- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

At a time in the not distant past, high rollers, sports stars and big-bucks celebrities gravitated toward luxury cars — Rolls-Royce, Cadillac, Lincoln, and big BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz models.

The advent of sport utility vehicles altered the appetites of the rich and famous, and even the anonymous with loads of disposable income. They started buying the Range Rover, Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac Escalade, BMW X5, Lexus RX300 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class.

The inevitable result was a decline in popularity of traditional luxury cars. For example, between 2001 and 2002, sales of the Lincoln Town Car,Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Lexus LS430and Cadillac de Ville all tumbled. Only the 7-Series BMW, with new and controversial styling, went up.

No doubt there are many reasons for this change in automotive tastes, but one of them surely is all-wheel drive. Though many people got into SUVs because of the so-called lifestyle image, they also found that they liked the idea of four-wheel traction. Notwithstanding the fact that most SUVs are more prone to rollovers than sedans, and don’t handle as well, they do have all-weather and off-road capabilities that the sedans lack.

Aggravating the situation is the fact that most big luxury cars have rear-wheel drive. Cadillac is the exception, but even it is returning to rear drive as computerized traction and stability controls become more sophisticated and reliable. Still, even the best rear-drive car can’t compete in foul weather against one with all-wheel drive, especially if the all-wheel-drive model also has traction control.

So all-wheel drive is expected to become increasingly common on luxury cars, and likely on automobiles in other price brackets as well.

In the luxury sedan field, Mercedes-Benz was first with the S430 and S500 4Matic models. As of now, BMW has no plan to add all-wheel drive to its 7-Series sedans, although it does offer the feature on its smaller and less-expensive 3-Series models.

The 4Matic, which is Mercedes-speak for a full-time all-wheel drive system, adds $2,900 to the price of the tested S500 sedan, which would seem to be an easy sell on a car with a price tag that starts well north of $80,000. Even people who live in the sun belt occasionally encounter slippery conditions.

The tested S500 4Matic had a base price of $85,865, including a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax (yes, that still exists for a small number of cars). With just a couple of options, it topped out at $87,815. At that level, the $2,900 for all-wheel drive would seem to be a pittance to pay for peace of mind.

That’s exactly the only thing you’ll notice. The 4Matic is unobtrusive; the overall handling and feel is virtually the same as on a standard rear-drive S500. The only time you know it’s there is if you deliberately try to use the power of the 5.0-liter V-8 engine to break rear-wheel traction on a slippery turn. Nothing happens.

In every other respect, the S500 4Matic is like its rear-drive sibling. It’s one of the more powerful, better handling luxury cars available. The V-8 pumps out 302 horsepower, enough to propel the 4,170-pound car to 60 mph in a hiccup over six seconds, with a governed top speed of 130 mph. The five-speed automatic transmission has an intuitive manual-shift mode.

Part of the S500’s standard equipment is an air-suspension system, which uses compressed air in bellows-type springs to maintain a constant ride height in the front and rear regardless of the load. It’s combined with adjustable shock absorbers that, in the standard mode, are biased toward a cushy ride that is almost floaty in character — not for passengers who are prone to motion sickness. Fortunately, the system is adjustable and the entire setup can be stiffened for better handling and a firmer ride.

Like other S-Class models, the S500 4Matic has a new Mercedes-Benz system called Pre-Safe. It consists of a variety of on-board computers and sensors that recognize a collision situation milliseconds before it happens and activate seat-belt tensioners, and seat and headrest positions to minimize injury. In addition, if skidding occurs, it even automatically closes an open sunroof.

Standard equipment also includes the Mercedes-Benz Tele Aid and COMAND systems. The latter operates the navigation, audio and telephone systems. The former, among other things, automatically notifies emergency response teams if an air bag deploys and the driver cannot be reached by telephone.

For a car that is on the low end of the large-car class, based on interior room, the S500 offers limousinelike stretch-out room for two persons in the back seat. There’s a seat belt for the center passenger, but it’s not a comfortable place to sit.

The surroundings are done up in supple leather, polished wood, and quality vinyl. Instruments are easy to read and the controls easy to use, though the COMAND system must be mastered (it has its own 215-page manual).

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