Vintage Reviews: 2000 Mercedes-Benz S500 – Slim Fast S-Class

Newton’s 3rd law of physics relays that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  In the case of cars, that premise could be seen in the transition between Mercedes-Benz’s oversized, overpriced W140 S-Class and its W220 successor, which was repositioned as the “smaller, friendlier” S-Class.  But in abandoning the “engineering uber alles” approach that had underpinned Mercedes’ success for decades, did Benz throw the baby out with the bath water?

The shift in direction was pretty dramatic.  No longer were Mercedes flagship sedans showcased as aloof engineering triumphs designed for discerning customers.  Rather, the first S-Class for the new millennium ushered in a wholly new trendy approach to make the most expensive Mercedes-Benz cars “more approachable.”  Now rather than being just for titans, the S-Class was a car to tote tots: the perfect choice for a (rich) family car.

At Automobile Magazine, European Editor Georg Kacher provided an early glimpse at the new S500.  And on a superficial level at least, the impressions were good.  The new car was trimmer, sleeker and more dynamic.  It was also much more complex and technically advanced, giving it more capabilities than ever, but often at the expense of intuitiveness and timeless simplicity, which had historically been Mercedes-Benz hallmarks.  More troubling was the fact that the W220 showed notable signs of cost cutting, whether that was in valves-per-cylinder (from 4 to 3) or inferior quality plastics on some interior components.

“Diminished in size and price” was Road & Track’s lead-in to the new W220, and that was entirely accurate.  The S500 looked smaller and drove like it looked.  And the S500 base price dropped to $77,850 ($116,224 adjusted), 11% less than the outgoing W140.

R&T clarified that a key rationale for the 3-valves-per-cylinder was that the configuration allowed the 5.0L V8 to be classified as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV).  But it was undoubtedly cheaper as well….

The impact of the premium Japanese brands on Mercedes was apparent with the W220: to counter the likes of Lexus, the Benz was cushy, packed with gimmicky high tech features and more affordable, all in the name of “high value” for the luxury segment.  While previous S-Class generations had been obviously engineered to last for the long-term, this one was seemingly designed to last for the length of the lease-term.

Car and Driver decided to channel their inner “Motor Trend” (gosh, it’s like the best car ever) in their fawning review of the W220.  Driving from Ann Arbor to Chicago for lunch certainly would have highlighted the great cruising attributes of the big Benz.

The destination was a lunch at The Rosebud in Little Italy (still there and still good).  Sadly, the snide comments regarding Chicago’s rough neighborhoods still apply as well—if anything they are worse than before.  A tragic and disgraceful “record” that the Windy City currently holds is a homicide rate higher than New York City and Los Angeles combined.

Programming the complex COMAND system to make the journey was no easy feat—a separate owner’s manual was dedicated to deciphering the layers and layers of functions and their operation.  Plenty of the other sophisticated and complicated features controlled other functions, some with driver input, some without.  But it was clear that the “high tech gadget” car had arrived.

And Car and Driver loved, loved, loved the 4th Generation S-Class.  The flash, glamour and gizmos combined with just enough residual Mercedes arrogance made the S500 a compelling choice for a new breed of Benz buyer.  Unlike the over-the-top W140, the W220 certainly made a good first impression, and seemed very “au courant.”

But was it a great Mercedes-Benz?  For a brand that had long prided itself on delivering robust timelessness through deep-rooted engineering excellence, the W220 offered lots of flash but turned out to be lacking in substance for the long haul.  Consumer Reports gave poor rankings for reliability, and the complicated systems did not age well.  Nor did the bodies: this generation of Mercedes-Benz cars (in all series) seem to be shockingly bad rusters (at least as far as modern cars are concerned).  Perhaps eliminating effective rust proofing was one of the cost savings measures?

Like a developer’s spec house in a brand new luxury community, the W220 offered plenty of trendy curb appeal, but scrimped on timeless high quality.  So, while the W220 was certainly an antidote to the “too much” W140, it proved the truth in the maxim: “be careful what you wish for.”