When Mercedes-Benz updated its flagship S-class sedan for 2007, it made the car a technology masterpiece. Now, AMG, the German carmaker's in-house tuner division, turned that car into a performance masterpiece. The 2008 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG is a big, fast European sedan, the kind of car that makes you feel you should be bombing through the Alps on urgent business in Switzerland. As we drove the car during our test, we found ourselves glancing in the rear-view mirror, looking for the diplomats, or spies, who we knew belonged in the capacious back seat.
But the car wouldn't let us glance back for long, as there is too much to pay attention to out in front. The S63 doesn't go slow. On a pleasant cruise down a country road we were surprised to find that what seemed like 45 mph was actually 75 mph, and climbing toward 80. Then there are the electronics, from a lovely navigation display to a stereo system with brain-frying audio quality, which demanded our attention, as well. Oh, and did we mention the massage seats? Yes, the 2008 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG gets everything, absolutely everything, thrown into it, making it almost perfect. Almost.
Test the tech: Knight Rider
Among the S63 AMG's many tech features is a very good speech-recognition system. This feature led us to test out how well the car compares with KITT, the car from the television series Knight Rider. And, because the car came equipped with Night View Assist, we put a homonym twist on our test by conducting it at night. The first difference we noticed with the S63 AMG's speech system was that it spoke with a pleasant female voice, rather than KITT's clipped male voice. Our car wasn't as chatty, either, merely advising us on how we could use it to control the stereo, navigation, and Bluetooth telephone system. But it seemed to respond to our commands every bit as well as KITT did with Michael Knight.
As we set out after a day in the office on our test, we were feeling a bit tired, so activated the S63 AMG's massage seat, choosing a slow and vigorous pummeling from the seat control menu. It was very invigorating, and a luxury that KITT lacked. We found that our car's entertainment system was every bit as good as KITT's, playing music or video from a six-disc changer, and letting us hook up a video game through RCA jacks in the glove box.
When we got off city streets and onto the freeway, we explored the S63 AMG's ability to see and drive itself, as KITT could do. We set our car's adaptive cruise control at 75 mph and took our foot off the gas. The S63 AMG used its radar to track the car in the lane ahead, matching its speed of around 65 mph and maintaining a safe driving distance by operating its own accelerator and brakes. We did have to keep our hands on the steering wheel, which we wouldn't have had to do in KITT
KITT is very fast, but so is the S63 AMG. Where KITT has an eight-speed transmission, the S63 AMG has seven speeds. KITT can make it to 60 mph in 2 seconds, where the S63 AMG's 518 horsepower brings it to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. So we lose a little on the performance side, but we had a good time trying out this power as we barreled down the freeway, then pulled onto a dark, winding mountain road. For this part of the test, we turned on our car's Night View Assist feature, to our knowledge a feature lacking in KITT. Night View Assist uses infrared projectors and cameras to generate an image of the road ahead. With this feature activated, the speedometer, which is actually a video screen, changes to display the forward-looking image.
We raced through the dark night, using Night Vision Assist to see what kind of car was up ahead when all we could see through the windshield were a pair of taillights. We also found it helpful because our low beams didn't illuminate enough of the road to show upcoming turns. A glance down at the video showed much more of the road ahead than we could see through the windshield. The S63 AMG handled these corners wonderfully, with no body roll as its tires made a pleasant singing sound. We're pretty sure that the S63 AMG corners better than a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am, the car on which KITT is based.
Turning down a less-trafficked road, we switched on our high beams, a feature that KITT surely had. But on our car, the beams swung around as we cranked the wheel in corners, doing a great job of illuminating the direction we wanted to go rather than the opposite side of the road.
We felt the S63 AMG compared very favorably with KITT. Oh, there are some things it didn't have, such as a bullet-resistant body. We didn't feel Mercedes-Benz would be too happy if we tried to test that out. Neither does the S63 AMG have a smoke screen, flame thrower, tear gas launcher, or ultramagnesium charges. However, the S63 AMG has the very important quality that it is not fictional.
In the cabin
When we first opened the door of the 2008 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG (using a smart key, no button-pushing required), we were impressed by the incredibly clean look of the dashboard. With the car off, the instrument cluster is a black panel and the switch gear is a single row of metal buttons. The front of the console hosts the knob for Mercedes-Benz's COMAND interface and a few more metal buttons. The knob lets you select menu items on the wide-screen LCD mounted at the top of the stack, controlling such features as navigation, audio, and cell phone integration.
The navigation system in the S63 AMG runs off of a hard drive, giving it fast response times and enough room to hold very high resolution maps in both plan and 3D views. Unfortunately, none of this hard-drive space is reserved for music, unlike with the Cadillac CTS or Mercedes-Benz's own C300. Also, the maps only show names for every visible street when you are at the highest zoom level. But we were very impressed with the route guidance, which displays helpful graphics on one side of the screen for upcoming turns. Approaching one particularly complex freeway entrance, we were impressed that the graphic showed four turns we would have to negotiate in a short amount of space. The navigation system also incorporates XM live traffic reporting, showing incidents and traffic flow information. But we were disappointed that the car wouldn't proactively warn us about traffic jams on the road ahead of us.