BEEN SCRATCHING my head trying to figure out what bothers me about the Mercedes-Benz 500SEC. I think it's a case of status discrepancy. I've never had servants. This car comes with a full staff.
Some of the helpers are scary -- like that electromechanical arm that reached past my shoulder when I turned on the ignition.
"Whaaat . . . .?!!" I shouted when the arm first appeared. Then I looked -- and laughed. Dummy! Should've read the operator's manual. That arm was reaching out with my seatbelt.
Other 500SEC servants are less obtrusive. They include buttons that raise and lower headrests; buttons that move front seats up and down, back and forth; buttons that tell a computer to memorize seat adjustments; and bun-buttons -- those that warm the car's four seats in winter. Also in the lineup is an amazingly accurate automatic climate control system.
Such automotive servitude gives new meaning to the term "fat cat." Anyone who eats regularly and who drives the 500SEC every day is bound to become one.
Outstanding complaint(s): That Becker stereo system. The folks at Daimler-Benz, maker of Mercedes-Benz cars and trucks, ought to get rid of Becker. That sound system is not much of a system at all, certainly not in a car as grand as the 500SEC. The push- button bass and treble functions are woefully inept at yielding the correct sound mix. Overall sound reproduction and radio signal retention are inferior, particularly when compared with the performance of auto stereo units by Blaupunkt, Delco and Alpine.
The 500SEC simply deserves better.
This one's a nitpick. But there shouldn't be any flaws in fit and finish on a car that costs as much as the annual salary of a mid-grade GS- 15 federal employee. Someone should fix that dangling plastic cover under the outside- mirror control lever on the driver's side of the test car.
Outstanding praise: Overall ride and handling were excellent. The 500SEC is one of the safest cars on the road. Credit Daimler- Benz/Bosch for producing a superb antilock braking system. Simply put, antilock brakes use computer control to prevent wheels from locking during panic stops, regardless of road surface conditions. I tested the system in the rain on an abandoned parking lot -- doing a hard stop from a top speed of about 40 mph. No lock. No skid. No sway. Hooray!
Warning: Antilock brakes improve braking and driving stability and steering control. They aren't designed to compensate for wrongheadedness like 70 mph on rain-slick highways.
The 500SEC also comes equipped with a driver-side-only airbag, which Mercedes-Benz calls a Supplemental Restraint System (to be used in conjunction with seatbelts). Nuts to the debate over whether airbags should be installed in cars. I felt safer with one.
Head-turning-quotient: The 500SEC excited parvenus. The old money hardly noticed. Mileage: About 14 miles per gallon in urban traffic and 16 mpg on the highway. The 500SEC weighs 3,715 pounds and is powered by a 5-liter, V-8 engine. Unleaded fuels only.
Price-as-tested: $57,800, including a $1,000 "gas-guzzler tax." If you blinked, forget it.