From the June 1992 issue of Car and Driver.
For those horrified by sheer excess, the Mercedes-Benz 600SEL’s vital statistics read like Stephen King’s latest shocker. It weighs 5062 pounds. It cost $143,333 (not including any sales tax, which alone should produce fainting). It drinks a gallon of premium unleaded for each eleven miles it travels in the city. In short, it may be seen by some as consuming more than its fair share of resources.
The tree-embracing crowd shouldn’t worry, though. The high-profile 600SEL is not a major threat to the ozone layer. The company will build only 10,000 copies this year, and just 1000 will come to the United States. Unlike some extravagant corporate flagships—the Dodge Viper comes to mind—the 600SEL even has a practical purpose: to carry four or more passengers in supreme comfort.
The 600SEL’s newfound heft pits it against the high-rolling offerings from Aston Martin, Roll-Royce, and Bentley. The 600SEL is quicker, roomier, and less expensive than the Bentley Turbo R that competed in our “Finding the Best Sedan in the World” comparison test (November ’90). Against its German archrival and the winner of that comparison test, the BMW 750iL, the 600SEL gives up no performance, despite being seven inches longer and about 900 pounds heavier.
The 600SEL appears bulkier but is in fact 2.9 inches shorter from bumper to bumper than the previous extended-wheelbase S-class sedans. Like the Bentley, the Mercedes sports an unfashionable size for modem tastes. It’s an inch over seventeen feet long, with a 123.6-inch wheelbase. Sweeping body lines pinch upward at the tail, creating a gentle wedge profile. Up front, a traditional Benz grille is flanked by huge headlamps and, mais oui, a stand-up hood ornament. The cumulative look is aero-smart but emphatically not trendy.
A brand-new V-12 engine spurs Mercedes’ monolith. If you care to compare it with the other German V-12, you’ll find that the Mercedes 6.0-liter (its first-ever passenger-sedan V-12) produces 402 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque, whereas the 5.0-liter BMW engine antes up a measly 296 horsepower and 332 pound-feet. In the classic V-12 idiom, the Benz engine pours out power seamlessly, with a soaring whir its only trail.
This mammoth powerplant hurtles the 600SEL from rest to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, and to 150 mph in just 42.8 seconds. A beefy automatic transmission with well-chosen gears smoothly delivers that acceleration. Though manual downshifts can be a little abrupt, the four-speed automatic gearbox is generally faultless. The penalty for such heady performance shows up in fuel-economy figures. The EPA rates the 600SEL at 11 mpg city, 15 mpg highway. We averaged 13 mpg in mixed driving.
Steering and braking are powerful enough to manage the V-12’s output, but they retain some of the artificial weight of previous S-class sedans. Despite excessive pedal travel, the brakes are easy to modulate. All of the new S-class sedans offer four-wheel disc brakes, and the 600SEL adds four-piston calipers. The combination is potent enough to yank the big sedan from 70 mph to a standstill in just 180 feet. Mercedes’ new variable-assist “parameter steering” is equally capable. It arcs cleanly and has even off-center feel. The effort is heavy at low speeds, like steering through sheets of clay, but it lightens considerably as the pace quickens.
Handling is more sprightly than the car’s girth implies. Mercedes’ raft of engineers have extracted 0.79 g of grip from 16-inch 235/60 Dunlop SP Sport D8 M2s. The cornering sensations at this limit are admittedly exotic—like balancing Gibraltar on a tiny fulcrum—but considerable body roll gives fair warning a the limit approaches.
For the unlikely event of anyone transgressing these limits, Mercedes stocks the 600SEL with plenty of safety equipment. Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, and traction control (unfortunately with no manual override) are standard equipment, as are seatbelt tensioners that cinch the manual three-point belts and rear-center lap belt in tandem with air-bag detonation. The front seatbelts can be difficult to latch, but they have a thoughtful two-step tension-relief spring for comfort and freedom of movement during normal operation.
Crash safety extends to the body shell. The S-class sedan already surpass the 1994 U.S. side-impact standard and also has designed-in crush zones. Fender-mounted parking rods telescope upward when reverse is engaged and help to locate the rear quarter of the car. The heavy doors latch shut electrically, firmly enclosing passengers and their parcels inside the car.
It’s doubtful that anyone would want to leave the cabin, though. The 600SEL’s interior is opulent and functional. For a car as large as this, the sense of intimacy behind the wheel is unparalleled. Front passengers have plenty of leg and shoulder room. Even with the no-cost optional power sunroof, our staff’s six-footers found a pleasing amount of room between the roof and their hair plugs. The console and dash are trimmed in burled walnut and plush carpet.
The amply large seats could stand some improvement. Despite the abundance of power adjustments—the 12-way seats feature adjustable seat-cushion length, and even the headrests move through Mercedes’ patented pictographic switches—it’s difficult to find a good seating position. The problem is the shape of the cushions: they cup too much around the shoulder and bottom. A three-way power lumbar support helps somewhat. Still, several hours’ worth of driving becomes uncomfortable.
