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Posts filed under ‘Mercedes’

Styling Misfires:
The Mercedes-Benz R-Class

February 1, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes Merc Benz R-Class RClass V251 Silver

Here’s yet another case of an automaker anticipating a trend that failed to materialize.

In the wake of the ’90s and early ’00s SUV boom, a raft of concept cars emerged of the “crossover” type, ostensible missing links between the car and the SUV, neither here nor there. Inevitably, some of these trickled into production, like the Chrysler Pacifica, Lincoln MKT and today’s subject, the Mercedes R-Class.

Arriving on our shores for the ’06 model year, the R-Class was among the first generation of crossovers, attempting to combine the interior space of a minivan with the cachet and more rugged image of an SUV. It was RWD and available with a number of engines, from a 3.0l, 190 hp V6 in the base model all the way up to the 6.2l, 500 hp V8 fitted to the AMG-tuned variant.

Mercedes Merc Benz R-Class RClass V251 Black

The R-Class’s sales never met Mercedes’ expectations, selling only around half of the automaker’s yearly goal here in the US. The company offered a number of excuses for the poor reception, such a perceived lack of fuel economy, market saturation and lackluster promotion.

The truth, I think, is a bit more simple: The R-Class is just an ugly car. Between the oddly upright headlights, jutting grille and bloated profile, it’s anything but a looker.

But not only is it unattractive, it’s ambiguous as well, a flaw traceable to its attempted all-things-to-all-people crossover nature. The anticipated market segment never really took hold; as it turns out, people seem to want cars that “know what they are,” so to speak, with a stronger sense of identity than the a stylistic and functional mashup like a crossover.

It’s ironic that the need for conviction in a design was lost on Mercedes when they developed the R-Class, since the very same automaker single-handedly created the “4-door coupe” niche with the bold, distinctive and confident first-generation CLS. You’d think they would have internalized the lessons from the CLS’s breakout, but the R-Class soldiers on into its very own second generation. With any luck, there will be a mercy killing before too long.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein I discuss unsuccessful cars whose styling was their overlooked (or denied) Achilles heel. Read the other installments here:

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The Mercedes-Benz R-Class

The “Best-Handling Car Ever” Wears Donuts?

January 15, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Donuts Spare Tires Tyres

In my July 15 post, I wrote:

I believe a “de-militarization” of the sports car arena is needed. Automakers need to take a deep breath and announce that the next iteration of a particular model will have *gulp* less power than the outgoing model. But in that same breath, they can hopefully also announce that its weight is lighter, it’s more efficient, and most significantly, that it’s more fun to drive. That lowering of the bandwidth would improve the cars we drive by bringing them back into focus for the average driver, and bring the driver up by encouraging and rewarding his involvement of in the act of driving. Win-win.

Chris Harris agrees, by way of an unusual experiment. Making the case that the absurdly narrow 255-section rear tires are completely inadequate to control the 480 hp emanating from the great whacking 6.2l V8 under the hood of the Mercedes C63 AMG coupe, rather than add more tire, he decides to go the other way and fit a set of 4 125-section space-saver spare tires (“donuts”) all around.

The results are entertaining, to say the least. He makes a great case for predictability as a handling attribute, noting that prodigious levels of tire grip can lull a driver into false sense of security—not to mention entice him to drive beyond his ability—until they abruptly let go at speeds where “things” could occur quite rapidly on the track, to say nothing of the street environment. Click on the jump below to watch the segment. It’s worth it.

Watch the clip!

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Mercedes Gets Its Pistons Back in a Row

October 27, 2011 by Matt

Mercedes Benz Merc M-B C36 AMG Engine Bay

Even as BMW tiptoes in the direction of abandoning their relationship with the straight-6 cylinder configuration, their arch-rivals at Mercedes-Benz seem set to reintroduce an engine featuring 6 cylinders all lined up, a layout they haven’t used for gasoline engines since they went all-V6 in ’99.

It’s yet another engine configuration shakeup as engineers scramble to find the new balance between their brand’s requirements and new efficiency and emissions regulations. The past half-decade has witnessed a remarkable downsizing of displacement and a virtual explosion of turbochargers, which have the promise of boosting the power of the smaller, more miserly engines. Whether or not they’re equipped with a turbo, the new inline-sixes from Mercedes stand a good chance of replacing larger engines at the same time they increase efficiency over the automaker’s outgoing V6s, mainly due to better manifold optimization and lower valvetrain loss (two camshafts vs four, etc). The only question I have concerns what I understand to be another major reason automakers are switching to smaller, shorter engines: The new EU frontal impact crash regulations. How will Mercedes square the additional length of an inline-6 over a V6 with the added crumple zone size required by the regulations?

