Posts Tagged ‘Mercedes Benz’


Smart ForTwo: When Half a Car Is Still a Lot

August 6, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

It was a small parking spot, even by New York City standards.

The man walking his Scottie paused and looked, with obvious incredulity, as I drove the Smart ForTwo into the gap with room to spare.  He walked around the car twice, stopping at one point to hold out both arms and noting his wingspan was about the length of the vehicle.

“How fast can this thing go?” he asked.

“The top speed is 90 miles per hour,” I said. “And I’ve had it at about 85 miles an hour going uphill on the highway.”

“Really?” he asked, quizzically. “What kind of engine fits into that little thing?

“It’s got a three cylinder engine pushing about 70 horsepower,” was the answer.

“Three cylinders? Seventy horse? That’s just half an engine,” he snorted.

“Well, yeah,” I replied. “But look at it. It’s only half a car. Half an engine works just fine.”

And so it goes for the Smart ForTwo, the ultimate urban vehicle. The $14,000 car was designed to comfortably hold two large people and little else. As an example of the scale, the Smart ForTwo is just 106 inches long, which is just a shade over eight feet, and weighs 1,808 pounds. The speedy Mini Cooper S, with a 185-horsepower, four cylinder engine and a top speed of 138 miles per hour, is 146.2 inches long, or just over 12 feet. The more staid Honda Civic Coupe, with a 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, is 175.5 inches, or about 14.5 feet. In short, you can fit two Smart ForTwo cars in the standard parking space.

But the Civic and Mini are intended to be full time, go everywhere cars with adequate trunk space for extended getaways. There is a different mission for the Smart ForTwo, which is designed for one main purpose – commuting around the city. Which means the shelf behind the front seats has enough room for a briefcase, some groceries, or an instrument – though not a bass fiddle – and little else. Despite its diminutive size, however, the front seats are more than adequate for a six and a half foot tall, 350 pound passenger whose legs were stretched out, not doubled around his chin.

The Smart is not, however, a traditionally designed sedan which had an unfortunate encounter with a buzz saw.  Its style can best be described as perky, with a painted on curve around the doors which resembles a rolling smile. As might be expected, the three-cylinder vehicle is slow to accelerate, taking almost 13 seconds to go from zero to 60 miles per hour. But once it gets rolling, it has not trouble keeping ahead of the normal highway pack. And in city driving, where speed is impossible anyway, the maneuverability of the little Smart is an asset. In addition, the car has an EPA rating of 33 miles per gallon in city driving, and 41 miles per gallon on the highway.

On city streets, motorists and pedestrians do a double take when the see the sporty half-car. On the highway, some motorists find it hard to accept the fact of being passed by something little bigger than a colorful riding lawn mower. A motorist in a Mercedes E-350 was startled when the Smart passed him at 85 miles an hour, and immediately changed lanes to follow. When I exited at a gas stop he pulled up alongside and yelled “what is that thing and who makes it?”

“It’s a Smart ForTwo,” I said. “And it’s made by the same guys who make yours.”

Smart is a division of Mercedes Benz, with German precision engineering, though it is assembled in the French-German border town of Hambach. In the US, it is solely distributed by the Penske Automotive Group and sold by Smart dealers. Some of these are affiliated with existing Mercedes dealerships.

The engine is in the rear and is mated to a five speed, automatic transmission with an electronic manual mode operated by paddle shifts behind the leather wrapped steering wheel.  The Passion Coupe model is a two part convertible. At the touch of a button, the soft top can roll back along a set of roof side rails. It can be opened or closed while at full speed with no problems.

Of, if one wants a completely convertible look, the roof rails over the windows pop out at the touch of a button and store in special slots in the trunk door. If the weather turns ugly, you will have to pull over to reinsert the rails, but the process takes seconds. And the car comes with fog lights for the road, and heated seats to keep you comfortable.

Inside, the Smart is not barren. It has power windows and there is an option for a factory installed navigation system. It has just AM/FM and no satellite radio, but there is a six-disc CD player and jack input for an MP3 or iPod. There are only two speakers and a sub woofer, but that is more than enough for the small passenger cabin.

The Smart ForTwo is not the car you would leisurely drive across the country. It is comfortable enough for the trip, but there is no room for your luggage. But if you want a car just to get around town or get you to and from work, it might be a smart car to look into.

2010 Smart ForTwo

MSRP:                                                                       $13,990

EPA Mileage:                        33 MPG City                          41 MPG Highway

Performance / Safety:

Top Speed:                                                     90 MPH

0 – 60 MPH                                                    12.8 Seconds

1.0-Liter, 3-cylinder, aluminum engine producing 70 horsepower and 68 pound/feet of torque; 5-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual mode with paddle shifts; lower wishbone, McPherson strut, front suspension; DeDion axel, coil spring rear suspension; disc brakes; electronic stability and traction control; rack and pinion steering; 15-inch aluminum wheels, driver and passenger airbags, head/thorax side airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

Tilt, leather wrapped, 3-spoke sports steering wheel with shift paddles; AM/FM radio; 6-disc CD player; MP3 and iPod connections; 2-speaker and subwoofer sound system;  heated seats; fold flat passenger seat;  roll-back soft roof; removable roof rails.


