2011 Mercedes-Benz S350L (D)

I simply cannot imagine that a booking for a moderately priced rental with Hertz in the UK would ever result in you finding the largest saloon of the fleet in your space, regardless of what sort of status you have with them, but twice it happened to me in Zurich and now the same upgrade was gifted to me by Hertz at Munich airport. Although an S Class Mercedes is far larger than I needed, and indeed quite a daunting prospect to negotiate out of the tight airport rental car park, I felt it would be churlish to go and ask for something smaller, so decided that even though my original plan had been to try something that I had not previously experienced, the rental car gods clearly wanted to give me an S Class for the price of a 3 series and therefore I would take it. Closer inspection of the magnetite black metallic monster that was in my space revealed that this was the long wheelbase car, an S350L, and that it had a petrol engine. Somewhat surprisingly, the previous two S Class Mercedes that I had sampled were also petrol engined models, but they were the standard wheelbase cars and as the tests were in 2008 and early 2009 dated from before the release of the lightly facelifted W221 model. Although most of the changes that were made at that time were engineering in nature, my recollection of the Swiss registered cars is that the conclusions I drew about this current test vehicle generally applied back then, as well. Since the original Road Test I wrote did not survive our mid 2009 server move (and I do not have the text elsewhere, though I do have the pictures), this report is representative of the S350 4matic cars from 2008 as well.
The S Class probably needs no introduction. The name, standing for “Sonderklasse”, or “Special Class”, was first used explicitly with the W116 280S/SE and 350SE models that appeared in 1972 and which duly picked up the international Car of the Year when the V8 engined 450SE and SEL cars arrived a few months later. The latest car, known as W221, is the fifth generation of S Class, and debuted at the Frankfurt Show in 2005, replacing the W220 cars that had served as Mercedes’ flagship for 6 years. Popular with everyone from private owners to business drivers, including taxi drivers and chauffeurs, the S Class has frequently been the range in which Mercedes debuts its latest thinking and innovations, from the fuel injection systems of the late 1950s (when the car was badged 220S), to the first use of anti-lock brakes and air bags in the W116 cars, to the acronym fest that are the 21st century range topping machines that Mercedes sell in surprising volume.  Mercedes have sold close to half a million W221 cars in little over five years, and previous generations all sold equally strongly..     
Once upon a time, the numbers in a Mercedes model designation told you the cubic capacity of the engine. For some years that has no longer been the case, so it was quite a surprise to find that in the case of my test car, S350 does actually mean that it has a 3.5 litre petrol engine fitted. Not so for the diesel, where 350 means a 3 litre engine, and for the other petrol models in the current range, the S500 has a 4.6 litre, the S00 has a 5.5 litre and even the AMG models deceive as the S63 has a 5.5 litre engine (slightly smaller than the one in the S600, though) and the S65 is fitted with a 6 litre powerplant. Confused? yes, so am I. Sometimes the model designations do not change, but the engines do, and sometimes both change. Be that as it may, the 3.5 litre engine in the test car develops 306 bhp from its 6 cylinders arranged in vee formation,, and it does a good job of propelling what is far from a light vehicle. The engine is quiet and refined at all times, and only you when press hard on the go pedal do you get some evidence that it is being asked to work moderately hard with a consequent increase in noise and momentum. Most of the time, any sound it does make is masked by that of the climate control system. It does give the S350 sufficient urgency, though, that you could well wonder why anyone would really want to spend a lot more money on the more powerful cars.
Both the S500 and S350 petrol cars are now badged Blue Efficiency, and a number of measures have been adopted to help justify this badging. Most obvious was a stop/start system, which has to be the smoothest and fastest to restart set up that I have ever encountered. It did cut the engine more or less as soon you were stationary with a foot on the brake. Move it and the engine refired instantly. I cannot really tell what effect it had on economy, as I noted that by the time I was 2 km down the road from the airport, the fuel gauge was way off showing full, so although the 54 litres (12 gallons) I put in having driven 425 km, would suggest about 22mpg, the real figure is probably a bit better than that. Given that the miles were largely done at steady (and not outrageously fast) speed on the autobahn, I think that is a surprisingly disappointing, as I would have got 25 – 26 mpg from my Audi if driven in a similar way and it has 50% more engine capacity to fuel. The S350 is fitted with a 7 speed automatic transmission called 7G-Tronic Plus. It is controlled by a gear shift lever mounted on the right of the steering column. Although it follows the same concept as on previous high end Mercedes, I found this one particularly easy to use. Push the lever up for reverse, down for drive and to set park, you push the lever in. That is it. Well, it is if you want to leave the transmission to go about its business according to its own decision criteria. If you do, you can barely detect any evidence of the transmission changing gear, so smooth is it. There are three modes available, though: economy, sport and manual. Opt for the last and there are  paddles on either side of the wheel for up and down shifts. After trying them a couple of times, I decided not to bother. The S350 is all about refined luxury cruising, not out and out sports car driving, and besides, there was too much traffic to be able to take full advantage of the power and acceleration.
