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FIELD OF DREAMS

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sun, Mar 18, 2007

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

DRIVING THE CHILDHOOD DREAM By Zoran Segina

If you grew up somewhere in Eastern Europe after the Second World War, in a country firmly on its way to "ism" the only people who regularly used Mercedes Benz automobiles fell into two groups. The first group was usually driven around by sullen-looking chauffeurs, and, although theirs technically and dialectically belonged to the people, most of us, i.e., the people, never really had the chance to sit in any of them. Our interaction with these cars consisted of standing by the side of the road and waiving appropriately colored flags, while the cars passed by. My country did not have a developed car industry, and our leaders, as a consequence of having split with the Soviet Union, were not obliged to follow the Great Homeland's choice of executive transportation. To show the complete ideological separation of the two "isms" and our country's bright and correct path to the future, our leaders wisely chose West-German made Mercedes-Benz over Soviet-made Volga and Zil. The uniform choice of color was black. The fact that the Germans were erstwhile invaders was dialectically disregarded. The second group of Mercedes-Benzes were true peoples' cars. They also came with a driver and were available to anybody. These, however, did not belong to the people, and required paying a fare to the driver. They were known as taxis, and, almost without exception, were diesel powered. The reasons behind diesel powerplants were both technical and dialectical. In those days, diesel engines were far more durable than gasoline and, proportionately, consumed substantially less fuel. Our mechanics were good, but the West German spare parts were hard to come by (unless you belonged to the first group of Mercedes-Benz users). So much for the technical reasons. As for the dialectical reasons, most of the country used heating oil furnaces to keep warm in winter - and the chemical composition of the heating oil is almost identical to the diesel fuel. The heating oil was not encumbered with all the taxes and impositions slapped on the diesel for cars, and was substantially cheaper to buy. After all, automotive fuel could be considered luxury, but heating oil could not. Pouring cheaper heating oil into the tank of a diesel powered car was, of course, technically illegal, but people approached it more from a dialectic standpoint. As a result, the country went through chronic shortages of heating oil in the winter, but taxis ran on time. Perhaps that was the reason why sitting in a diesel-powered taxi gave one such a warm feeling, and why thousand-gallon tanks were selling surprisingly briskly for a small country like mine. Ever since then, I have found the sound of the Mercedes diesel engine reassuring. First, the driver turned the ignition to warm the coils. Several seconds later, he pushed the big black button, and the engine sprang to life with that solid familiar metallic sound. The taxis moved with a resolute steady speed, with no fast acceleration or sporty moves. People spent their lifetime savings to obtain a Mercedes and turn it into a taxi. These cars were considered bread-earners and treated with care and respect. They were supposed to last a long, long time, and almost all of them did. And then there was that silver star on top of the curvaceous hood. During the ride I would stare at the world through the shining Mercedes emblem as it sliced the intersections and the roads. To the little kid, it seemed that the rest of the car was merely following the star to its destination. In a city where most people moved on foot, or in public transportation, hiring a cab was not an everyday event. And traveling around in a Mercedes-Benz taxi was a special treat.

