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New Mercedes cars, stunning museum span auto history
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

STUTTGART (SNS) – In societies that don’t speak the same language, a lot of things aren’t always understood. For example, while breezing along on the German autobahn, my co-driver in the passenger seat said he thought the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class station wagon I was driving had a diesel engine.


I didn’t think so.

I mean, I’m a strong advocate for diesel technology advancing into the United States as soon as we can get our fuel cleaned up in October. And I know the best European diesel-powered cars betray none of the obnoxious traits – smelly, smoky, loud clattering sound, and an oily lack of power – of diesels as American drivers recall them.

But still, this vehicle was an E-320, so I thought it might be the new Mercedes direct-injection gasoline V6.

My co-driver, Tony, is a good friend from Vancouver. No language problem there, because we share a lot of opinions, as well as a love of great cars and the game of ice hockey.

As we continued our friendly discussion, neither too sure, I tried a few smooth passing moves to see if I could detect any hesitations, or any telltale puffs of smoke from the exhaust. There were none.

At one point, where the autobahn had no posted speed limit, I pulled into the left lane of the three lanes, passed a slower vehicle, and kept on a-going. The speedometer rose, reaching 120, then 140, 160, 180 and 200.

Of course, we were in Germany, and the car’s speedometer was in kilometers, not miles. But still, 200 of them are quite a few. I kept easing onward, with nothing but clear roadway ahead. At 220 kilometers per hour, I asked Tony to take a picture of the speedometer, because I was too occupied to look at it.

  At the equivalent of 142 miles per hour, the E-320 was smooth as silk, and had a lot more in reserve. We stopped at the small town of Wolnzach, north of Munich, to change vehicles. As we walked around behind the station wagon, Tony pointed out that the emblem on the rear end said "CDI."

Sure enough, it was a turbocharged V6 diesel.

Furthermore, it is the new "Bluetec" diesel that will become prominent in the U.S. within the next year, as our diesel fuel gets cleaned up to reasonable standards. It has only 165 horsepower, but also a whopping 388 foot-pounds of torque, occurring from 1,600-2,800 RPMs.

That was so impressive I was reluctant to get out of the "Estate" – Germany’s term for a station wagon – but U.S. buyers are strangely reluctant to buy station wagons, so duty pressed me to drive some of the gathered sedans.

That comes under the heading of "tough job, but somebody has to do it," because the gathered sedans were all world-class standouts – the new E-Class sedan, plus the high-powered AMG version of the E, and, several super-sleek CLS sedans, including its incredible AMG high-performance model.

While external design changes are only subtle in the four-year mid-cycle refreshening of the seven-year E-Class cycle – confined mostly to the adaptive headlights, side mirrors and taillights – there are also a number of technical revisions in the 2007 E-550.

One of the major upgrades is in design of the standard 5-liter V8, which goes from three valves with single overhead camshafts to four valves with dual overhead cams on the E-550. The new engine delivers 382 horsepower and 391 foot-pounds of torque, and is evidence why other drivers stay out of the left lane on the autobahns.

It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting or needing more power than that, but turn to the AMG model of the E-Class. The E63 AMG is the same sedan after thorough reworking by the in-house hot-rodders of AMG. The E63 number signifies a nearly 6.3-liter V8 that replaces the 5-liter, and boosts power to 507 horsepower and 465 foot-pounds of torque.

It will run from 0-100 kilometers (about 62 miles per hour) in a mere 4.5 seconds, through a specially reinforced seven-speed automatic, which is manually shiftable.

Mercedes has put simpler tabs above the steering wheel arms on both sides to facilitate upshifts and downshifts. Thankfully, Mercedes has done away with the toggle switch controls on the backside of the steering wheel, which always made me feel uneasy because while you could easily rock them to upshift or downshift with either hand, it was too easy while merely gripping the wheel.

I always imagined what might happen if you upshifted with your right hand while squeezing your left hand just a bit and inadvertently enacting a simultaneous downshift. With the new larger and more obvious paddles, you upshift with the right hand and downshift with the left. Easy. And fun.

The entire trip was special to me, because I had never driven the CLS before, so it was introduction time for me with that car, too. It is the sleekest sedan ever built by any company, and is referred to as the "four-door coupe" in Germany.

It seems to me, the ideal thing in the world of automotive journalists would be to mandate that all road tests be conducted on the German autobahns.


Other than a race track – a long, long racetrack – or maybe a private, open expanse of highway in Montana or Nevada, there is no place to let such a prized vehicle as these Mercedes stallions run at full gallop.

As far as I could judge from the brief driving experiences, both the E-Class and the CLS could drive right on back to Stuttgart and park themselves in the sparkling new Mercedes-Benz Museum.

Before we got the chance to drive any of the cars, we spent two fascinating days with the priceless and historic vehicles stored at the old museum at the Mercedes plant, and the cream of the crop, strategically placed throughout the magnificent new museum scheduled to open May 19.

