When Mercedes-Benz launched the model update for the 2007 S550, it created a car with cutting-edge technical features, including radar-based cruise control that could bring the car to a full stop and a night vision system. But major updates like this usually take five years in the automotive industry, which leaves the 2009 Mercedes-Benz S550 still very similar--besides a few feature add-ons--to that ground-breaking 2007 model. Although it is good that Mercedes-Benz recognizes the need for features such as live traffic reports and iPod integration to keep the S550 competitive, the manner in which they are implemented leaves a lot to be desired.
On the road
The first inkling of trouble with the 2009 Mercedes-Benz S550 came when we plugged an iPhone into a convenient connector in the glove box. Using the COMAND interface to select the audio source, the only option for the iPod was Aux, and nothing showed on the car's LCD. Knowing that Mercedes-Benz packs a lot of information on to its instrument panel displays, we chose the audio menu on the speedometer, and could see which song was currently playing. Using the speedometer display and the steering wheel button, you can browse and select music, but the interface is incredibly strained. We previously saw this type of Mercedes-Benz iPod integration with the 2008 ML550.
Leaving the iPod on the default shuffle setting, we headed out in the S550. The big car is gentle, providing an executive-class ride as it mutes not only external noise, but also the imperfections of the road. Where other cars slammed their passengers around from potholes and road construction, the S550 soaked up the bumps, partly because of the air suspension, which we left in Comfort mode.
With generous leg room in back, the S550 had us wishing for a chauffer. But after discovering the massage seats, which are only for the driver and front passenger, we were content behind the wheel getting our tired backs pummeled. The seats also feature active bolsters, so that every time we turned the wheel, the side of the seat inflated briefly to keep us from sliding with the inertial forces.
The seven-speed-automatic transmission acted like a perfect servant, remaining unobtrusive as it performed its duties, something an S-class buyer would expect. The big V-8 delivers its power easily, as well, moving the sedan effortlessly in normal driving circumstances, and showing it can pull when asked. A hard stomp on the gas pedal shoots the car forward, verifying Mercedes-Benz's claim of 5.4 seconds to 60 mph.
On the freeway, we set the adaptive cruise control for 80 mph, not touching brake or gas pedals as the S550 matches speed with a car in the lane ahead going 72 mph. And here we discover a new tech trick Mercedes-Benz rolled out for the S-class--blind-spot warning. As cars ride in the blind spots to either side, a triangular red warning light appears in the side view mirror. At one point, hitting the turn signal while a car sits in the blind spot causes that red light to flash, and sounds a warning tone. Blind-spot warning is one our favorite safety features, and it's nice to see Mercedes-Benz got it right.
But just as we hit the peak of enjoyment from this drive, traffic starts to slow, until the S550 is crawling along at 10 mph. (And our foot is back on the pedals, as we don't trust the adaptive cruise control that much.) A glance at the navigation system map confirms that we have stumbled into a traffic jam, showing a bunch of red car icons all around our position. We think it would have been nice if the car had given us some warning, but Mercedes-Benz hasn't integrated the traffic feature well enough for that. We consider using the manual detour feature to find away around the jam, but realize that actually getting to our destination means we will have to get out of this ultracomfortable ride, so we decide to stick it out.
In the cabin
Understanding that a horde of visible buttons does not contribute to the notion of luxury, Mercedes-Benz keeps the controls in the cabin of the S550 spare. With its smart key, there is a big metal button to start the car, a neat row of metal studs for the climate controls, and the big metal knob for the COMAND interface, for choosing functions such as audio and navigation from the high-resolution LCD to the right of the instrument panel. Although easy to use, the COMAND interface can get cluttered with menus at times.
Mercedes-Benz has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to Bluetooth, previously only allowing hands-free phone calling integrated with the car through special cradles designed for each compatible phone. Although it still has the cradle port, Mercedes-Benz tacked Bluetooth onto the S550, but the system failed to pair with the iPhone we used to test it. We noticed other phones had been registered in the S550's system, including one iPhone.