Fast forward several years. Okay, decades. When I learned I would have a 2007 Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec for a week, it mattered little that I had make a round trip from San Diego to Los Angeles to pick it up. That very week our family - the Tall Girl and I - had Kate and Lucy as guests. Kate and Lucy are two lovely, bright, and beautiful daughters of my late best friend and his recently deceased wife. To cheer them up for the Christmas holidays, we brought them to California, and then took them to the Disneyland, the Sea World and the Zoo, which brought the whole family to San Diego. Were the test vehicle some other car, the inconvenience of location could easily override the curiosity of the journalist. But this Mercedes was an illustrious successor to the diesel-powered people's cars of my youth. This was my own taxi, and I did not have to step out of it after short ride. One does not turn down fulfilling a childhood dream. As I serenely drove my own taxi to pick up my passengers, my thoughts turned to the Einstein's theory of relativity. It was prompted by my observation that a hundred-and-thirty-five mile trip seems significantly shorter behind the wheel of a 2007 Mercedes Bluetec sedan than behind the wheel of an eleven-year Volvo 960. Fascinating. Outside, the new Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec looks just any other E-Class sedan. The button to start the car is not the black button of yore. The Bluetec has a remote electronic ignition system, which lets the driver start the car with the push of the button on the shifter, as long as the key fob is anywhere inside the car. On the next cold morning in Mission Bay, my pressing of the button lit a familiar warning light indicating glow plug operation. A split second later, the Bluetec wakes up with a muted version of the characteristic diesel engine sound. As soon as the car warms up, the sound is gone. In fact, most people would be hard pressed to hear any difference between this car and a gas-powered model. Under the hood, behind the silver star, my taxi has nothing to do with the Benzes I remember. A new-generation 3.0-liter, 72-degree V6 diesel engine has four valves per cylinder, and dual overhead camshafts. Centrally located injectors spray fuel directly into the center of the combustion chamber, to ensure an even dispersion of fuel. The aluminum block with cast-in steel cylinders has an 83 millimeter bore and 92 mm stroke, in part to produce the high compression needed to make intake air hot enough for ignition. To neutralize vibration inherent to V6 engines, a balance shaft located in the block between the cylinder banks counter-rotates at the same speed as the crankshaft. The intake and exhaust valves are operated by twin overhead camshafts in each cylinder bank. The Bluetec engine has a relatively low compression ratio (for a diesel) of 16.5:1, but is equipped with the turbocharger (sporting a variable turbine geometry and an intercooler). A sophisticated computer throttles one of the two diesel intake ports on each cylinder creating air turbulence to optimize the combustion process. The fuel pressure on the injectors inside the Bluetec engine is a whopping twenty-three thousand pounds per square inch (compared to a common marine diesel engine powering the sailboats on the Mission Bay which generally has a fuel pressure of less than three thousand pounds per square inch.) The days of a mechanical injection pump's gradual fuel pressure build-up for each cylinder, which made the old Mercedes taxis so slow, and so sexy, are long gone. A traditional injector continuously exposed to ten tons of pressure per square inch, however, would soon start shedding its components through the tailpipe. For that reason, the Bluetec injectors are durable and use a piezo-ceramic element whose crystalline structure changes shape within 0.1 milliseconds when electric current is applied. As a result, the injectors are lighter and twice as fast as conventional solenoid valves. Inside my dream taxi everything is where it's expected. The central shifter with a seven-speed adaptive automatic transmission allows this cabby to move around San Diego in full automatic or manual mode. In front of me is the dashboard with the speedometer in the center, flanked by a large analog dial clock to the left, and a prominent tachometer to the right. The temperature and fuel gauges are electronic, but have a traditional analog vertical look. The upper lever on the left controls cruising speed, the lower one wipers and lights. Four buttons on the steering wheel allow me to flip through the data fields unobtrusively displayed in front. The Klima Anlage (I always liked this German term for the automatic climate control on the control buttons of the Mercedes taxis back home) is logical and simple to use. And right beneath the air conditioning controls - the navigation screen. A soft but resolute female voice tells me to turn left and right - very handy in the confusing mess of concrete spaghetti known as the San Diego County freeway network. I can just imagine the reaction of the venerable cabbies back home if I told them that one day there would be an electronic map of the entire city right in front of them; that a black triangle would show their location; and that after they type in the address, a woman will guide them, turn by turn to the destination. I would have been dismissed as a lunatic. Integrated in the center display is a Harman/Kardon premium audio system with six-disc CD changer.

