Secondhand Saint: Mercedes-Benz S55 AMG, S65 AMG, S600 (2003-2006)

The S600, the top of the line, non AMG, S-Class

Ah, Mercedes-Benz.  Just the name brings up thoughts of expensive country clubs, upper-class attitudes, and feelings of being in the 1%.  Their flagship sedan, the S-Class, has always been a leader in its market since the 1970s, and despite the high entry price, still sells itself better than the competition.  The previous-generation W220 was the one that brought this fantastically flashy flagship into the 21st century, and now some of the most powerful ones (namely, those with some sort of forced induction) can be had for a fraction of their original value.  For reasons that shall be discussed later, we’re going to focus on the S55 and S600, as the S65 is significantly harder to find even today.         

In 2003, the W220 had been on sale for three years, and Mercedes-Benz wanted to give the lineup a mid-cycle refresh under the hood. This came in the form of new engines for the S55 AMG and S600.  The S600, the non-AMG S-Class flagship, got a big upgrade in the form of a brand-new twin-turbocharged V12 (in this case, a 5.5L unit) pushing out a healthy 493hp, while the already-established S55 became home to a new supercharged version of AMG’s already well-known 5.5L V8, with the same amount of power as the S600 (although with less torque).  Two years later, the boys at AMG gave the S-Class a new crown, in the form of the almighty S65 AMG, which flaunted a brand-new 6.0L twin-turbo V12, pushing out 604hp and over 700 lbs-ft of torque–an engine still in use in the current S65 (the current S600 is also still using the old engine as well).  All of them used a five-speed automatic transmission (also still in use in the V12 models of today) with manual shifting capabilities.

Of course, these being derivatives of the Mercedes S-Class, there’s so much more than engine to these three super-sedans.  All of them are capable of absurd speeds in utmost comfort, surrounded by the latest technological gadgetry available at the time.  All three used the COMAND navigation and driver interface, regarded as being a more useable alternative to BMW’s iDrive, and each came equipped with traction and stability control (although the AMG models were probably still capable of outwitting their traction control systems), a brake assist (new at the time), automatic trunk and door closer (which were optional), and optional keyless ignition.  Interior quality, of course, was the top of the range, as was the overall build quality.  They all feature excellent suspension balance (a smooth ride, yet well-behaved handling for their size), and sound-deadening that could shame the best recording studios.  They had prices to match, too–in 2006, the S55 retailed for about $115K, the S600 for about 128K, and the S65 for a wallet-obliterating $170,000–before options, delivery, or the required gas-guzzler taxes.  This, of course, brings me to these cars’ drawbacks.

The 604bhp, 738ft/lbs, S65 AMG. See what it can do in the video below.

If something has a gas-guzzler tax on it, don’t expect to go cheap on fuel.  With 93-octane fuel a non-negotiable requirement, and the fact that none of these cruisers sip fuel, be prepared to ask for a  raise.  And, these being Mercedes products, parts and maintenance are very expensive as well.  But, if you want to drive like an aristocrat, expect to pay for the privilege.  The electronics systems are prone to failure occasionally as well, which means big repair bills too, so make sure everything works properly.  All that said, there are plenty of ways to personalize these cars, as quite a few aftermarket companies produce body kits for the W220 S-Class.  The engines are capable of producing much more power than advertised–in fact, the S65’s engine had to be held to 738 lbs-ft of torque–the design limit for the transmission.

Thanks to big depreciation and high gas prices, these examples of Mercedes-Benz’s best can be had for a price the 99% can largely afford.  The S55 and S600 sold well for the time, but the S65 did not thanks to the significantly higher entry price and shorter life cycle.  The secondhand market prices do reflect this fact very clearly.  The S55 and S600 were priced similarly when new and had similar numbers, so their market prices are fairly close.  Despite this, the S55 outnumbers the S600 slightly. A good twin-turbo S600 can be had for anywhere from $15K to $35k, with the vast majority going for about 15-25 grand, and the S55 can be found for about the same amount, if a bit more.  The S65, meanwhile, is outnumbered significantly by the S55 and S600, with prices on the used market being significantly higher; prices start right where the S600 ends (for the most part), around 35 large, and top out at over $50,000.  These prices represent a significant amount of depreciation, with the rates being anywhere from 65% to as much as 80%.  If you can afford the upkeep, fuel costs, and be able to fit one in a garage, these old W220 S-Class models are a great idea, and an excellent way to look like the 1%.

Nicely modded S55 AMG. With upgrades, this one is putting out around 600hp. Goes to show that the extra money for an S65 is not all that worth it in many regards.

But, the question remains: who should buy these? If your afraid of high running costs but love luxury, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a luxury sedan that is more at home on backroads, go for something else. These weren’t available with AWD, so if that’s a priority, go look for an Audi S8. But, if you’re the type who loves a big, comfy, high-powered sedan with the utmost in brand snobbery and scads of tech all in one package, these forced-induction Benzes are pretty hard to beat.

-Al

As a bonus, here’s a video of a W221 S65 racing a Murcielago. Again, the newer model may look different, but the engine and transmission are identical to the old W220. This just goes to show how impressive these sedans really are.

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