2005 Mercedes-Benz S430

Setting the bar for the perfect blend of quality and class

Just about every manufacturer has a "flagship" or "halo" vehicle that showcases the best that automaker brings to market. For some, there are even several vehicles, depending on whether your taste runs to sedans, sports cars or SUVs. And when it comes to prestigious sedans, few can come close to the luxury flagship of Mercedes-Benz, the S-Class.

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While it's been with us now for five years in its current form, the S-Class still remains one of the most desirable and capable cars in its class. And the company it keeps has become quite competitive, including the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, Lexus LS 430, Jaguar Vanden Plas and the all-new Volkswagen Phaeton. To take on the best of the best, the 2005 S-Class is offered in a formidable lineup of vehicles, starting with the luxurious S430, the muscular S500 sedan, the immensely powerful and smooth S600 featuring a twin-turbocharged V-12 engine, and the S55 AMG, a high-performance muscle machine motivated by a supercharged V-8 engine. We tested the S430 sedan.

When the current S-Class was introduced in 2000, it was a radical departure from the previous model. Where the elder S was large, squared off and, honestly, a bit ostentatious, the new model was smooth, rounded, muscular and very modern. It also showed the way for many of the other Mercedes vehicles to follow. This is a design that has aged extremely well, especially when compared to the current edition of key competitor BMW's 7 Series, which has polarizing looks; you either love it or you hate it. But in the stratified air that the S-Class flies, many prefer approving glances to outright stares and, to our eyes, the S-Class is the perfect blend of quality and class. Our tester was equipped with the optional AMG Sport Package, which adds extremely handsome 18-inch AMG wheels, an aggressive front end with mesh grilles and sculpted side sills. We like the overall effect because it adds just the right amount of muscular menace to the sedan's refined lines.

The S430 may be the least powerful S-Class, but don't be fooled-it's an excellent performer. The 275 horsepower V-8 is silky smooth, with a wonderfully restrained growl as the revs rise. Helping make the most out of the buttery V-8 is the industry's first 7-speed automatic. With this many gears, the transmission can keep the engine in the meat of its powerband-which frankly is pretty meaty to begin with-for sparkling acceleration and relaxed, near-silent loafing at freeway speeds. This transmission also has Mercedes' touchshift, that lets you have manual-style control by simply nudging the shift lever to the left or right. It makes for a very sporty experience, one perhaps you might not expect in a super smooth luxury sedan. Those wanting more muscle can opt for the S500 with 302 horsepower, or your choice of the supercharged V-8 S55 AMG or twin-turbocharged V-12 S600-both of which produce a jaw-dropping 493 horsepower.

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The handling of the S-Class proves equally inspiring. The S430 features Mercedes-Benz Airmatic air suspension that gives a choice of modes for either an ultra creamy luxury ride or a pleasantly surprising Sport experience that really firms things up and makes the S great fun for attacking your favorite twisty road. For those who wanting an added serving of security, the S-Class is also available with Mercedes' 4Matic full-time all-wheel drive. Optional on the S430 and S500 and standard on S55 and S600 is Mercedes' Active Body Control (ABC to you and me), the only true fully-active suspension system currently available. Mercedes says that by using a system of sensors and electronically controlled high-pressure hydraulics, it instantly counteracts the forces of vibration, pitch, dive, squat and roll. We say that hustling a big sedan around with virtually no body lean in turns is truly impressive.

No matter which mission you ask of the S-Class, you'll be impressed by the vault-like solidity of the chassis. You get the impression that 20 years from now, this Mercedes will feel as solid as the day it rolled off the factory floor. And with our experience of this premium brand, that's probably not far from the truth. The S430 is certainly a car whose comfort will impress for decades to come. The interior immediately strikes you with the high quality of materials, and the apparent care that was taken to put them in. The leather is soft and supple; the calyptus wood on the 430 creates a warm and inviting atmosphere. Offering a more traditional look, burl walnut is standard on all other models. Befitting its premium sedan status, we found the rear seats offer plenty of legroom and excellent support. It begs the question; better to be in back or behind the wheel?

To lure you to be pilot in command, the S-Class features Mercedes' all-in-one COMAND system that manages everything, including the standard DVD-based navigation system and audio controls. In the past we found this system a little difficult to sort out, but Mercedes has simplified it and it now works quite well. We've noted other manufacturers struggling with varying degrees of success with systems to offer control of the major convenience functions, and find the S-Class to be among the best in its class. We also like the elegance of the electroluminescent gauges that seemed to float in the instrument panel, and the easy location of all the important switchgear.

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Even though the S430 is the entry-level S-Class, your left wanting for little, with standard amenities including dual-zone climate control, premium leather, dual 14-way power front seats with memory, Bose CD sound system, DVD-based navigation system, moonroof, keyless entry system, side airbags and head protection curtain airbags for front and rear, heated outside mirrors with memory setting, that creamy V-8, the 7-speed automatic, Airmatic air suspension, alloy wheels, even rain sensing wipers. The S430 carries a sticker price of $75,300. Our tester with the AMG Sport Package just nudged past the $80,000 mark-pretty competitive, especially with its long-time rival, the BMW 7 Series.

We do need to note, however, that for 2005 maintenance is no longer included in the initial purchase price of the vehicle. However, Mercedes does offer a choice of plans as optional equipment. Along with a maintenance plan, the S430 offers up some tempting options including heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, a keyless entry and ignition system (cleverly called Keyless Go) and cruise control that automatically adjusts to keep a preset distance from the car in front. For those wanting a bit more on all fronts, you can step up to the S500, which gives the added oomph of a 302 horsepower V8, and a sumptuous interior, including butter-soft Nappa leather, burl walnut trim, heated front seats and bi-Xenon headlamps. The S500 comes in at just under $84,000.

Two other very special S-Class models also deserve mention here. The S55 AMG is perfect for the well-heeled enthusiast, with a hand-built 493 horsepower supercharged V-8 that even carries the signature of the craftsman who assembled it. For the true plutocrat, look no further than the twin-turbo V-12 S600, which pumps out an astoundingly smooth 493 horsepower and 590 lb.-ft. of torque. They're priced at $112,000 and $125,000 respectively. We play Lotto, and we hope.

While time doesn't stand still, the 2005 Mercedes-Benz S-Class manages to fend off its competitors, and to look quite unruffled while doing it. With its elegant looks, strong performance, extensive luxury, and beautiful build quality, the S must still be considered the Class of its class. Supremely so. (www.mbusa.com)

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