Kate and Lucy absorb the impressions of the new world through an enormous sliding glass sunroof. If the sun is too hot, a push on the button will unfurls a protective roller shades from within the center of the beam connecting black painted B-pillars. The closing of the trunk (filled with the girls' shopping bags) requires a gentle touch on a power button. So my passengers and I blissfully glide around San Diego in automatic mode. The seven-speed automatic not only adapts to changes in road grade, but also to my driving style. The transmission computer adjusts shifting logic for leisurely driving with smooth upshifts at low engine speed for the best fuel efficiency. The Bluetec uses S-Class suspension design and technology. In front, there is a double-wishbone layout, with a two-piece lower wishbone; the rear sits on the five-link suspension adapted in aluminum. The recirculating ball of yore has been replaced with power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering with 2.8 turns lock-to-lock. The system boosts steering assist at low speeds for easier low-speed maneuvering and parking, and reduces it at higher speeds for improved and feedback. This car can be blindingly quick for a diesel-powered Mercedes. The almost four hundred pounds of torque turn the four thousand pound car into a rocket when accelerating, and the vented discs offer reassuring stopping power. As to the handling limits of the Bluetec, ESP and all - well, this is the one test car I cannot subject to such punishment. Readers of automotive publications expect that the reviewers will provide them with accurate information about the tested vehicles, including how the cars behave under extreme conditions. The data about skidpad handling, acceleration, stopping distance, and the journalists' impressions, allow the people to determine whether a reviewed car is the one they want and need. A potential customer focused primarily on commuter is unlikely to search among two-seat coupes equipped with Brembo brakes and powered by four-hundred-horsepower V-8s. For that reason, the review should include an impression about the vehicle when pushed close to its handling limit. Except that this car was my childhood taxi, the one that was never to be driven agressively. Under my command, the Bluetec's tachometer rarely climbs above two thousand RPMs. I cannot recall whether I ever babied any test car the way I did this one. And perhaps for that reason, I am pleased to report the actual fuel consumption in one simple word - phenomenal. Let's see. The Bluetec was taken from Long Beach to Los Angeles, than to San Diego; we used it in and around San Diego extensively; it was then taken back fully loaded with four passengers to Los Angeles by coastal route (so that Kate and Lucy could see as much of California as possible), and I still had about a quarter tank of diesel left. Twenty six miles per gallon in town, and thirty five on the freeway. Easy. We moseyed around. Above my head, a button marked "SOS" in the ceiling near the rear-view mirror can summon emergency response in the case of a severe collision. The Mercedes-Benz Tele Aid system is activated when any of the belt tensioners or airbags deploys, generating a direct call to an emergency response center over a dedicated, crash-secure cellular line and redundant antennas. The information contains exact vehicle location, plus full information on the car model and color for quick recognition by emergency services. On Saturday, I could have sold it. Twice. The first offer on the Bluetec came from my friend Gin and his wife Suzy, successful small business owners in Santa Monica. They are so dismayed with the gas powered engines that he wants to buy a Dodge Sprinter, an American version of the Mercedes diesel Furgon (which has been delivering goods throughout Europe for decades). Given that the family already owns several high-end Mercedes products, any hint of an offer from Suzy and Gin should be taken seriously. Another inquiry came an hour later from a man who pulled beside me at the intersection. "Would you be willing to sell this car to me, and for how much" the driver inquired: "I've been looking for weeks to buy it."