If nothing else, it’s an interesting turn of events, and ensures that whatever BMW decides to do, the inline-6 won’t go be consigned to the dustbin of obsolete engine configurations (see: straight-8) just yet.

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Ridiculously Awesome:
’80s Tuner & Specialty Cars

October 26, 2011 by Matt

Gemballa Avalanche 911 Tuner Car 80s Black

I absolutely guarantee you that if I had known about any of these cars in the ’80s, a poster of one would have been immediately fixed to my bedroom wall. Forget that white Lamborghini Countach garbage; the customized German and Italian beauties featured on this site are where it’s at.

Or was at. The site is fascinating as a time capsule of ’80s car fashion as much as it is a showcase of the customizers’ talents. Tire and wheel technology being far less advanced than it is today, relatively small-diameter but massively wide tires steamroll underneath grotesquely swollen wide-body conversions. Most colors have a pastel or day-glo quality, and any additional electronics look like they were lifted from a Radio Shack catalog circa 1985.

300E W124 Mercedes Benz Merc M-B Hammer Red AMG

That said, the highlights of the site’s “collection” are too numerous to list in a concise manner, so I’ll just call out a few. The AMG 300E “Hammer” shown above is noteworthy for the “period” model selected to pose with the car. The Koenig and Gemballa Testarossas arguably improve on the stock car’s lines by getting rid of the side vents’ strakes. The Porsche 930-based Gemballa Avalanche (shown at top) and Mirage are awesome to behold, and the rainbow-pattern on the Buchmann 928 Targa’s seats is a nice touch, as are the location of the stereo controls (!).

BMW ABC Exclusive E24 635 635CSi Convertible Vert Cabriolet Cabrio Droptop

As a former BMW E24 6-series owner, I was particularly drawn to the ABC Exclusive E24 convertible. It’s so well done and the car looks so sleek it makes me wonder why BMW didn’t contemplate a factory version.

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’80s Tuner & Specialty Cars

Relaxed Motoring: The Karmann Ghia and 190SL

October 23, 2011 by Matt

Volkswagen VW Karmann Ghia

Speed isn’t the point here.

Neither is handling, or any of the cars’ dynamics, really. And truth be told, it’s not even exclusively about looks. Rather, the goal is a convergence of attributes, an overlap of good qualities in a very particular and specific way in order to create an impression, an aura, if you will, about them to their owners and those who observe them.

The two cars under consideration are the ’55-’71 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia—a rebodied VW Beetle, sharing its anemic but distinctive mechanicals—and the ’55-’63 Mercedes-Benz 190SL, which took the legendary 300SL Gullwing and excised all the “racing” from it, chopping the top, removing the spaceframe and substituting the fire-breathing, fuel-injected six for a sedate, carb’d four.

They’re both German cars with 4-cylinder engines, but on paper, those are really their only shared qualities. One has a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat four; the other’s engine is water-cooled, upright and in the front. They occupy significantly different price points, both when they were introduced and now, and they each arrived at their present configuration following different paths, the Karmann Ghia being a tarted-up Beetle, and the 190SL essentially a very detuned race car.

Mercedes-Benz Merc MB M-B 190SL 190 SL Roadster Cabriolet Convertible

So what’s the big deal?

They’re the sort of cars that create a universally positive impression about you on passers-by. Drive a straight sports or luxury car, no matter the make, and it’s virtually certain that there’s some segment of the population that will view you in a negative light. But I defy anyone to spy a well-kept Karmann Ghia or 190SL motoring along a high street on a sunny fall afternoon and not smile. They’re just pleasant cars; no pretension, no exhibition, just profoundly good taste—the automotive equivalent of every screen role Morgan Freeman has ever played. They’re classics, and their age and shape grants them a kind of gravitas that their deft proportions immediately play down. The cars are charming; they turn your head and encourage you to appreciate their simple elegance.

