and at just $119,063, it is a value, priced $21,200-ahem-“cheaper” than the 1999 S600, before taxes. Money-to-burn types will be comforted to learn that $16,125 worth of options remains available, though, including our car’s $450 power opening and closing trunklid. Now, we ask you, what more could you possibly want than a self-driving car that even opens and closes its trunk?

Distronic: The “eyes” of this space-age cruise control are a three-beam radar gun mounted behind the center of the grille. The overlapping beams are three degrees wide, and each covers a lane’s width 100 meters (328 feet) in front of the car. The radar will not set off oncoming detectors and is claimed to penetrate fog and dust better than the laser-based units employed by Lexus and Infiniti. When a vehicle is detected, the system checks with the steering, yaw-rate, and wheel-speed sensors to determine if it is in the Benz’s path. If it is, the brain decides how much deceleration is required and sends orders to the electronic stability program, which then cuts power, downshifts, or engages the brakes, or all the above, with up to 20 percent (roughly 0.20 g) force. If 20-or-more-percent braking is required, a beep and a red caution symbol alert the driver. The computer disables the brake lamps during very light Distronic braking and suppresses downshifts for smoothness at wide-open-throttle acceleration when resuming the set speed.

The system is set and controlled as on any other Mercedes, with the addition of a thumb wheel on the center console to adjust the following distance from between one and two seconds. A second button on the console allows the driver to enable the warning beep and icon even when Distronic is not engaged. V-12 cylinder deactivation:

Whenever the driver is not accelerating or climbing a hill, chances are this V-12 engine is running like a straight-six. When conditions dictate, the engine controller directs hydraulic pressure through the left-bank rocker-arm shaft to a series of pistons that decouple the rocker arms from their roller followers, closing the valves on six cylinders full of hot exhaust gas. A diminished spark continues to fire, and the fuel is switched back on briefly once every four minutes to keep the engine warm.

As one bank is shut down, the throttle is opened and fuel delivery to the other bank is increased to provide equivalent torque. A valve in the exhaust crossover pipe is also closed to maintain a smooth sound quality. The changeover is imperceptible, so we wired up a light to tell us when we were running on six cylinders. On a 40-mile commute at 70 mph across Michigan’s seasonal salt flats through morning traffic, we ran on six pots for 28 minutes of the 38-minute drive, achieving 23.2 mpg, lending much credence to Benz’s claim of a 20-percent boost in fuel economy.

AARON ROBINSONDistronic performs marvelously on a lightly traveled highway but takes on the personality of an amphetamine-addicted cabby in denser traffic. The S600’s silicon cerebellum is rabidly protective of its personal space, so the throttle and brake pedals are in constant tango as they work to keep others at the perimeter of the zone. The incessant braking earns you laser-beam looks from fellow drivers while your passengers scramble for the barf bags. To be perfect, the S600 needs a supercomputer powerful enough to predict traffic’s ebbs and flows and intelligent enough to know when to bend its own rules for the sake of comfort. Oh, wait a minute. It already has one-behind the wheel.

CSABA CSEREWith semiactive suspension, radar-assisted cruise control, a motorized trunklid, and many other innovations, the S600 is clearly Mercedes’ technological flagship, but the component that most impresses me is the one that has 12 pint-sized cylinders arrayed in a neat V. Although this 5.8-liter V-12 weighs a mere 490 pounds, it generates 362 horsepower that silently and smoothly slingshots the S600 through the quarter-mile in less than 14 seconds. Moreover, thanks to its clever cylinder-deactivation system, this V-12 achieves virtually the same fuel economy as the 350-pound lighter-and less swift-S500’s V-8. Such technology is what I expect in a luxury chariot for the 21st century.

TONY SWAN As C/D’s resident Luddite, I tend to resist techno-enhancements that require several hours of study to operate successfully, and devices that intercede between driver and driving summon up the Berserker in my soul. Okay, to be fair, the Distronic system is a remarkable achievement-generally effective, unobtrusive, and even occasionally entertaining. But it stops being effective if you’re overtaking a slower car in a curve, because it can’t “read” that car’s presence until the road straightens out. And the main reason most people will want to acquire this device-$2800, please-is so they can concentrate more fully on their cell-phone conversations. Hey. Is this progress?