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Mercedes S600

Test venue: Mid Wales

Ask most people in the street to name their favourite super car and they would undoubtedly mention the Aston Martin Vanquish, a Ferrari, maybe even a Lamborghini or a Porsche Turbo, but I guarantee no-one would mention the range-topping Mercedes S 600 L, Stuttgart's revised entry into the limousine sector with its award-winning S Class.

From the outside the S 600 L looks like any other large executive saloon of its kind, with its box-like shape and cumbersome presence on the road. But sit behind the wheel of this car and you suddenly realise that the powertrain, all-round refinement and sheer performance are very special indeed.

The S 600 L is powered by an awesome new 5.5-litre, Mercedes V12 engine, with power boosted above 368 bhp by a pair of twin turbochargers with a water-cooled intercooler. The car is electronically restricted to 155 mph. It will catapult you to the legal speed limit in just 4.8 seconds and take you from 37-75 mph in just over five seconds.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Mercedes is the world's leading manufacturer of V12 passenger car engines and this unit develops a staggering 800 Nm of torque between 1800 and 3500 rpm. That is enough power to snap the rear end sideways in first or second gears on dry tarmac if you are not concentrating fully. The new engine is 36% more powerful than its predecessor. But it can be easily tamed and is easy to drive at low speeds in an urban environment.

Utilising the traction control system is crucial in this car. Acceleration can be brutal. It is also advisable to take a frequent look at the speedometer - the refined nature of the S 600 can often lead you into a false sense of security as far as your speed is concerned.

The S 600 L is not marketed or sold as a performance car. It is classified as a luxury executive model or a limousine and has a price tag to match its performance. S Class saloon models start at 45,515 for the S280, rising to 61,605 for the S 500. The limousine range starts at 51,550 for the S 320 CDI L, but the S 600 is another ball game altogether.

This car is offered for an on-the-road price of 89,765 and my test model would set you back a shade over 93,000 with all the additional accessories it carried. Not cheap by any means, but it is the complete car and still priced on a par with the Aston Martin DB7. S-Class currently has a 39.4% market share in its sector in the UK and was again voted Best Luxury Car at the prestigious What Car? awards.

S 600 L is as comfortable for any front or rear seat passenger as it is exhilarating for the driver. Cavernous leg room, excellent all-round visbility and all the luxuries you would associate with a car in its class are fitted as standard. S 600 carries Mercedes' new Distronic system (a new radar system to warn the driver and automatically slow the vehicle when faced with slower traffic ahead), which is excellent on motorways and in heavy congestion.

Power is transmitted to the rear wheels by a five-speed automatic gearbox and Active Body Control (ABC) front and rear suspension - fitted as standard on the S 600 L - gives the occupants the luxury in comfort even under spirited driving conditions. This almost eliminates body roll, wallow and vastly improves cornering and handling.

This car would be equally at home ferrying VIPs from Heathrow airport into London as it would crossing Wales at high speed in the dead of night. But the S 600's performance comes at a price; itonly does around 19 mpg and this falls off substantially if the engine is worked hard. Urban figures are as low as 12.2 mpg.

The car features the latest in crash safety technology, a satellite navigation system, the latest Keyless Go facility and an in-car telephone as standard. Keyless Go enables you to open the door or boot merely by touching a door handle, as a small chipcard communicates with the vehicle's electronic management system.

The entire range underwent a radical facelift at the end of last year, with new-look front bumpers, a larger radiator grille, new tail lights, a new headlamp design and numerous internal improvements, including a heated steering wheel. Both the long wheelbase S 500 and S 600 L are also offered with additional security features to provide protection against handgun, rifle or grenade attacks.....maybe a little over the top for most owners.

The S 600 L is the complete car. It is expensive to acquire and to run, but offers every luxury you could want in a limousine. Besides you could almost buy two S600s for the price of one Aston Martin Vanquish and comparing it with a Rolls Royce or Bentley is another story altogether.

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