The S-Class 550: A Mercedes in a class by itself

The car you'll be driving tomorrow? It's what rich guys are driving today.

Today's flagship Mercedes vehicles boast semiautonomous safety features that will probably be available on less-expensive cars in the near future, as their costs come down and their ability to reduce accidents is proven. They may even be mandated.

For now, they can all be had for $132,000.

The current S Class sedan, with all the toys and trimmings, can steer itself, watch for vehicles and pedestrians nearby, stop itself in case of an emergency and maintain a safe distance between other vehicles on the freeway.

This requires little operator input and makes the driving experience extremely comfortable. After an hour in the S Class 550 — lulled by heated, massaging driver's seat and the Burmester 3D Surround Sound music system — I started wondering which buttons to push for a mani-pedi and a cappuccino.

The self-driving functions will improve the skills of the inexpert, lazy or inattentive driver. (Everybody, in other words.) But they have their limitations too.

The Pre-Safe function will slow the car when traffic begins to stop, bring the car to a halt under emergency circumstances, and then will start up again — without requiring the driver to hit the brakes or the gas. The Distronic Plus Steering Assist program is just that — it assists. It will execute a turn gracefully with only the slightest touch. But you can't take your hands off the wheel and expect the car to do the steering for you.

That was a bit of a disappointment. I had a crossword puzzle handy, and my knitting needles. But the dashboard quickly started blinking, ordering me to return to my driving duties.

Similar semiautonomous and safety packages are already available, at much lower rates, on less-expensive Toyota, Lexus, Honda, Acura and Subaru cars. GM, Ford and Nissan have said they would offer even more complicated self-piloting packages in the near future. And high-end versions of some of these systems already come on some Teslas, BMWs and Audis.

But few of those vehicles will parallel park themselves as elegantly as the S Class. The car's Parktronic program, with "Active Parking Assist," is brilliant.

On a city street, pull up next to an open spot, put the car in reverse, and answer "OK" to a dashboard prompt. The vehicle does the rest — quickly and efficiently, getting into tight parking spaces with far less trouble than I had when I parked it myself.

The S Class also performs regular driving tasks with Mercedes' usual elegance and elan.

The bi-turbo V-8 engine puts out 449 horsepower and 515 pound-feet of torque, and gets from zero to 60 in under five seconds. The vehicle can be instructed to run in Economy or Sport mode, and with Comfort or Sport suspension settings. Because this model was fitted with the patented Magic Body Control system, it felt like it was riding on air — scanning the road ahead, and making minute adjustments to smooth out the ride.

The Warmth and Comfort Package added a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated rear seats (the front ones come that way, standard), and even heated front and rear armrests. The standard Magic Vision Control features a heated wiper system, which keeps the windshield crystal clear. The Esteem Management System lights the dashboard with the words, "You look fantastic today." (Kidding on that last one.)

Such performance and luxury don't come cheap. This S550 has a base price of $95,000. But this particular model also had that Burmester sound system, which adds $6,400, and a "Silk Beige/Espresso Brown" Nappa leather interior, which adds $4,450, and a sport package with special wheels, bumpers and side skirts, which adds $5,900.

Those options may not make the S Class safer, or mark it as the car of the future. But they certainly add to the pleasure of driving one today.

charles.fleming@latimes.com

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