A new look - again - for the S-Class

June 20, 2005

You'll notice on today's edition of TCC, we've posted pictures of the new Benz S-Class. Some of you out there already have checkbooks in hand. And maybe some of you are ready to start a petition like the one that telegraphed Bimmer fans' displeasure with the Chris Bangle team's 7-Series.

Yes, it seems like Mercedes is wandering off into art-car territory. The question is, will their foray be as critically skewered as BMW's venture?

Remember when the shape of German cars was predictable? The design philosophy of "one sausage, three sizes" was utterly predictable - but it worked, didn't it? You knew what a Benz looked like, and the Seventies S-Class still stands as one of the most functionally beautiful German auto designs I can think of - not to mention the car's legendary solidity and heft. Too, the first few generations of BMW 7-Series sedans were lovingly and favorably compared with bank vaults, not with the various Guggenheims and Gehry palaces scattered around the world.

Then things changed. Maybe it started when Benz erred too far into vault territory with the early 1990s S-Class, a steamer ship of a sedan if ever there were one. Still, Toyota thought enough of it to mimic the shape with the Lexus LS that lives with us today. BMW responded by deadening down the 7-Series, and Benz corrected with the most recent S-Class--a lithe luxury warrior of the highest caliber, at least from a styling perspective.

Today the big German guns are firing into strange directions. BMW's 7-Series is the poster child for taking artsy design themes too seriously. (After all, they're supposed to be "ultimate driving machines," not outdated rolling avant-gardisms.) The Benz Maybach is contrived from most exterior views, though not as overtly overstyled. You can count the Rolls Phantom in the same group, too.

The new S-Class dials things back a bit, but you can see hints of Maybach and even VW cropping up in its pronounced wheelhouses and sloping tail. At first glance, it doesn't seem like progress--and maybe it's too much to think that these hulking Germans ever will achieve the lyric beauty of Jaguars or even Cadillacs past. But is it a good idea to hitch your fortunes to a design wagon that doesn't have a clear sense of direction?

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