How could my diesel taxi, my childhood dream car, inspire such a buying frenzy here, where anything involving four wheels and an internal combustion engine is available almost immediately? Because, as I later found out, the Bluetec, being a true dream car, is unattainable. And unobtainable. The reason lies in the dialectic reasoning of our chosen representatives. The country is different, and half a century has gone by, but the California leaders stand firm in their unwavering ideological resolve to guide my new homeland's onto the bright - and the only correct - path to the future. As a result of this new "ism" the Bluetec is illegal in California. Our Air Resources Board adopted the EPA's Tier II, Bin 5 emission standard two years before the rest of the country. The Bluetec meets the less strict Bin 8 standard, which makes is clean enough for nine tenths of the United States. But not for us. We sure showed the rest of the dirty world how things ought to be. dialectically speaking. Never mind that introducing the cleanest and the most frugal commercially available internal combustion engine on the planet would help California keep the pollution and fuel consumption down. If all cars came with EPA average of 25 mpg/city and 37 on the highway wouldn't we pollute less? Perhaps save some money? Save on strategic oil reserves. How about a temporary waiver for the Bluetec technology? Almost half the cars in Europe run on diesel because of the stratospherically expensive fuel. Which, of course, is not the case here, in the land of the three-dollar-plus-per gallon gasoline. At least the old guard in the old country had a foresight to recognize that the German cars are better than the Soviet ones. The culprit is noxious fumes -NOx or nitrogen oxide emissions. Diesel engines usually operate with lots of excess air, and produce less carbon oxides than a gasoline engine. The high combustion pressure and temperatures, however, pump out more nitrogen oxides, which contribute to photo-chemical smog. The production of soot is minimized by centrally located injectors, and an oxidation catalyst in the exhaust. Although the Bluetec has a designated particulate filter in the exhaust, to trap microscopic particles, enough of them still escape in the eyes of the leaders of our "(environmental) ism." The solution - installing a urinal in the Bluetec. First, it would eliminate the need for the usage of adult diapers on the long-distance-non-stop solo trips undertaken with an objective to neutralize romantic rivals. There is potentially a huge market in that segment. Second, when uric acid is injected into pre-cleaned exhaust gas, released ammonia converts nitrogen oxides into harmless nitrogen and water. For those who deem a pissoir in a German sedan misplaced, a module known as selective catalytic reduction, or AdBlue injection could be installed. A water-based urea solution is carried in its own small tank and metered into the exhaust in minute quantities, so small that the tank only needs to be refilled during routine scheduled maintenance. This process creates the most effective method of exhaust gas after-treatment currently available. In Europe, AdBlue injection has already proven effective in more than ten thousand Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicles, and could make the Bluetec diesel as clean as a state-of-the-art gasoline engine. Those of us who had a pleasure to drive another automotive pride of the German industrial might - an East German Wartburg powered by a three-cylinder-two-stroke-fifty horsepower-engine (talk about the pollution there) - had to carry in the trunk small bottles of two stroke engine oil. We would pour it in the tank before refueling, step on the bumper and try to shake the mixture - like that guy in a commercial who is shaking a cow trying to make a milkshake. For us, carrying small bottles of uric acid in the trunk presents no problem. . . . For us, the old timers, the Bluetec should come in the model called Tradizion, perhaps a little slower and tad noisier than the standard issue. Traditional diesel engines have that certain industrial quality. A deliberate metallic staccato of a well-tuned diesel has a certain brutal, yet charming masculinity. It invokes images of a contraption hauling his owner around because they both have to work for a living. A true diesel aficionado will be able to discern all the inner working parts of his idling engine. Some of us crave the rattling of the pebbles in a can, and enjoy the slow meander up the torque curve. The heck with zero to sixty in 6.6 seconds. What kind of devilish diesel is that? SUMMARY JUDGMENT The answer for the "non-traditional" rest of you - the best damn thing that ever came down the Stuttgart pike -technically and dialectically.

For more information on Mercedes-Benz products, go to www.mbusa.com. SPECIFICATIONS Name of vehicle: Price: Engine: 72-degree V6 aluminum with iron cylinder liners EPA estimated mileage - city/highway 26 mpg / 35 mpg Horsepower: 208 @ 3,800 rpm Torque: 400 (lbs-ft.) @ 1,600-2,400 rpm Intake and Management: Common-rail direct diesel injection, VNT turbocharger, intercooler, compression ignition; Bosch CDI electronic injection with pilot injection, fuel pressure 23,200 psi. Transmission: Seven-speed electronically controlled automatic with Touch Shift Suspension: Four-wheel independent with Electronic Stability Program, and Traction control Front: Upper and lower control arms, coil springs, gas-charged shock absorbers, stabilizer bar Rear: Five-link, coil springs, gas-charged shock absorbers, stabilizer bar Steering Rack-and-pinion, 2.6 turns lock-to-lock Wheels 8.0 x 16-in. 5 dual-spoke front and rear, with 225/55 R 16 all-season. Brakes Front: 12.3 inch vented discs with ABS anti-lock, and Brake Assist Rear: 11.8 inch solid discs with single-piston fixed calipers Weight: 3,860 pounds Performance: 0-60 mph in 6.6 seconds; Top Speed: 130 mph (electronically limited)

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