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Saturday, January 26th, 2013

Midnight Run

First things first: the check-engine light from a few days ago had reset itself by the time I turned the car on tonight, so I guess I was right about the hose—and you should feel free to join me in exhaling deeply.

But more to the point, I just got back from a random 100-mile midnight drive on the 101, top up for a change, and I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs about the 500 Benz's highway manners.

Growing up, I only drove Japanese cars, so I couldn't independently verify the familiar car-review claim that German engineering yields superior high-speed results. I mean, it made sense—I was well aware, and endlessly envious, that some German highways don't have speed limits—but I could only imagine what the engineering differences actually felt like.

All I knew was that Japanese sport coupes like the 1993 Honda Prelude Si I had in college were fine up to about 80 mph, at which point they started to convey that maybe that kind of cruising was above their pay grade.

Well, at 80 mph, my friends, it turns out that the 500 Benz is, in the immortal words of L.L. Cool J, "just getting warm."

You can see in the photo above that the M119 V8 is barely doing 2,000 rpm at 75 mph. Stretch it to 90, not that I'd know, and you're looking at maybe 2,700 rpm. This is close to Corvette gearing, i.e., 5th gear in the 500 Benz is one tall drink of water. You basically can't even hear the engine till well into triple digits. I remember my old Hondas—Prelude Si, 1995 Integra GS-R, 2001 Prelude—would hit 4,000 rpm by 80 mph, and there was a constant four-cylinder drone through the firewall to remind you of it. So the M119's blase attitude at speed is Exhibit A.

Exhibit B is the eerily consistent driving character between 60 mph and, oh, [redacted in case the CHP is listening in]. That's partly down to the easygoing V8, but it's also got to do with road and wind noise: there's little of the former to speak of, and while the latter varies depending on wind direction (the soft-top can get blustery around the B-pillar area), it seems to reach terminal volume in any case by about 60, so going faster than that doesn't significantly increase ambient sound levels.

And then there's Exhibit C: ride quality. Now, I've been chasing some wheel/tire demons since I bought the car, so unfortunately there's often a little flutter in the seats at highway speeds. I had a specialty shop examine everything a couple months ago, and the verdict was that the wheels were perfectly balanced, and I should have sprung for the OEM Michelins—the Dunlops that I got a sweet deal on weren't playing nice with the stock Mercedes rims. I find this highly annoying if true. But despite the flutter, there's a preternatural confidence in the way the 500 Benz goes down the road. It's more akin to a high-speed train than a Honda. As the scenery blurs, the car just keeps feeling more planted, more secure, evincing what old-school Car and Driver might have called "an unshakable sense of straight-ahead." Only special cars do this. It's one of those traits that have always separated autodom's wheat from its chaff, and in this respect the 500 Benz is firmly on the right side of history.

Okay, one more: Exhibit D would be the Bose stereo, which is powerful enough that it, too, sounds pretty much the same no matter how fast you're going. There's something exceptionally civilized about a rapid cruise set to concert-quality sound. Truth be told, the Bose isn't sufficiently crisp or "bright" to compete with today's best sound systems, a topic to which I'll eventually return in a full stereo review, but it's damn impressive for what it is. Sailing along in the passing lane with Vybz Kartel's "Yuh Love" thumping warm, distortion-free bass through the standard subwoofer, it's hard not to think to oneself, "Glad I didn't get an S2000."

(Watch the clip, by the way—it's the first known music video to feature both a Ferrari 599 and a simulated baby bump.)

Add it all up, and you've got more than enough to justify a spontaneous midnight joyride. The 500 Benz recasts a 100-mile freeway slog as an end in itself, a first-hand documentary on what it means to build a car for the autobahn. Someday, when we get serious about Drivers' Ed like the Germans, maybe there will be some unrestricted sections of American highways where cars—and drivers—with the requisite talents can legally do their thing.

posted in: Driving Impressions  


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