Quick Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz S550

By Winding Road Staff

December 13, 2011

Over the past few months, we’ve tested two alternative-fuel versions of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class (the S350 Bluetec diesel, and the S400 Hybrid) so it only felt appropriate to get the standard S550 out for a test. If you’ve read those pieces, then you’ll know that this is the S-Class that I’m partial to (ignoring the AMG and V-12 versions), and for good reason.
If you want a smooth luxury sedan, than the S550 is where you go. Unlike the S400 and its unrefined (but spookily quiet) hybrid drivetrain and the S350 and the narrow powerband of its diesel mill, the S550 delivers uninterrupted power across the rev range. The 4.6-liter biturbocharged V-8 delivers 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque in big helpings, allowing the large sedan to accelerate with real ease.
Despite its gas engine, the S550 doesn’t pay much of a penalty when it comes to overall noise. Sure, there’s a noticeable growl from under the hood on hard acceleration, but at cruising speed, I’d argue that this S-Class is at least as quiet as the diesel model, and near as quiet as the hybrid. That alone is enough for me.
It’s a bit more expensive than either the Bluetec or the Hybrid, but considering how much more refined it is, and how much better it performs, the S550 seems to be worth the extra coin.
—Brandon Turkus, Online Editor and Test Fleet Manager
The 550 is sort of in the sweet spot of the S-Class lineup. All the other ones are either smart on their fuel consumption, or are insanely powerful. If you’re a meat-and-potatoes kind of person, this is the model for you. It has plenty of power, but it feels perfectly relaxed and effortless under normal driving.
On the flip side of that coin, it also feels the least special, insomuch as a super-luxurious, 429-horsepower sedan from Mercedes can. The alternatively powered 350 and 400 not only use less fuel, but their characters are quite different from the rest of the S-Class. The 600 has a V-12, which is a special rarity, and the AMG cars get all sorts of content the other models don’t. If you’re going to spend over $90,000 on a car, shouldn’t it feel extraordinary? That depends on whom you ask, as folks have different ideas of what “extraordinary” consists of. But it seems to me that the S550 is the only S that doesn’t have something the other cars don’t.
Really, though, car buying often comes down to practicality, and the middle car is likely the one with the widest appeal. No matter what is under the hood, too, the S-Class is an impressive vehicle. This 4.6-liter biturbo V-8 is a really solid performer, and you can still get into it for under $100K.
—John Beltz Snyder, Senior Editor
  • Interior is very inviting, comfortable, and upscale
  • Plenty of power from the biturbocharged V-8
  • Cosseting ride could traverse moon craters without disturbing occupants
  • Not as efficient (or unique) as the lower-priced models
  • Very isolated ride and steering don’t engage the driver
  • Price of admission is higher than either the diesel or hybrid