From a sensory perspective, it was too much to digest in a mere four days. The museum is a priceless work of art as a facility alone, to say nothing of the 160 or 170 vehicles on display – the fruit of a prolific company that can claim to have built the world’s first automobiles, dating back to 1883.

The history is riveting. The old museum was in the middle of the Mercedes-Benz plant, not suitable for properly displaying the pride of 125 years of building some of the world’s greatest motorcars. So in 2000, Mercedes executives went forward with plans to build the new facility.

In January of 2002, they hired an architectural firm from Holland to design it, and without question, there is no other building like it in the world. Construction started in March of 2003, with May 19, 2006 as a target for completion – just before Stuttgart plays host to World Cup soccer quarterfinals in a stunning new domed stadium, which is located right adjacent to the museum.

Ben van Berkel, chief architect of the Dutch firm, designed a double helix – essentially an unending line that traces three continuous double circles that ultimately meet – with the three circles to mimic the three-pointed star of the Mercedes logo.

The three-pointed star, incidentally, was conceived out of the company’s ambition to develop internal combustion engines to revolutionize travel on three fronts, land, sea and air.

The exterior of the building is a wonderfully blended structure of huge glass panes, with steel exterior and concrete interior pillars. The steel represents the structure of the vehicles, and the concrete pays tribute to the highways and bridges those vehicles have traveled. There is not a single wall in the structure that is straight – everything curves for a purpose, either horizontally or vertically, from the seven levels that start from the top.  

The museum consumes 16,500 square meters, rising adjacent to the autobahn that leads down around the circular path into the city of Stuttgart, located in the valley below. As you drive into the city, it appears you might drive right into the Museum itself.

The Guggenheim Museum has similar spiral design, but nothing else has the double helix layout that always offers visitors the opportunity to look outside at the city, the soccer stadium, and mostly the autobahn, passing below, or inside, down to the atrium.

Elevators take visitors to the top, then the two separate tours travel downward through seven separate legend rooms, and five different collection rooms, each defining different eras of advancement. Four mechanized hooks in the center ceiling can lift vehicles to the various levels, placed through openings that are then closed to the artfully sloped inner walls.

Passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, motorsports vehicles, aircraft engines, safety developments – everything is there, with a complete library where each of the eras can be more thoroughly researched.

The attention to detail includes sounds. As visitors rise on the interior elevators, they hear different sounds of automotives, until, at the very top, they hear the clip-clop sound of horses hooves. Visitors can take one of two separate tours, starting with the earliest vehicles at the top, and leading down along displays and vehicles in a breathtaking trip through time.

The structure is so stiff, there are no interior pillars. As you continue downward, you can look to the inside and see each upcoming display from a different perspective, and you can step off the walkway for close-up examination of any of those displays.

The plan was to create the feeling that the entire facility is one long and continuing room, with no doors. Van Berkel described the constant view of displays from the walkways as merging into an "almost kaleidoscopic" sensation.

Explanations are offered via headphones in eight languages at every level, with videos, memorabilia, and attention to detail, with the two pathways ultimately meeting at the motorsports display, which covers 120 years of racing.

Even the name Mercedes-Benz is fascinating. The three key players were Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. Daimler and Maybach collaborated out of a facility in Cannstatt, and built their first car as a motorized horse carriage, with three wheels. Benz started out in Mannheim, and went a different direction, patenting his first car in 1886. Daimler-Maybach became one company, while Benz competed with them from 60 miles away, and never got to know his rivals.

In 1893, Benz built the "Vis-à-vis" car, and in 1894, Daimler added a fourth wheel to his vehicle in 1889, solving a steering problem with the three-wheeler, and created the "Velo," which sold through 1901.

When Daimler motorized a boat, he claimed it was electrically powered, because he feared people would be apprehensive of the dangers of the explosions of internal combustion power.

In 1899, Daimler built the Phoenix race car, and Emil Jellinek dominated auto races. It was Jellinek who asked to have the name of his daughter, Mercedes, added to the company. It wasn’t until after both companies converted to World War I production for German vehicles, when they faced the economic crisis of the depression, that they decided to merge in order to survive.

The rest, as they say, is history. The company also made vehicles for World War II, which is still a subject of massive guilt under Adolph Hitler’s Nazi control. But the significance of technical improvement continued, as the company realized aircraft lost power at higher altitudes, and invented supercharging their engines, using compressed air intake to overcome the problem.

After the war, the company struggled to continue, but after the May 8, 1945, capitulation to the Allied forces, it stayed in business doing maintenance work on occupying force vehicles. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Mercedes-Benz could afford to build motorcars again.

Officials say that the facility will not be used for selling cars, although a magnificent nearby structure houses the most modern of dealership displays, and anyone buying a car will get invited to visit the museum.

To qualify for entry, a vehicle must be out of production for 25 years. So as we cruised the autobahn in the new E-Class, and in the CLS 63 AMG monsters, we realized they wouldn’t yet qualify for inclusion. But their time will come.

They are simply the latest example of a company that installs its pride in technology, quality, luxury, and safety into every vehicle.

That pride also makes the museum come alive, as today’s vehicles zip past, outside on the autobahn.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.