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At $22,000-plus (AUD), the Mercedes 450SEL is probably a bargain - despite lacking air conditioning, headlight wipers, rear seat head restraints and limited slip diff as standard. It's a flagship that makes waves for other cars on the luxury market, says Jerry Sloniger.

IT IS ALL very well to build an automobile which must rank as the flagship of your already elite fleet, but there is a hook. You - in this case Mercedes - must remember that the frustrated admirals among your customers are going to pick a nit or two if only to prove they can.

450SEL

Presidents, Popes and Prime Ministers all have this common denominator: they are sure they could make a better car than the car maker.

In the case of Mercedes' 450SEL it isn't easy to find handles for your complaints (assuming one has the requisite mega-dollar price plus more for extras of course) but during some thousand miles of luxury living we did come across a couple of items which wouldn't pass a tough sea dog's inspection.

For one thing, there is the matter of those extras. Once you pay such money for mere transport ($22,000-plus in Australia), no matter how smooth, safe and fast it might be, it smacks of niggling to be charged extra for headlamp wipers, limited slip diff and rear head rests, not to mention air conditioning. Three or four grand for a car phone is something else. Write that off the next budget.

Hell, M-B has even dropped the air-ride suspension from earlier SEL models.

Standard, on the other hand, are the central locking system you soon learn to love, electric windows, inertia-reel belts built into the door posts and, of course, the panache of a three-pointed star. Along with extra rear leg room in an SEL. Being limousine-orientated it also comes with rear seat reading lights.

450SEL

TheThe fuel injected, ohc V8 engine fills the front compartment.

Up front - and who could really bear to leave so much sheer driving pleasure to the hired hands? - the 450SEL offers two easy-chair seats covered in best velour. They have moderate rolls of padding on either side and some lateral shoulder support, but Mercedes obviously expects its buyers to have more padding than we possess.

450SEL

Like the limited slip diff and rear seat head restraints, the headlight wash-wipe system is an option.

After a six-hour run both self and wife were complaining about poor support in the small of the back and of being pitched sideways far too often.

Basically Mercedes wants the customers to be comfortable, yes: but safe before that. Apart from needing less service than the previous air system, the all-steel springing gives a very stable platform at speed. But it also transmits more road jolting than you perhaps expect from a car of this class. And self-levelling costs extra. At least there is a Watts link to reduce nose lift-dive when accelerating or braking hard.

This long chassis rides better than the normal S models and it takes corners with neutral handling shading into mild understeer very neatly so that the two-ton machine can almost be driven like a sporty car. This tends to underline the lack of seat support, however.

Of course inertia-reel belts don't help here either, however comfortable otherwise. Tacitly admitting this, a senior body engineer at DB has figured out a way to lock his for mountain driving.

Along with this firm, safe ride you get steering no slower than the shorter car which means that it takes a mite more muscle with three turns lock to lock. Actually it is still light enough for easy parking and can even feel a shade too light the first time you get over 160 km/h (100 mph). After that you get along fine.

Brakes are so good you can trust the car at 190 km/h (120 mph) in freeway traffic despite its two-ton kerb weight but the wide, 70-series radials can get you into aquaplaning realms on wet days.

450SEL

The fuel injected, ohc V8 engine fills the front compartment.

450SEL

Driver's view doesn't vary that much from other S-models. Dials are large and the tacho now carries a quartz clock. Air-conditioning is optional.

Not everybody wants to do the car's maximum of 210 km/h (130 mph) of course. At a true 177 km/h (110 mph) the 4.5 litre V8 is only turning 5000 rpm against a 5800 red line and the interior decibel count is barely above 71. A true 112 km/h (70 mph) in top requires only 3200 rpm.

In short, the bigger engine, while only just enough for the bulk, is still noticeably quieter and easier than the 350 edition. Its power peaks lower and the final drive is higher to underline this effortless feel. Only an unaccustomed pillar wind noise (for new S Mercedes) disturbed our multi-speaker stereo enjoyment.

The electronic injection works well now. And while a back country mechanic might doubt this, the under-bonnet area has been cleaned up also.

Quite obviously, all the tuning and tricks in the world won't hold the thirst down if you propel this much flagship at speeds up around 190 km/h (120 mph) and a bit. Consumption for the test didn't quite make 5.3 km/l (15 mpg) although we saw nearly 7.1 km/l (20 mpg) through France. The petrol tank holds a good 95 litres (21 gal).

Despite added length the car still doesn't feel clumsy around town though the rear corners are out of sight. Even if you had the neck of a giraffe, those damn head rests would block rear quarter view. Do they cause more accidents than they save whip-lashed necks?

City driving is eased by the fact that all 450SEL Mercedes come with an automatic box; no options. This is the new three-speed torque-converter model, a vast step up from the old S version (which was no slouch for that matter).

Placed behind a big, powerful 168 kW (225 bhp), torquey 376 Nm (278 lb-ft) V8, the transmission gives velvet shifts, even on kickdown. Only flaws are a fast idle of some 1250 rpm when cold which makes tight manoeuvres tricky and a definite creep even on the normal 650 rpm idle.

Thanks to the surging power and instant response (apart from a sometimes-sticky throttle linkage) the 450SEL will steam out to 60 mph from 0 in less than 10 seconds (would be quicker but the upshift from I to II range comes at 55 mph). It goes on to 100 mph in less than 25 seconds and the box is so well matched to the engine that holding in each range only gains perhaps 1.4 seconds in your 0-100 mph time.

Cosseted by air conditioning, soothed by stereo, propelled effortlessly to 100 mph averages with true active safety - we'll just let the crusty bath tub admirals mutter into their buttered rums about the good old days.

450SEL

BackPart of what you pay for in the 450SEL is longer wheelbase (than the regular S models) and more rear legroom.