2022 Mercedes S580 – Is the S-Class Still The Best Car in the World?
When you approach a Mercedes S Class, you’re expecting it to be The Best Car. You’re looking for the ways in which it is moving the whole art and science of passenger conveyance forwards. I have felt this way about S-Classes since as a teenager without a driving license I assiduously studied what the motoring journalists had to say. In my twenties, regularly visited the Paris and Geneva motor shows, and I vividly remember the presentation where Mercedes introduced cruise control which was able to accelerate and decelerate based upon what the car in front was doing. Speaking with a CNet journo over dinner he expressed the same sentiment; that in S Class there’s always something new, better, different, and that it is something of a benchmark for his colleagues. (interestingly he also told me they all the car reviewers at CNet have Miatas, but let me avoid that digression)
My first impression of this car was the lustre and hue of the paint. I am not normally someone who notices paint, nor am I a lover of burgundy, but I loved this car’s colour. At first I rode in the back, partly because you need to appreciate this kind of car from the back seat and partly because there was another journo driving and the rep wanted to be in the passenger seat. That was fine with me, most of these cars are bought by people who ride in the back anyway. And my, what a back seat it is. The ambiance of first-class air travel. I fiddled and footled the reclining, heated seat, and noticed the (high) quality of the leather. The other journo asked me if I noticed the rear wheel steer the rep had been talking about. I said no. The route then took us off a fast sweeping road, and onto a narrower, bumpy one, but which could still be taken at some speed. He attacked it in a manner that would have ruffled my ancient E55 right into the ditch; no, I still didn’t feel the rear-wheel steer. Swerving abruptly into a side road, however, I did feel it, and the driver exclaimed at how much it shrank the big car. When I put the car back in the car park, later, it helped in a subtle way; had I not known it had rear-wheel steer, I would have simply assumed my parking king-fu was bang on.
Behind the wheel, the rep showed me how to cycle through all the different instrument screen graphics. I chose an LCD representation of a speedo and tach from a Mercedes from the 1950s. When the he started talking me through the ambient lighting options, I looked at the driving modes. The other journo, now ensconced in the luxury of the back seat, suggested Sport even as I was toggling for it.
He had left the full driving assist package on, so I had a little head-up display showing me where the edges and middle of the road were. Not so useful on a nice sunny day, but in fog, or at night, I could see how this would help you drive better. Underway, the car unexpectedly tweaked at the steering wheel; at first, I thought perhaps it had been curbed super hard, and the alignment/tracking was out. No, the rep informed me, in fact it was the driver assist. I was too near the ditch and Herr Sindelfingen didn’t like it. At the time, I was unfamiliar with these systems – yes, I have been living under an automotive rock – so generally behaved like a neanderthal with a shiny object when I realized that by using the lane-keep feature, and the Distronic cruise I had seen back in Paris in 1999, the car could drive itself.
I stepped out of the S580 feeling as if it was a time machine to the cars of the middle of the next decade. Because while science fiction writers imagine the future, designers actually make the future: today’s design for tomorrow’s Ford F-150 is the ubiquitous street furniture of every American state, town, city and highway for the next two decades.
After this surreal experience, the only place to go was a complete contrast.
2022 Honda Civic – It Can Drive Itself, But You Would Be Missing Out
I know the Honda rep, he is another English ex-pat; he asked what I thought of the S-Class, and I gushed an approximation of what I wrote above. He stunned me by telling me the Civic had all of that. The model we were driving was top-trim Touring, but the technology is fully democratized, standard across the range including the $21k base model. I tested it pretty robustly – basically I pointed the car at the center line and at the ditch, on each occassion just letting it go to see how it reacted. As in the Mercedes, the same your alignment/tracking is shot feeling, and the car starts pulling a little. If you don’t respond, it will steer you away from the centerline/ out of the ditch. If you need to overtake, a committed “no dude, we’re crossing the line” tweak of the wheel, and it lets you over the centerline.
It was gobsmacking in that it worked so well, so seamlessly.
The rep pointed out that the systems were intended to be a silent helper, there to help you if you made a mistake. Instead, I had been gently touching but not moving the wheel, allowing the car to gently drift from the ditch to the centerline and back again. The important thing here is that in my first experience with the technology it had been sufficiently good for me to be able to (ab)use it in this way.
The one element of the car I didn’t like was the CVT transmission. Had the rest of the car not been so good, I wouldn’t have noticed the CVT. As CVTs go, it isn’t too bad, but it has the inherent characteristics of CVTs – holding engine revs creating a drone and making the throttle pedal feel like it is attached to an elastic band. (EWW!!!) Reliability on CVTs tends not to be the best either, at least not those in Renault/Nissan products. I know Honda aren’t Nissan/Renault, but I’d still order a manual transmission car were it my money I was spending.
Hustled along a twisty road, the Civic corners surprisingly well, using my Fiesta ST as a yardstick. Not better than the Ford, but very nearly as well. Through the bends, any 2022 Civic is a fun and sporting drive, and I daresay the Si and Type R would give my Fiesta a proper challenge.
Working it hard along an undulating, sweeping road l have often ridden on Gixxers, it was composed at Autobahn speeds. What a disarmingly good little car this was, not just great value and super competent, but with a bit of design flair in places.
2022 Acura TLX Type S
There’s a key difference between Acura and Lexus or Infiniti; the latter two offer a rear-wheel-drive platform. This isn’t the place for me to get up on my normally aspirated/manual transmission/rear-wheel drive soapbox, it suffices to say that when tackling Mercedes and BMW, Toyota and Nissan took the job seriously, while Honda made do with a compromised architecture. In fact, Lexus has its cake and eats it, with the front-wheel drive ES models – aimed at the old Buick/Pontiac/Oldsmobile/Mercury niche – and the IS models, aimed at premium Germans. Acuras, like Hondas, are front-wheel drive. Often great handling cars, but the meat is chicken, not steak.
Thought of as an overgrown Civic, the TLX S-type is an amazing piece of kit, lovely inside, handsome outside ( I’d go so far as to say striking in that retina scorching hue of the test car), the BMW-like rear door handles on the shoulder working particularly well, and there’s plenty of thrust for the freeway onramp. It has wide rubber, great suspension and no doubt a clever differential which creates the freakishly smooth power delivery for so powerful a front-wheel drive car. Indeed, it was so good that I didn’t feel comfortable exploring the TLX’s limits on the road. On a track, yes. On the road, my Fiesta’s narrow tires are great, because their limit is explorable, while the TLX S-type just grips and turns.
Having said all this, you might expect the TL-S to feel the perfect compromise, but infact it reminded me of an Impossible Burger. If they didn’t call an Impossible Burger a burger, I would be able to enjoy them as tasty and substantial sandwiches. But by calling them “burgers” they provoke comparison with the real thing. And here, impossible burgers, and front-wheel drive sports sedans, fall short. The Acura was not as satisfying as the full double patty bacon rear-wheel-drive cheeseburger of a Camstang 370 Scat Pack, but these aren’t the cars people are cross-shopping the TLX S-type against. Compared to German exec sedans, it is good value and corners better than them, despite being front-wheel drive. However, when compared to the nice, sensible cheese-and-cucumber-on-wheat-bread-sandwiches of the Civic, the Acura felt a touch chintzy. You could buy two base Civics for the price of the Acura, or just one Civic, and have a nice crypto nest egg or vacation or three. Or a deposit for a home. Or buy a Civic Type R, and have a smaller cryptovacationhome nest egg.
So that’s the moral of the story. Go out and buy a Civic Type R. At least you can’t say what I write isn’t practical, actionable advice.