The instruments are clear, comprehensive, and tastefully illuminated at night (though no one will want to watch the fuel-economy gauge repeatedly dip below 10 mpg). The secondary controls, however, eschew Germanic logic. For example, Mercedes fits four separate climate-control units, one for each corner of the passenger compartment. Each does its work efficiently and cycles rapidly from heat to air conditioning. But the temperature-control wheels are awkward to adjust while driving, and their LCD readouts are too small to read easily.
A new Bose Beta speaker system sounds markedly better than previous Becker systems, but Mercedes retains a brightly lit Becker head unit that does not dim with the rest of the instrument panel. The radio/cassette/compact-disc player (with trunk-mounted ten-disc changer) has automatic volume control, a system that no automaker has executed well. Mercedes’ version fluctuates at city speeds, leaping from loud to soft too quickly. Adding to the audio mayhem is a cellular phone that must first be turned on by a console-mounted handset and then dialed from a dash-mounted keypad. Thankfully, it includes cockpit microphones for handsfree operation.
The rear seats are more comfortable and even more commodious than those in front. A 3.9-inch wheelbase stretch over the standard S-class gives the 600SEL tremendous legroom. A bucket seat arrangement is available, but the three-passenger setup is preferable and offers a power recline to boot. An improvised test gave us a good indication of the room available: sitting in the rear seat with shoulders against the seatback, we found it difficult to touch the front seats without stretching. By EPA standards, the 600SEL offers more front, rear, and trunk room than the Bentley Turbo R.
Access to the trunk and other storage areas is easy. The armrests in the front door panels conceal map pockets, and the rear center armrest hides a mini bento box with cupholders. The two-Hoffa trunk has a power pop-out handle and a low liftover height. The power handle itself is a trick feature, designed to save the driver from suffering the indignity of getting his hands dirty. Other power features range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Memory functions for the driver’s seat and mirror positions are useful, but the electrically raised and lowered rear headrests are not.
With vast interior room and stupendous performance numbers, the 600SEL clearly surpasses the objective standards set by the BMW 750iL. Its weight and cost defy logic, but somehow it is deceptively and remarkably quick, maneuverable, and—most of all—desirable. Does that mean that Mercedes has built the best sedan in the world?
For now, yes.
Some automotive pundits feel that the exterior of the Mercedes-Benz 600SEL does not bespeak the fortune one must spend to own the world’s finest automobile. Such persons either have no taste or have had their vision impaired by overexposure to chromium fumes. Stylist Bruno Sacco deserves applause for creating a look that does not shout, “Look how rich I am!”
Tom Wolfe, that gimlet-eyed trend spotter, has identified a growing social phenomenon he calls “the fear of being envied.” The observant among you will have noted that, this being an election year, armies of loudmouths are screaming for the heads (and the incomes) of the rich. Clearly, this is no time to venture forth from your mansion at the controls of a car that exhibits the restraint of a Mardi Gras float.
Save for the “V12” emblem on the C-pillar, the 600SEL is as quietly restrained as the reading room at the New York Public Library. That is the way it should be with a truly fine automobile. —William Jeanes
The intriguing question these days on the cocktail-party circuit is this one: Are either of those two Johnny-come-lately luxury sedans from Japan the equal of a Mercedes? If we mean the grandest Mercedes, the 600SEL, this vote is no. Ask me if the 600SEL is, on the other hand, three times better than those Asian immigrants, as its price begs you to believe, and I vote negative again. But as perfection goes in luxury sedans, this one is Number 1, king of the hill, the Killer Kowalski of luxos. Its Herculean V-12 will stand on its head for you—act like a race car, or purr along daintily with granny behind the multi-adjustable wheel. This car is a privilege to drive. It’s like attaining knighthood. Its gas bill is stupendous, but for its gold-plated audience, that’s D.N.A. Who cares? Add in sales taxes and you need to write a check for about $150,000. That’s how much the best costs these days. —Steve Spence
This car is puzzling: I’d put its $143,333 price in Lotto-winning territory. Not that it’s overpriced, but car expenditures are a percentage of my annual budget, and at this percentage the price would make my annual budget equal to Lotto payouts. So people who buy 600SELs aren’t like me. If I had such an annual budget, I’d have the car delivered by valet to the door of any place I visited. I wouldn’t pay attention to its motorized rear headrests. Or its motorized inside rear-view mirror. Or its motorized folding outside mirrors, or Mercedes’ first can holder. Do rich folks pull up to the 7-Eleven to buy a Coke? All this stuff would ease the life of a valet, not the owner. And I would never concern myself with the other three sets of climate controls placed for my passengers’ use—that’s a job their own valets should handle. Nor would I ever fold the outside mirrors in a carwash. That problem belongs to the parkers at the Ritz-Carlton, not me. Me with the Lotto budget, that is. —Phil Berg
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