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The Clarkson review: Mercedes-Benz S 500 L (2014)

It has wings, missiles and lasers ... but only in the designer’s mind

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S-class front 2 resized

WHEN SOMEONE embarks on a six-year medical degree, they must surely hope that one day they will end up doing pioneering research into cardiovascular disease. Which means that every single GP must be leading a life of disappointment and regret.

I suppose it’s the same story with architects. Nobody sets off down this career path hoping and praying that they will end up at Taylor Wimpey, designing all-in-one bathroom fixtures for two-bedroom starter homes. They wanted to do a cathedral. Or a skyscraper. Not a budget bog.


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I know when I applied to be a journalist I had visions of myself on the front line, dodging bullets and getting interviews with warlords. Not sitting here, week in and week out, describing the ride and handling characteristics of the latest Citroën eco-box.

Frankly, I don’t know how we all put up with it. Why, as our hopes and dreams are dashed on the shoreline of necessity, do we not simply jump off a bridge and end it all? How do we go on? Well, I’ll tell you how I go on. I remind myself that it could be worse. That instead of writing about cars, I could be designing them.

I had visions of myself on the front line, dodging bullets. Not sitting here describing the ride and handling characteristsics of the latest Citroën eco-box

Imagine how horrible that would be. You dream as a boy of one day being commissioned to style the latest Lamborghini. In your mind it will have wings and lasers and a fire control system that allows the driver to launch Sea Dart missiles at enemy aircraft as it tears across the ocean at 250mph. Because, of course, it would be amphibious too. Duh.

And what happens? Well, you end up at Ford, designing the rear indicator lens for the next-generation Focus. And all you can hope for is that if your indicator lens is successful, you will be allowed to work on the rear-seatbelt fixing point for the Mondeo. That’s all the ambition you have left.

I was in South Africa recently and happened upon a car called the Toyota Avanza. And, having given the matter some thought, I’ve decided it’s the most dismal piece of car design in all human history. Among the features listed by Toyota in the sales blurb are “driver and front passenger sun visor”, and you know the company is scraping the barrel if it is reduced to boasting about that. “It has two sun visors! Wow.” Yes, and “mudguards” and — wait for it — “spacious door pockets”.

I’m sure it’s cheap and I’m sure it won’t go wrong very often. And I’m sure there is a market for such a thing. But let’s not forget that some poor sod had to design it. He will have known that the body was far too big for the skinny wheels, but he will have been told by his superiors in accounts that bigger wheels would be expensive and, in South Africa, unnecessary. Especially if he was planning on the extravagance of two sun visors. And spacious door pockets.

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I feel much the same way when I see a Volkswagen Jetta. Aimed at people who find the Golf diesel too radical and “out there”, this four-door saloon has been wilfully toned down to the point where it is nigh-on invisible. Someone who wanted to work for Ferrari was charged with styling the boot lid. He worked long into the night, and every morning his bosses would say, “Nope. It needs to be more boring than that.” And he’d have to start all over again.

The only reason these people are not jumping off bridges on an hourly basis is that they must sort of know there is actually some demand for their work. People with adenoids and a know-it-all attitude will buy a Jetta and they will be happy with it. People in southern Africa will buy an Avanza and it will be welcomed into the family as warmly as a new baby.

It’s the same story with all the other dreary cars out there. The man who designed the Nissan Juke would have known all along it would be extremely popular among those impervious to its looks. And the man at Peugeot, after he’d been told that using four clips to fasten the air vent in place was extravagant and that one would do, would know that somewhere a geography teacher would be pleased at the cash this had saved. Right up to the time the air vent fell off.

Which brings me on to the Mercedes S 500. Because the man who was charged with the immensely complicated task of designing the engine in this car must have known that he was completely wasting his time.

I have written about the new S-class before on these pages and it probably wouldn’t hurt to run over the important features again. It can see in the dark and around corners, it can’t crash, it is extremely comfortable, it has a sat nav the size of a council-house plasma TV and it has no lightbulbs. Not even in the headlamps. It may not have the style or the panache of a Rolls-Royce Ghost or a Bentley Flying Spur, but when it comes to cleverness, the big Benz knocks them both into a cocked hat.

The man who was charged with the complicated task of designing the engine in this car must have known that he was completely wasting his time

Here’s the thing, though. There are only two types of customer for S-classes. One is a company in London that sends them round with a driver to take Geri Halliwell to the theatre. And the other is a company in Moscow that sends them round with a driver to take Oleg out for a bit of machinegun practice.

The company that ferries Geri about buys economical S 350 diesels because it’s fairly confident that none of its customers will even realise. And the company that ferries Oleg about buys expensive 5.5-litre V8-engined S 63 AMGs because it’s fairly confident that if the driver turns up with anything less, Oleg will shoot him in the heart.

So what is the point of the petrol-powered S 500? Yes, at £88,395 it is considerably less expensive than its £119,835 sibling, the S 63 AMG. But if it’s money that’s bothering you, why not buy the £62,905 entry-level S 350 diesel, which will be much cheaper to run as well? And will hold its value better.

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You may say that you don’t want the blood-and-thunder get-up-and-go of the V8 and that you don’t want the clatter of a diesel either and that the middle-ranking S 500 is perfect. But you’d be talking nonsense, because I am driven around often in a diesel S-class and it doesn’t clatter at all. In fact it is impossible to tell what sort of fuel is feeding the engine.

I have racked my brains and I simply cannot conceive of a more pointless car than the S 500. I used one just the other day to get me into London from the Top Gear test track in Surrey and it was lovely. It calmed and soothed and wafted beautifully.

But, as the man who designed the engine knows all too well, there’s another model in the range that does exactly the same thing for less money.

 

Clarkson’s verdict ★★★☆☆

Nice but not £25,000 better than the diesel version

Mercedes-Benz S 500 L

Engine 4663cc, V8
Power 449bhp @ 5250rpm
Torque 516 lb ft @ 1800rpm
Transmission 7-speed automatic
Acceleration 0-62mph in 4.8sec
Top speed 155mph
Fuel 31.7mpg (combined)
CO2 207g/km
Vehicle tax band K
Price £88,395
Release date On sale now


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