Full disclosure: I haven’t driven either. But I can visualize myself behind the wheel of a Karmann Ghia or 190SL and feel quite confident that the kind of emotion they would leave me with would be one of immense satisfaction, but without the artificial inflation so many cars create in various ways. They’re not meant to be powerful enough to go head-to-head against anything with even the power-to-weight ratio of the typical modern minivan. So no illusions there. And neither of them are achingly beautiful in a way that would mismatch with their owners—visualize a first-generation T-Bird driven by a 50-something, balding, overweight executive type and you get the idea. So their design isn’t meant to “overcome” anything; they just are, and you hold the knowledge of both their dynamic and aesthetic status as you drive. Driving the Karmann Ghia or 190SL instills the sense that you’ve got nothing to prove, and there’s something liberating about that.

Really, for graceful motoring that radiates goodwill and charm, it doesn’t get any better.

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The Ones That Got Away, Part VI

August 26, 2011 by Matt

1990 Mercedes-Benz W126 420SEL Sedan

I should’ve stuck up for this one.

Pictured above is my dad’s old ’90 Mercedes-Benz 420SEL. It’s a long wheelbase, 4.2l V8-engined example of the celebrated W126 series, the second-to-last (the smaller W124 was the last) of the classic “money no object” Mercs. The quality of the car was palpable: The paint was a foot-deep glossy enamel, the doors opened and closed with Swiss watchmaker precision and a bank-vault-like thunk, the ride and dynamics were absolutely serene and interior materials were made to last 50 years. The whole car represented the diametrical opposite of the “planned obsolescence” carmarking philosophy.

1990 Mercedes-Benz W126 420SEL Sedan

My dad bought it from a family friend in early ’05; the friend had owned the car for years and was reluctantly parting with it, having been talked out of keeping it in favor of a newer Buick. I recognized the car for what it was back then: Something special. When my family lived in Europe during the late ’80s, our family car was a Euro-spec W123 280E, and the 420SEL’s quality and overall demeanor reminded me very much of my childhood experiences of the earlier Merc.

1990 Mercedes-Benz W126 420SEL Sedan Interior

It was familiar, and I think my dad felt that too; he and I have always shared a unique nostalgia for our time overseas. It was a big boat of a car, but smells and sounds felt like home. I drove it alone a few hours to the beach later that summer, and I loved every minute of it–the big Merc was a magnificent trip car.

Problems soon set in, though. The engine’s old L-Jet fuel injection system began to misbehave about a year into my dad’s ownership, and the car was never quite right afterward, with a loping idle and occasional stumbles in the rev range. He had trouble finding a mechanic who knew his way around older Mercs, too, so although the issues were ameliorated somewhat, they were never completely resolved. Fuel economy for the big, heavy, V8-powered tank wasn’t anything to write home about, either.

The summer of 2009 rolled around, and with it, the infamous Cash-for-Clunkers program. At the time, my parents owned three cars, one of them the 420SEL. Eager to pare the inventory down to two, and desirous of something a bit more miserly at the pump, my dad decided to clunker the blue Merc in favor of a new Ford F150. My heart sank when I heard his plans, but at the time, there was little I could have done to rescue the car. Our finances were still in a precarious state, and there was no way I could have scraped together anywhere near the $4500 the government (read: us) would give my dad to trade it in. So the stately, gorgeous W126, built to last 400,000 miles, was led to the slaughter, nothing wrong with it that half an hour with a older Merc specialist probably couldn’t have sorted out. The previous owner was shocked when he heard the car’s fate, but he respected my dad’s right to make that decision. I do too, but truth be told, I wish I could have found a way to assume ownership. It was a princely machine.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series relating stories of cars I almost acquired, whether though purchase or trade. Read the other installments here:

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A Brace of Blacks

July 26, 2011 by Matt

Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Coupe Black Series

Three, actually, if you count both Mazdas. Hot on the heels of Mercedes’ recent unveiling of their tectonic C63 AMG Coupe Black Series, Mazda has released a pair of UK-only cosmetic packages for their MX-5 roadster and Mazda 2 hatchback: The Black Sport and Black, respectively. I guess you can’t copyright a color if it’s part of a car’s name.

In keeping with the tradition of earlier Black Series cars, Mercedes has stuffed an earth-moving 6.2l, 509 hp V8 under the hood and outfitted the body with aerodynamic touches and DTM-style boxy fender flares. The peripheral mechanical organs are upgraded as well, the suspension is stiffened and the interior receives race-like buckets, among other details.

