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Rumble Seat 

The Germans, as evidenced by their stage-craft with Pullman cars in Versailles, have a keen sense of history. So when Mercedes-Benz launches a "flagship" sedan, like the 2000 model year S-class, it slides into history's lee heavily freighted with the company's highest aspirations and best thinking. The S-class is the echt Mercedes.

So what are to we to make of the S-class? First, plainly, Mercedes-Benz has no qualms about the alienating effects of advanced technology. The S-class trembles under the weight of advanced electronics, including, just as an example, integrated navigation with LCD display, audio, voice-recognition cell phone and roadside-assistance system. All this is arrayed in a sweeping center console that sets the tone for the cabin--you are in the executive club house of the Information Age.

Audiophiles, rejoice: The Bose/Beta II stereo monitors cabin noise levels and ranges of ambient frequencies, equalizing the audio output for best levels of volume and tone. It also offers a selection of six dynamic audio environments, ranging from the Florence Opera House to Shea Stadium. It can also be turned up to the proverbial "11."

The climate-control system offers the usual dual-zone comfort settings; meanwhile, the system tracks radiant lighting from the sun, compensating for uneven radiant heating and cooling. The climate system also samples the air and when it detects foul odors, like New Jersey, it will switch on the recirculating air and microfiltration system.

The S-class comes with, count 'em, three owner's manuals, compendiums of instructions daunting even to the most determined gizmophile. This car requires more homework than a French comparative-lit class.

Men, of course, don't typically resort to instruction manuals. We prefer the monkeys-with-typewriters approach to devices, pressing buttons randomly until the desired effect appears, unto infinity.

For males and other attention-deficit sufferers, the S-class comes with an abbreviated owner's manual that covers only the basics.

The basics are these: This S-class replaces the dreadnought S-class introduced in 1991. That car, massive and heavy and enormous, was fit for a field marshal; it became the standard vehicle of the diplomatic corps. The knocks against the previous S-class were that it was simply too huge, too expensive (V-12 models ran in excess of $130,000) and too feverishly grand.

If the old S-class was Wagner, the new car is Puccini: lighter, somewhat smaller, less bombastic and more serenely sophisticated. Replacing the hammered lines of the old car, the new car's features are more sinuous, stretched over a more proportional body. The huge, glassy eyes stare out from either side of a grill that looks like a furrowed brow. This car means business, or at least, business-class.

Under the hood, you have a choice of either a 4.3-liter or 5.0-liter V-8, the S430 and S500, respectively (European models will be available with six-cylinder and diesel power plants). Our test model was the less powerful 4.3-liter edition (275 hp). It wasn't what you would call pokey. Thanks to smart gear matching in the automatic/manual five-speed transmission, the car growls to 60 mph in about 7 seconds and then it's a quick treble-shift to the 127-mph speed limiter. Alas, this is right where the car begins to wake up, dynamically; the suspension system lowers the car at highway speeds for better ride and the reflexes of the speed-sensitive tighten. This car is for European Autobahn use. S-class cars driven in America are like thoroughbreds used in county fair pony rides.

At the four corners, Mercedes has elected to use an air-spring suspension system with adaptive-damping shock absorbers, with the wheels located by multilinks and anti-roll bars. The ride is best characterized as unflappable. The ride quality is firm but still well isolated, yet the communication with the road is right there in the rack-and-pinion steering. Push the car and it retains gracious amounts of composure right up to the limits of the tires, 16-inch Goodyear Eagles. Body-roll is minimal, balance is maximal. The S-class will never be as easy to toss around as the more limber-limbed BMWs, but it delivers jetlike stability at speed.

The S-class also comes standard with the Merc stability control, an all-weather traction system that almost eliminates the possibility of skidding off the road. In the South, where inclement weather causes widespread mental retardation, such stability systems are a salvation.

You really can't begin to appreciate this car without seeing it, pressing its flesh. Though significantly lighter than its predecessor, the two-ton car is by no means flimsy; yet it manages that weight well. The doors are light but solid as oak. The chassis is hard and stiff. And while it is not quite as tomblike as the older car, the new S-class is at least as quiet as anything in its class, including the library-quiet Lexus LS400.

Swamped with rich leather and glossy wood (ours had a beautiful blond ash trim), the interior is comfortably cozy up front and limolike in back, offering as much leg room for rear passengers as the Jaguar Vanden Plas or BMW 750il extended wheelbase models.

You could dwell in admiration on the amber LED signal lights that wrap around the outside mirrors, or the "Ergonomic" button, which will automatically adjust seat and seatbelt height, steering wheel position, mirrors and backrests, based on standard anthropometric data. Or you could simply be astounded at the price. Our test vehicle was less than $72,000. If price is not simply a sum but a factor of value, the S-class may be the cheapest car on the planet.

What is Mercedes trying to tell us? That the world's best car company intends to stay that way.

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