Some call it the worlds best car. Parent company Daimler-Chrysler would like to describe it as the Mercedes Benz of Mercedes Benzes. Its the car that serves as the reference point for all cars that possess the legendary three stars. I was in Pune, home of Mercedes in India, to find out why the car is held in such reverence. Mercedes Benz India was launching the S 320L in the country and I was among the journalists who were going to put the car through its paces.
I felt embarrassed at the childish enthusiasm I was displaying about the car, but when virtually every journalist reached the Mercedes factory prior to the appointed hour of 10 that morning - a rare occurrence in media - I knew I wasnt the only excited soul. And there they were. Two S 320L cars, draped in cloth and hidden from public gaze. There was Mercedes managing-director Juergeon Zieglers presentation to go through first. Then he said it: Rs 59 lakh (ex-showroom) in Delhi and Rs 56 lakh in Mumbai. Gulp! Even as the jaws dropped, a deadpan Ziegler made an even more shocking announcement. "Weve already received full payment for 84 cars." Double gulp!
Between them, 84 people were going to take care of nearly a years production at the Mercedes factory by actually buying a car worth Rs 59 lakh. The same money could have bought them, well... 10 Ford Ikons or Opel Corsas, or an apartment in one of Delhis upmarket colonies like Defence Colony or Greater Kailash. Besides, they were going to fork out an insurance premium of nearly Rs 2 lakh every year! Which itself would have almost bought them a Maruti 800!
Why? Whats in the car? Sure, its a lot about making a statement. But thats one heck of an expensive statement. Wont a Rs 37.5-lakh E Class Mercedes do? And beyond that, what value does the car give? How much can you pack into a car?
The answers were going to come soon. As Ziegler and his executives unveiled the cars to the popping of flashbulbs, even hardened journos took a moment to soak in the sight. The car had a modern look while still evoking the Mercedes heritage. The clear lines made it look elegant, yet powerful. The car certainly had more presence than even the E Class.
As we drove to the nearby telco test track, Mercedes executives began their sales spiel. This is one car that certainly doesnt need it, I thought. "In the S 320L, the L stands for long. Thats to give more leg space to rear seat passengers which most S Class owners in India are expected to be," said one.
We looked at the car from the front and the rear, the inside and the outside. The interiors looked plush, leather upholstery, burnished wood on the door panel and dashboard. The scores of buttons told us that the car packed in a lot of electronic technology. But thats about as much as we could figure out. For, the vehicle packs in so many gizmos that we needed professional help to truly appreciate the car.
"Alright folks, let me show you what weve done with this machine," said Mercedes Portuguese-born executive, Lino Marques. And heres what he told us: the bonnet has two pieces of plastic near the windscreen. Rain sensors. They automatically switch on the wipers when it starts raining and adjust their speed depending on the ferocity of the rain. The windscreen has a patch in front of the rear-view mirror. Its a light sensor that performs two functions. The headlights come on automatically at twilight, and as the night goes on, the lights begin to glow brighter. Then the sensor also detects the heat and direction of sun rays. If the sun is streaming in from the right, the personal airconditioning vents for those sitting on the right will work harder to ensure that the temperature you want is achieved.
Not only does each passenger enjoy personal airconditioning, he also enjoys personal heating. Every door panel has buttons for a heater, which is placed inside your seat. So, while three passengers in the car can enjoy cooling at 16 degrees centigrade, you could switch on the heater, which will warm your seat. And dont our legs and backs begin sweating in the car? Well, the S Class has fans below your butt and behind your back which draw out all the moisture.
Then there are electronically adjustable seats for your comfort. Back seats are reclinable and the head rests adjustable. If your chauffeur acts uppity by occupying more space and cutting into your legroom, just press a button and his seat will automatically slide forward. But if you want to drive yourself, the front seats offer even greater comfort. At the press of many buttons, you can change the height, the recline, the leg space and the head rest. Once youve found the ideal position, press M1, and the computer will memorise it. No matter when you sit in the car next, press 1 and you are back to your most comfortable position.
No, dont take a breather yet. The seatbelts of S 320L are very special too. Dont we like to leave them a little loose, just so we are more comfortable? Just in case you get carried away in your Merc and bang into someone, the seat belt gets reeled tight in a second. And airbags, eight of them, will come from all corners to protect you. In case the front passenger seat isnt occupied, the sensors there wont let the airbag open. Which will cut down on your repair costs.
Then comes the steering. It moves forward, back, up and down. And when you take out the key from the ignition, it slides up to give you more room to exit. And yes, the L was a good idea. At 63", I had more legroom than I needed.
Lets look at the outside. The S 320L has a standard ground clearance of 150 mm. Though, if you expect to encounter a rough road, change it to 175 mm. But if you drive at over 80 kmph for five minutes, or touch 120 kmph, the car will automatically slide down to 150 mm to reduce drag and increase stability. Further, if you touch 140 kmph, the ground clearance will automatically change to 135 mm.
Isnt the Mercedes a lot about a smooth ride? This one, literally, rides on air. Its got individual air suspensions that electronically adjust according to the weight in the car, the road and the drivers driving habits. Depending on what you want, you can also adjust the suspension to either give you better handling, or a better ride.
By the time I got to drive the car, Lino Marques had built up such hype that my hands felt clammy at the wheel. He said the car does 0-100 kmph in 8.2 seconds. I think I did it. Eventually, I managed a top speed of 180 kmph, and that at less than 6000 revs. What was even better was that I didnt even feel it. Thats thanks to the cars Electronic Stability Programme, they said. Ill take their word for it. The S 320L brakes from 100-0 kmph in seven seconds flat. Tried that too. Almost managed it.
Then, I decided to shift to manual transmission. The car did 100 kmph in first gear. I think I heard the engine scream. Thats when I understood why someone would pay Rs 61 lakh for a car.
Met someone at a Mumbai nightclub the day after. "What brings you to Mumbai?" he asked. "Id gone to test-drive the S 320L in Pune," I said. "The S-Class, its a s*** car," he said. "My father has an S 500 in London. Do you know what the problem is with a car like this? It doesnt let you feel the road. You just dont enjoy the drive. Now, the Maruti 800, thats when you really feel the road. " To each his own.