The steering on the S350 is very light, especially at low speeds, though it does gain both weight and feel as you gain some speed, but whilst it makes the car easy to drive, it does not really encourage the thought that this is a sporting luxury car. The handling can be summed up the same way. This is a large car, and I was always mindful of that and treated it with some respect and decorum on twisty roads and autobahn exits, as that seemed the proper thing to do. No issues with the brakes, which appeared to do their job just as you would expect and hope. The car does ride well, smoothing over any slight imperfections in the road surface and with no trace of float that you sometimes get in long wheelbased vehicles, though I have to say that the roads of Bavaria are perhaps a less harsh test than those of England! My initial apprehensions about the manoeuvrability of the S350L proved largely unfounded. Getting it out of the airport car park required a careful approach to the tight downhill bends of the ramps, though an array of beeps tell you not just about what is behind but also what is alongside. The test car had the optional reversing camera, which helped, and when you select reverse, the passenger door mirror tilts down to help you see the curb, too. Even so, there is a lot of car both in front and behind and you have to remember this when parking up. I did also like the blind spot indicator, an orange or red triangle that lit up in the door mirrors. Simple, but very effective.
There is a lot of technology in the current S Class, much of which comprise options and configurations selectable by the driver. Mercedes have done a good job and presenting a cabin which does not intimidate with complexity, and which is relatively intuitive to the novice user, such as a rental car driver, or someone who has yet to read the weighty instruction manual.  Open the door and you see a blank looking instrument display, a screen for the Command Centre (integrated sat nav, audio unit display etc), a row of piano switches across the middle of the dash, and not a lot else. Look harder and there is more, but it is relatively restrained. Insert the key and the instrument panel graphics display, showing you a speedo, rev counter, fuel gauge and water temperature gauge and that is it. There is a lot more on the Command Centre, but it is very use to use, controlled by a large rotary dial in the centre console, with some additional small switches to either side. There are two stalks on the left of the column: the shorter and upper one is for cruise control, and the larger and lower one for indicators and, by twisting the end, the wipers. There is a light switch to the left of the wheel, on the dash, above the button to set and release the electric parking brake. Look a bit harder and there are a few more things you could press, but it is not as complex as you might fear given all the electronic goodies that are packed into the car. It is all beautifully made, of high quality materials and gives the impression that it would last a long time.
The regular S Class does not lack space in the back. Long wheelbase cars have an extra 13cm inserted between the axles, which makes the rear passenger space truly commodious. Rear seat passengers have their own switches on the doors, just like those of the front seat passengers, allowing them to move the seats back and forward, adjust the height and angle, alter the angle of the backrest and the headrests. They also get all manner of other useful items, ranging from their own climate controls and ash tray in the back of the centre console, to drop mirrors that fold up into the ceiling, and a huge drop down centre arm rest, the top of which opens to reveal a good stowage area. Hidden behind this armrest is the ski flap for creating extra length to the already gigantic boot. I thought the luggage are in my Audi is large, and indeed it is, but the S Class offers far more. The shape is squared off with a couple of netted areas at each side, and there are some shallow under floor spaces as well. Inside the cabin, front seat passengers have access to a moderate glove box and door bins, a large stowage space under the centre armrest and a small lidded tray in the centre console. Ample, for sure.
Mercedes offer a bewildering array of options allowing the new owner to personalise his or her S Class more than somewhat, provided they are prepared to see the price rise more than a little. Careful study of the brochure suggests that the test car, slightly unusually for a rental machine, had a few options, but was far from generously augmented. Even so, the standard car is far from meanly turned out. Leather seats are of course standard, and the material is very pleasant to the touch. There are a number of optional leather trims for the long wheel base cars, called Passion Leather, Dark brown eucalyptus wood trim is standard, with four other shades ranging from light burr walnut to black ash on the options list. Numerous electronic and technology aids feature in the car as standard: there is a multi function steering wheel; a 6 disc CD/DVD changer unit with SD card slot, neatly hidden behind a flap at the bottom of the centre console; Bluetooth Connectivity, the Command multimedia system which includes a very good and easy to use Sat Nav system; something called Attention Assist which detects unexpected movements of the steering wheel such as if a driver is falling asleep; separate climate control settings from driver and passenger; intelligent lighting system which includes DRLs, bi-xenon headlamps, an active light system and high beam assist, and so the list goes on. Long wheelbase models benefit from heated front and rear seats, the electric adjustment for the rear seats, a full width rear window blind and a tilting/sliding electric glass sunroof that added a lot of light into the cabin. Items that featured on the test car that I believe to be options include: the panoramic sun roof, the reversing camera, front seat memory and metallic paint. there are 12 different types of alloy wheel shown in the UK brochure, so by the time you combine that with 12 different metallic paints and 1 non-metallic (black), the different interior trims, you can imagine that few S Class cars are likely to be identical. Choosing your ideal spec is not the work of moments.
It goes without saying that I enjoyed my time with the S350L. Yes it is big, and you need to remember that, especially when in confined spaces, and yes it did need quite a lot of fuel, though I note that Mercedes’ own figures suggest that the difference between petrol and diesel S350s is not nearly as marked as you might expect, but otherwise, it is just a magnificent piece of engineering. I am not wild about the styling, preferring the looks of the previous W220 model, but as a supremely comfortable way of travelling long distances at speed, whether you or the driver or passenger, this car oozes appeal. It is well built and all the indications are that it would continue to serve its owner well for a very long time to come. So, disappointed that I did not get to sample the 3 series I had booked, but eternally grateful to Hertz for a weekend of S Class motoring.
2011-05-30 18:14:31

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