The $93G economy car.
The Mercedes-Benz S350 makes a strong statement, but it might not be the one you expect.
Yes, merely stepping out of one – via either the front or rear door – announces to the world that you are someone of means and import, or at least that the person who sent the car to pick you up wants to you feel like you are. But that’s not it.
The S350 is powered by a diesel engine, the first to find its way under the hood of an S-Class since 1995. And it is so impressive that it might just make hybrids obsolete – at least the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid.
The numbers speak for themselves: 21 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. That’s compact car fuel economy. Hogwash, you say? The also-new Mercedes-Benz C250, which looks like a pilot fish next to the S-Class, is powered by a four-cylinder engine and has the exact same fuel economy rating. The C-Class marketing team can’t be happy.
The S-Class folks might have put themselves in a bit of a bind, as well. The S400 Hybrid was introduced just two years ago and at the time amazed with an EPA rating of 19 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. For me, it was the perfect S-Class. I mean, who really needs a V12 with five or six hundred horsepower under the hood to be chauffeured between Chateau Marmont and Rodeo Drive in stop-and-go traffic just so the lurking Paparazzi can snap off a few upskirt shots as you get out of the car?
Then again, I can’t actually afford any of these cars, and I try to wear pants as often as possible, so my perspective might be a bit skewed. This is borne out by the fact that, even though it is the least expensive S-Class, the S400 only accounts for about five percent of sales. So that shows what I know. (And to think, my father was a car salesman. That apple tree looks awfully far away right now.)
But it gets worse for the S400, because along with being about 20 percent more fuel efficient, the S350 also has more grunt: 455 lb-ft of torque versus 258 lb-ft, which gets it out of the blocks with some authority. Should I mention that it has all-wheel-drive and the S400 does not? I suppose I should. Diesels are popular in the Northeast, and so is snow. Hybrids are très Hollywood.
The S350 does require a bit more care and feeding than a gasoline-powered car, however. Like most big diesels it needs a urea solution called AdBlue to clean its exhaust, and the seven gallon tank under the spare tire has to be filled up every 10,000 miles or so at a cost of about $50. (Do the math, Wall Street, it’s not that much per mile.)
But aside from the powertrain the S350 is identical to the S400 and all other S-Classes. Inside you’ll find the same jumbo luxury interior. Essentially unchanged since the current generation debuted in 2007, it still offers all of the modern amenities you expect in this segment, even if the plastic air vents on the far ends of the dashboard are glaringly dated.
On the options list you’ll find massaging front seats, reclining rears, a dual-view monitor that allows the passenger to watch a movie while hiding it from the driver and a banging 1,200 watt Bang and Olufsen sound system. That last one might seem like a countermeasure to the diesel clatter, except for the fact that there is none.
Sure, open the hood and you could lead a fife and drum band, but from the driver’s seat there is nothing to complain about. Up to about 20 mph there’s the slightest indication that something without spark plugs is at work under the hood, but after that the S350 might as well be an electric car. It is the proverbial bank vault lined with convoluted egg crate acoustical foam.
Around town the S350’s active suspension is so plush that it might as well be made of foam, but tightens up to keep things under control on roads far more twisty than a behemoth of this size should be able to navigate ably. There’s even a Sport setting and shift paddles for the 7-speed transmission if you want to get a little frisky.
The electronic safety features available are just as impressive, and include self-braking, lane keep assist and a night-vision screen in the dashboard. None of that makes the car foolproof, but if you manage to cause an accident in spite of it all we hope you have a good lawyer, or are one.
Of course the price of the S350 is commensurate with what it brings to the table, a healthy $93,425 to start. But that’s just $700 more than the S400, and even with the relatively high cost of diesel fuel you’ll make that up at the pump in less than two years, assuming you don’t mind going there.
There are currently half as many diesel service stations in the United States as there are ones that sell gasoline, and a good number of them are of the truck stop variety. Depending on where you live, you may have to get friendly with the Freightliners now and then, but don’t worry, Daimler builds those too, so there is no need to feel out of place when you’re filling up.
Just mind the dress when you do.
2012 Mercedes-Benz S350 Bluetech
Base Price: $93,425
Type: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan
Engine: Turbocharged V6 diesel
Power: 240 hp, 455 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
MPG: 21 city/31 highway
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.