"Great Machines: Automobiles - 2003 Mercedes-Benz S600 "

By Robert Farago

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Autobahn humiliation provided the motive. Maybach provided the means. High-powered BMWs, Audis, and Porsches have been blowing off the new-shape Mercedes S600 since it first appeared. Then, the revived German marque’s engineering team developed a twin-turbo V-12 that was perfect for restoring the S-Class’ lost pride. And finally, Mercedes gave me the opportunity. A tankful of BP’s best, and I was ready to see if the new, more powerful S600 could murder the competition.

Of course, putting Mercedes’ most expensive S-Class to the test was not without risk. From the moment I pulled away, from the instant I sensed the power lingering beneath my right foot, I appreciated the potential conflict between my thirst for knowledge and the constabulary’s duty to enforce the law. Like any good V-12, the S600’s engine delivers seamless acceleration. Throw in a gearbox that swaps cogs without hesitation, and you have a car capable of cresting the ton while you’re thinking about, um, anything. Honest, officer, if I’d meant to speed, you would have known it.

It is true. An S600 at full chat is not something a driver, passenger, or interested onlooker can experience on autopilot. Smack the go-pedal to the carpet, and the 5.5-liter powerplant unleashes a mega-tsunami of torque (590 ft lbs) and power (493 hp). The 4,610-pound behemoth rushes toward the horizon with the sort of unrelenting ferocity that Tomcats display when leaving the deck of an aircraft carrier. In fact, there is very little metal made that can humiliate an S600 from a standing start; zero to 60 takes a scarcely credible 4.6 seconds.

Strangely, that is not the point. Keep in mind that the S600 is Mercedes’ third attempt to create a new-shape S-Class capable of dominating Germany’s autobahns. Their first, the 367-hp S600, did not have enough horses. Period. The second, the supercharged S55 AMG, boasts the same power as the S600, but has significantly less torque that comes on stream at higher revs (516 ft lbs at 2,750 to 4,000 rpms). All of which means the faster you go in an S55, the harder it is to go faster. (Click on image to enlarge)

The S600 was born to dispatch the 360s, M5s, and Porsche Turbos of the world from a rolling start. Unfortunately, the company does not measure the relevant in-gear statistics. I could not get to an autobahn. And the only supercar I encountered, a Ferrari 550 Barchetta, did not want to play. So I was forced—forced!—to conduct my own investigation.

I’m happy to report that the new, improved S600 powers from 80 to 100 in five seconds. It leaps from 100 to 120 in five seconds. As for infinity and beyond, let’s just say acceleration continues apace. Mercedes-Benz, this is Houston. Mission accomplished.

Houston. Yes, there is that. The vast majority of U.S. buyers will never, ever drive an S600 at the triple-digit speeds that determine its character. Quite sensibly, the good burghers of Houston and a hundred other American cities will judge the S600 on more prosaic attributes. For instance, does the big-engined Merc have a big impact on members of the local golf club?

Yes and no. Yes, the S600 will impress the impressionable, but no, it will not wow them much more than a standard S500—a fine handling, relaxed automobile with identical accommodation that costs roughly $40k less. Seriously, how many golfers know (or care about) the difference between a V-8 and a V-12? How many will spot the S600’s unique alloy wheels, and do you want to be the envy of people who do?

And that leaves potential S600 buyers with an even more fundamental question: Do you really want an S-Class? If you’re looking for an elegant, first-class interior, Audi’s new A8 is styled to the nines. If handling is your thing, BMW’s 760Li does it better. If build quality is the question, Volkswagen’s Phaeton sets a new benchmark. If style floats your boat, the new Jaguar XJ is a safer harbor. Dealer care? Nobody does it like Lexus. But…

If you’re looking for a big, bad Porsche-killing limo that wafts and blasts with equal aplomb, then the new Mercedes S600 is your only option. Spending your money on anything less would be nothing short of criminal.

-ENGINE: 5.5-liter, twin-turbocharged, 36-valve SOHC V-12
-POWER: 493 hp at 5,000 rpm
-TORQUE: 590 ft lbs at 1,800–3,500 rpm
-ZERO-TO-60 TIME: 4.6 seconds
-TOP SPEED: 155 mph (elect. limited)
-TRANSMISSION: 5-speed automatic
-WHEELBASE: 121.5 inches
-CURB WEIGHT: 4,610 pounds
-BASE PRICE: from $121,260


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Robert Farago


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