2012 Mercedes S550

2012-Mercedes-S550 Perhaps the best way to experience America's open roads is to cruise along a highway as your car gives you a massage.

It's just one of the things the 2012 Mercedes S550 will do for you that isn't driving, technically. It offers night vision, can move its bolsters to always hold you firmly in your seat through a hard corner, wake you up if you start to fall asleep, and surround you with the best-looking wood trim (that doesn't look like real wood).

For decades, the S Class has been the crème de la crème of flagships. So naturally, expectations are always high when Mercedes-Benz drops a new engine under the hood.

The S550 doesn't disappoint. The new 4.6-liter direct injection twin turbo V-8 blasts out 429 horsepower. The surprising feat with this engine is that engineers figured out a way to make it 20 percent smaller but create more than 30 percent more power.

There's still that little annoying slight delay between pressing the accelerator and that wonderful feeling of the engine starting to push this 4,800-pound car like it's a race car. And while the world moves to smaller and smaller engines, flagships should sail with V-8s. Nothing will ever replace the sound a V-8 makes when the driver mashes the pedal to that silky luxury carpet.

Really, that's about the only sound you will hear inside the S550 — with everything else sealed away outside of the cabin.

The S Class just has a certain sound and feel about it when you're driving. It's heavy but still crisp. Every movement is intentional and every piece of the car feels exceptional. The steering is firm, the ride stable and smooth. The seven-speed automatic transmission winds through the gears quickly and smoothly; so much of this vehicle operates in the background that you don't always notice how nice it really is.

Bumper to bumper tech

Then there is the technology inside and outside. It's everywhere and does pretty much everything. Some cars tout stereos and Bluetooth connectivity. Those may be nice, but the S550 will give you an electronic slap and remind you to wake up if it notices erratic steering on the highway.

Of course, if you're on the highway, you're likely to be using the Distronic Plus cruise control, a radar-based system that will actually walk you through traffic. The system tracks the cars in front of you and maintains their speed. In traffic, it can take you to a complete stop without you raising a toe.

Same goes with the adaptive high beam assist. You don't have to do anything. This system uses a camera to look for tail lights and headlights and quickly adjusts the high/low beams to prevent blinding other drivers. When you start to drive with this system, it's a little nerve-wracking, as you think it's not going to change the lights. But it does, every time.

Then there's the night vision. That's right, night vision. Click the switch and the LCD screen that normally shows the speedometer behind the steering wheel disappears and turns into a monitor for a camera mounted on the front of the car. This camera uses infrared light and thermal imaging to detect warm blooded people and then it highlights them on the screen.

At first, I thought the Night View Assist View Plus was interesting but kind of pointless — don't headlights do the same thing? (The system claims to see pedestrians 325 feet sooner.) Then, on a trip home one night, I turned on the system and kept cruising. Suddenly, something popped up on the screen that I couldn't actually see, so I took my foot off the accelerator and slowed down.

Finally, through the headlights, I could see this short-legged black cat with a thick white stripe down its back. Hitting that might have replaced some of that rich leather smell with something Mercedes would not appreciate when I gave the car back.

Comfort behind the wheel

But those are just the technology highlights. This vehicle really has everything you can think of: blind spot detection, active lane assist, torque vectoring braking and cross wind stabilization.

Technology begets more technology and that's always been the story of the S Class.

The S550 continues that story.

It rides, drives and acts like a Mercedes should.

Then there are the fabulous front bucket seats that will massage you. Find the Fast and Vigorous command and feel the massage roll up and down your back. (Though the massage is neither fast nor vigorous, it still is relaxing after a tough day at work.)

And relaxing is the key to driving the S550. It may have as much technology as a space shuttle, but it's there for you and doesn't care if you notice it or not, as long as you are comfortable.

2012 Mercedes S550

Type: Five-passenger sedan
Engine: 4.6-liter DOHC V-8
Horsepower: 429
Torque : 516 pound-feet
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
EPA gas mileage: 15 mpg city / 25 mpg highway
Front: 13.2-inch ventilated discs
Rear: 11.8-inch ventilated discs
Front: Four-link suspension, antilift control, gas-pressurized shock absorbers and stabilizer bar
Rear: Multilink independent suspension, antisquat and antidive system
Wheelbase: 124.6 inches
Length: 206.5 inches
Width: 73.7 inches
Height: 58 inches
Curb weight: 4,740 pounds to 4,861 pounds

By Scott Burgess / The Detroit News