I have to admit I’m still at a bit of a loss as to what exactly Mercedes is trying to achieve with the car. Are they going for the hardcore track day enthusiasts? If so, why not strip even more weight out of the car and push the specifications further into racer territory, like BMW did with their (overpriced) M3 GTS? At least the car is equipped with a dual-clutch manual as opposed to a traditional automatic, as in the unloved SLR McLaren. If they’re after the typical Mercedes customer who wants a bit, well, more, surely the idea of trundling along the highway in butt-hugging Recaros, knowing every plebeian in a Mustang GT is eying the garish fender flares is somewhat…beneath them, no? As with previous Black Series powerhouses, this one seems like it suffers from something of an identity crisis. That said, I’m sure it goes like stink.

For Mazda’s part, the changes to the cars in question aren’t nearly as extensive, but it’s still interesting that they’d assign the name “Black” to the option packages, given the German automaker’s prominent use of it for several years now. Perhaps limiting them to the UK market dampens any potential trademark conflict; who knows.

Mazda 2 Black

The MX-5 Black Sport and Mazda 2 Black basically offer a limited exterior and interior palette, special gunmetal-colored wheels and in the case of the Mazda 2 Black, a black vinyl roof. That’s pretty much it. Nice to move some volume, but I wouldn’t run around bragging to all my friends and relatives that I had purchased a limited-edition Mazda Black! Just not really worth it, you know?

Exit question: With the “claiming” of random letters of the alphabet by the in-house tuning divisions of various automakers (Cadillac has V, BMW claims M, Lexus nabbed F and Audi has spoken for S and possibly R as well), are colors the next logical step in staking out a brand’s special-edition territory? Might we see, say, an Acura “Blue Line” or a Dodge “Orange Blast” some time in the near future?

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Evolutionary Leaps:
Mercedes’ Styling Transitions

June 29, 2011 by Matt

M-B CLS and W210

Most new cars have a tendency to catch my eye the first time or two I see them, especially if the design is particularly noteworthy (the first-generation Audi TT did this especially well). And while groundbreaking designs succeed in eliciting stares for a longer period of time than the aesthetic shelf life of most other new cars, even envelope-pushers reach the point where they don’t provoke more than a quick glance, if that. The newness and originality wears off.

There is one car, however, that catches my attention every time I see it, and so far, is still fresh after being on the market for 7 years: The first-generation Mercedes-Benz CLS. My first thought when I saw a picture of it in a magazine: “They’re really going to make that?” I don’t suppose the question would have carried as much weight had it been directed at a company with less of an upper-crust, staid and conservative reputation, but when applied to M-B, the appearance of the CLS was jarring, akin to Billy Graham being seen sporting a hot pink leisure suit.

Except that in Mercedes’ case, it actually, well…works. As intractable a curmudgeon as Jeremy Clarkson declared, concerning the CLS’s looks:

So far as I’m concerned this is certainly the most spectacular looking car Mercedes has made and possibly one of the all time greats from anywhere.

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but regardless of whether you feel the car is hot or not, it’s indisputably a bold departure from the more upright, stately profile Benzes had had up to that point. In other words, even if it doesn’t appeal to me subjectively, I can’t argue that the car’s looks aren’t bold. Gutsy. Aesthetically courageous.

It isn’t the first time Mercedes has done this. Back in the mid-’90s, they replaced their much-beloved midsize W124 E-Class with the W210. That changeover was arguably a bigger styling gamble than even the CLS—most notably, the headlights went from unassuming and rectangular to brash and ovoid, well, overnight. The new look turned off a lot of traditional customers of the brand, but Mercedes stuck with it, refined the idiom and applied it, in varying degrees of boldness, to other cars in their lineup. Lo and behold, it “took,” the buying public warmed to it, and the new design direction freed the automaker from a self-imposed evolutionary approach to styling. Upper management, which must have been quaking in their boots when the W210 was released, breathed a collective sigh of relief, and the kind of atmosphere that allowed Benzes like the later CLS was created.

As a designer, it’s always nice when the qualities of beautiful and significant converge, like when a band creates music that is not only great to listen to, but also influential and popular. Those qualities, in design as well as music, don’t always come as a package deal. That said, I’m still always ready to acknowledge designs which may not be dripping with curb appeal, but whose arrival resonates with stylists. It’s the influential designs that fascinate me, not necessarily the beautiful ones. Even if automakers get lucky sometimes.

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Mercedes’ Styling Transitions