The best car I have ever driven retails for less than half the price of a Rolls-Royce Ghost. I intend for that statement to put some perspective on the relationship between price and value, because, at about $120,000 typically equipped, the Mercedes-Benz S550 is both terribly expensive and a really strong value.
S-Class Ride Quality
Of course, “value” in this context is very much a relative term. There isn’t really much that an S550, at over 100 grand, does that a Toyota Avalon can’t. Both cars will move five passengers around in great comfort and with reasonable class. Both cars ride well, too, but I would argue that while the Avalon rides “well,” the big Mercedes rides best—as in the best-ever-in-history-of-all-cars sense.
Ride quality is perhaps the single most subjective element of automotive evaluation. Ask my dad and he’ll tell you that his 1979 Thunderbird was the best-riding car he has ever owned—despite the fact that the car would wallow enough to bottom out after hitting a stray McDonald’s straw wrapper at more than 5 mph.
I draw very direct lines between a car’s value and how well it rides. This is in part because I like to be comfortable, sure, but because what we describe as “ride” is really a collection of visceral and audible inputs that when merged tells us a great deal about the vehicle we’re driving. A really great car suspension does not filter out surface imperfections or road noise; it translates them into very easily digested bits of information.
If you are fortunate enough to own a big Mercedes sedan, or just drive one down the street, those inputs tell you that the car is incredibly well designed and put together. Please note that I am discussing inputs, not the lack of them. I am a car guy, and I want to know about the road—not be blanketed from it.
I recently spent a few moments chatting with Mercedes-Benz product development guy Eric Linder. I was somewhat relieved to learn that he understood why my favorite S-Class model is the least-expensive car in the lineup—the S550.
I love the S550 especially because the base engine is sublimely torquey and smooth, and because it rides on relatively modest 17-inch wheels and tires. The wheels and tires are key, as I have driven a similar S550 shod with optional (and gorgeous) 18-inch AMG wheels, and the ride—while still spectacular by absolute standards—was compromised when compared with the base units.
Secure in the seat of an S-Class at speed, you realize—if you pay attention—that much of what you think you are feeling through the seat of your pants you’re actually hearing. And that is the merging of inputs I mentioned earlier. Because what makes an S-Class so amazing is the incredible balance of sense-of-motion, filtered harshness, and road communication.
Nothing short of a speed bump upsets an S-Class, but everything is felt—in a very useful way. If you are not interested in being aware of the road, the S-Class is probably not the car for you. But if you marvel at how road ripples and deep recesses in the pavement can be converted into subtle controlled motions and muted and informative sounds, you understand what I’m talking about here.
And herein lies what I mean by value. A good car is more than a collection of related systems; it is a collection of related systems that work in concert to the driver’s advantage—and hopefully pleasure. Overall ride quality is one of the best measures of how well separate elements of the vehicle work in concert. You can certainly pay too much for a car that rides well, but at any price point, the vehicle that boasts the best ride is likely among the better values.
Now, I do not mean to sell the S550 short. Its best-ever ride is only part of the package. In addition to the engineering magic separating you from the road, the car is gorgeous inside, fast, and utterly absent of wind noise at speed. Additionally, the radio-tune screen mimics the dial markings of a Sixties-era German tube radio. I find this to be profoundly cool.
But, it’s the ride that impresses me most. It’s a ride that no Audi or BMW (or Bentley or Rolls) has yet matched. It’s a ride that very clearly suggests that smart people have spent a lot of time and money getting this car right—and to me that represents value.