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2000 Mercedes-Benz S430

Mercedes-Benz sees the smiling front end of its all-new 2000 S-Class sedans as symbolic of the cars' leaner, lighter, more accessible nature.

Mercedes-Benz sees the smiling front end of its all-new 2000 S-Class sedans as symbolic of the cars' leaner, lighter, more accessible nature.

The old, panzer-like S-Class, launched in 1991, drew critical fire for being too big and loaded with too many esoteric features.

The new generation has indeed dumped baroque touches like a power-operated trunk handle that slid out of a recess. Its stated purpose was to make sure drivers didn't get their fingers dirty.

Also gone are rods that rose from the corners of the rear fenders to help guide you into parking spaces.

The latest S-Class abounds in technology of a more practical thrust and its development didn't come cheap. These flagships were created at a cost of more than US$1 billion.

Mercedes fights hard to be first with new tech, seeing this as a reflection of its racing heritage and a pillar of the brand's

image. (A fully optioned new S reportedly has 124 electric motors, compared to about 60 motors for the old model.)

Three V8-powered sedans make up the S-Class for model-year 2000:

the S430 standard wheelbase (a Canadian exclusive not available in the U.S.);

the S430 long wheelbase (you get another 120 mm of backseat legroom);

the S500 long wheelbase (propelled by a mighty 302-horse 5.0 L V8).

A new V12-powered S600 arrives in Canada for model-year 2001. (The V6 S320 is no longer sold in North America.)

I drove an S430 standard wheelbase done in a stealth blue-black shade called Black Opal. It had a charcoal leather interior and a terrific dashboard trimmed in eucalyptus wood the color of light caramel.

The new car is some 17 cm shorter than the old slab-sided model and marginally lower and narrower, but the cabin remains

spacious. A sleeker roofline has cut 6 mm of rear headroom, but even the middle rear-seat passenger has ample clearance.

Alas, there's little legroom for this person because of the transmission tunnel, this being a reardrive car.

S430 styling is resolutely lowkey, imparting a certain anonymity in traffic, which is probably the way most affluent motorists prefer it these days. From a distance, this Merc could be anything a Chev Lumina, an Acura 3.2TL, one of the Buicks.

But up close, its limo personality emerges. You see it in the lean, flowing front fenders with their big, free-form headlights and in the elegant curve of the trunk lid.

Once you start opening and closing those vault-like doors (some may find them a bit onerous) and pondering that opulent instrument panel, you know this is no ordinary automobile.

The Benz, by the way, has a decidedly narrow dash top. It's the antithesis of Chrysler's cab-forward philosophy, which dictates a vast dash top, steeply raked windshield and tight forehead room. It will be interesting to see how the clash of these two approaches plays out at Daimler-Chrysler.

A German-style destination seemed de rigueur for this Teutonic tiger, so I headed for the village of Heidelberg, northwest of Waterloo.

You're right: the real thing — the Student Prince's magical university town on the River Neckar in Deutschland — would have been much better, but we can't all be Jim Kenzie.

"Overhead the moon is beaming, white as blossoms on the bough. Nothing is heard but the song of a bird, filling all the air with dreaming. Could this beauty last forever I would ask for nothing more."

Remember that? Mario Lanza, singing Sigmund Romberg's music from the movie, sounded superb on the Benz's 10-speaker Bose system.

One thing you figure out fast: this is a complex machine that demands serious study to get a handle on its many systems.

It comes with two hardcover owner's manuals: a 320-page volume for the car itself and a 208-page tome for COMAND (cockpit management and data system), which operates the stereo, satellite-based navigation computer and optional telephone. The manuals fill the glovebox.

COMAND is standard on S-Class cars. The system's map CD-ROM should be available by October at the latest, Mercedes-Benz Canada's Vincent Laplante says. Each car will come with one disc. Initially, mapping will be limited to the GTA, Vancouver and perhaps Montreal. Under the hood is a 275 hp, 4.3 L, single overhead camshaft alloy V8. It has two sparkplugs and three valves per cylinder (two intake, one exhaust) for better fuel combustion.

Low-end torque for swift acceleration is phenomenal. So is braking, thanks to four-wheel discs with antilock and Brake Assist, which senses an emergency situation and boosts the brake pedal pressure for a quicker stop. However, my tester exhibited some brake dive.

The transmission is a velvety five-speed automatic, with a winter mode that lets you move off in second gear. It also allows clutchless shifting.

The ride is gorgeous; road imperfections are merely a distant murmur. Using a dash switch, you can choose a softer or firmer ride, thanks to a standard feature that Mercedes calls ADS (Adaptive Damping System).

An adjacent push-button lets you increase ride height by 20 mm to better deal with ruts or deep snow. Talk about going up in the world.

The company's ESP (Electronic Stability Program), designed to tame skids, is also on hand. The system incorporates traction control.

On the safety front, the S430 has eight airbags, including one in each door, plus a head-protection curtain that deploys along the side windows. Mercedes calls the result "a virtual cocoon against front and side impacts."

The car lets you contact an assistance centre in an emergency. Just pull down the red SOS flap above the mirror and press the glowing red Mayday button. To the right is a small microphone for voice communication.

One feature you grow to like: all four windows have Auto down (press the buttom firmly, release it and the glass lowers out of sight) and up. But — oddly for this price class — there's no residual power to close a window or the moonroof after you've switched off the motor. The trunk is smallish for a car of this size, but it's beautifully lined in gray cloth and has netting to hold small items.

With the masterful S430, Mercedes demonstrates once again its ability to listen, learn and advance. The result is one of the most desirable cars in the world.

PRICING INFORMATION

2000 Mercedes-Benz S430

Base price (standard wheelbase): $92,500

Cellular telephone-mobile configuration, $2,095

Xenon headlamps, $1,095

6-disc trunk CD changer, $720

Electric rear window sunshade, $680

Headlamp washers, $575

Price as tested: $97,665

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