Well, I had an S-Class again over the weekend. Here's a short version of the conversation that took place last Thursday:
Me: "Do you have a car for me over the weekend?"
Car rental guy: "Sorry, we're all out. Nothing available".
Me: "What about my 12-hour-in-advance mobility guarantee of your fancy Gold Card?"
Car rental guy: "We have ourselves taken out of the reservation system, so that doesn't count now"
Me: "What about that S-Class there then?"
Car rental guy: "It's due for maintenance on Monday morning"
Me: "Oh? What's wrong with it?"
Car rental guy: "The last customer reported that the rear screen seals make howling noises above 240 km/h"
Me: "I can live with that. Give me the keys."
This is the S350, it has the 3.5 liter 6-cylinder petrol engine, which delivers 272 HP. That engine is too thirsty. I got 14 l/100 km (or 17 mpg) and you need to rev it to move fast. It also gets a bit loud when you rev it high. Frankly it's not my favourite engine. I liked the S320 CDI more, even though the S350 is clearly faster, when you floor it, and smoother, when you're driving at slower speeds.
The reason why I make this update to my S-Class review from last year, is because this one came with some more extras.
Most importantly it was equipped with the radar-guided cruise control "Distronic Plus", which automatically adjusts your speed and distance to the car in front of you, even to a standstill. And if you stand less than a few seconds, it even accelerates again on its own. If you stand for longer (e.g. at a redlight), it switches into "passive mode" but a short pull at the cruise control lever re-activates it again.
This works up to 200 km/h, so essentially you can drive this car with hardly ever touching the accelerator or the break pedal.
And it works nearly perfectly. It has its limitations but those are few and any driver with common sense wouldn't expect it to function there anyway:
1. Very sharp corners. If the radar loses contact to the car in front of you all of a sudden, the system beeps and switches itself into passive mode, meaning you have to pull the cruise control lever again or slightly push the accelerator to make it resume its program.
2. Traffic lights. The Distronic Plus only uses about one third of the braking potential as maximum. So if you set it to 100 km/h and come to a redlight with other cars already having stopped, it will not be able to brake in time by itsself.
But don't worry: Everytime the system believes the driver has to take action, it beeps twice very loudly to remind you. And if you step on the brake then, the brake assistant will apply the right amount of breakforce to make you stop in time. It's quite brilliant and you get used to it in no time at all.
The radar antenna is behind that cover in the middle of the grill
I played around with this function all weekend, using it in the city, on country roads and on Autobahns. My verdict is: As long as you are aware of its limitations, you can rely on it. You learn to trust it completely very quickly. It even recognizes bicycles and motorbikes.
Not once was it fooled by traffic on a parallel lane, not even when driving through narrow lanes in Autobahn roadworks. If I'd have to be picky, I'd say it reacts a little too sensitive sometimes -- for example it warned me about the narrow gate of my company's parking lot -- but that is really just nitpicking. It doesn't do more than beep to catch your attention.
Here is a short video I took of the "Distronic Plus" in action. I set it to 80 km/h and took the foot off the accelerator. The greyed section inside the speedometer indicates the difference between your predetermined speed and the real speed you're going because of the car in front of you. As long as you see that grey section, the "Distronic Plus" is active, which means that the driver is not doing anything at all. However, the driver can always take back control, when he pushes the brakes of the accelerator. I surely have used it for more than an hour at times without any interferences or problems.
The lever of power Moving up is accelerating, moving down is slowing down. Pushing the lever back switches the system off, pulling towards re-activates it again with the speed you set before. You can adjust the predetermined distance to your liking with the ring in the middle.
Also this car came with the Harman/Kardon surround sound system. It's really quite impressive: Dynamic but never intrusive, with powerful bass. Not the kind of high fidelity I am used to from my home system, though, but kinda perfect for what you need and want in a car.
The 6-disc auto changer can handle CD's and DVD's but is a bit slow for my taste.
The whole system and also the sat nav of course work fine with voice commands. And to avoid what happened to Jeremy in an earlier review of the older S-Class, you can teach this system your voice If you speak loud and clearly, it never fails.
There is a Harman/Kardon demo DVD, which comes with the car. It was still sealed and I left it that way
So if you put in a relaxing CD (I used "Weltreise" by German trance group Schiller), set the "Distronic Plus" and then go for a ride on some country roads into dusk, you will feel like you're in a rolling chill-out zone, with a minimum of car or wind noises and the music filling out the space.
Life is good then