Two for the Road:The Hybrid and the Sports Sedan

May 9, 2010



By Roger Witherspoon


            There are some songs which seem made for road trips.

            The sun was high, the road was dry and, at 120 miles per hour, the Connecticut landscape was a kaleidoscope of spring floral prints which seemed to throb in time with the bass line of the Temptations’ Runaway Child pounding from the 15 speakers in the Harmon-Kardon sound system.

            It was warm enough to have the windows down and the panoramic sunroof fully open, yet the air flow around the sleek silhouette of the Mercedes S-550 kept enough of the wind noise out of the car that I could pretend I was a teenager again and sing loudly off key along with the storied Motown group.

            Back in the mid-60s, of course, I was driving a Nash Rambler with red bucket seats. Forty-five years later I could hardly fit into trim seats like that and, fortunately, I didn’t have to. The 2010 S-550 has the ultimate in adjustable seating. Drivers and front passenger have a choice of massage settings, heating or cooling, seat lengths, lumbar supports, and side supports, all at the touch of door-mounted buttons. In addition, every time the car goes into a turn, the side of the chair opposite the turn inflates to keep you firmly in your seat like a parent cradling a child. It is surprising at first, as if there is an unseen presence in the car reaching out to you. But you get used to it really fast.

            The passengers in the back seats don’t have all those bells and whistles. But their seats can be heated or air cooled and recline. And to make up for the lack of personal massagers, each rear passenger has a personal DVD screen built into the back of the front seats and wireless headsets and controls for personal viewing. And if it’s a really sunny day the driver, at the push of a button, rolls a sunscreen across the back windshield. Each of the rear passengers controls their own window screen.

            The S-550 is near the top of the Mercedes luxury line, offering modest speed – it tops out at 130 miles per hour – with its trademark sleek styling and handling. It looks and feels like a car costing $120,000.

            It’s propelled by a V-8 engine cranking out a respectable 382 horsepower, and is mated to a seven-speed transmission which shifts seamlessly in automatic mode or manual utilizing the paddle shifts behind the steering wheel. As you might expect, a car like this comes with a $1,000 gas guzzler tax. The EPA estimates the car gets just 14 miles per gallon in city driving and 21 MPG on the highway. The test car had a mixed average of 15 MPG – which means in mostly city driving the sedan was hanging close to single digits.

            If you want the same car with better mileage and no sacrifice in amenities or performance, Mercedes has the S-400H, its first luxury hybrid.  According to the EPA, the S-400H gets 19 city, and 26 highway miles per gallon – which is respectable for a large sedan. In addition, the hybrid costs $10,000 less than the standard model, the S-550. That is an unusual price switch which earned the S-400H plaudits from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

            The UCS (  rates hybrids from the standpoint of their greenhouse gas reductions, and their value in terms of the amount of “forced features” they may have. Don Anair, the UCS engineer who maintains the Hybrid Center Scorecard (  ), explained that “when you purchase a hybrid, they often come with features which are otherwise options. The value score we created looked at the cost of the hybrid system vs. the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and determined how much you are paying for a percentage in reductions.

            “The Ford Escape’s base model has three trim levels. But you only get the hybrid at the mid trim level – you’re forced to buy the features which are optional on the standard Escape.  It can run to a lot of money: on the Lexus 600 the difference was about $20,000.”

            The UCS gave Mercedes high marks putting the same amenities in both the S-400H and the standard S-550, and the price is lower because the gasoline engine on the hybrid is a V-6 producing 275 horsepower – about 100 less than in the all gasoline version.

            But its ecological improvement was just marginal because the S-400H has what is called a “mild” rather than full hybrid. “You can’t drive on the electric motor alone,” Anair said. “You get a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but you benefit from the idle-off feature which shuts down the gasoline engine whenever you stop.

            “Mercedes has talked about developing a full hybrid, and we hope they move in that direction.  What you get with the S-400H is beneficial but not powerful enough to propel the vehicle.”

            The major cost difference between the S-550 and its hybrid sibling stems from the larger engine and a $6,000 facelift. The all gasoline model has a sleeker silhouette and 19-inch, five-spoke AMG sport wheels.

            Inside they are the same. Both vehicles feature six-disc CD players, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth cell phone interface and iPod and USB port connections. There is also a 40-gigabyte hard drive to store your own tunes or movies. Whatever your musical tastes, the 15-speaker Harman/Kardon LOGIC-7 system bathes you in smooth waves of sound without overwhelming and battering you with noise.

            If there is a downside to the technology in these luxury liners, it’s that the computerized command system is not user friendly and there is a steep learning curve for functions which should be intuitive, such as the radio or navigation system. One should not have to read a manual to locate the FM radio. But once learned, the technological innovations can be impressive.

            On the safety side the cars are equipped with a small camera on the dashboard facing the driver and connecting to the side radar used in monitoring lane control and the adaptive cruise command. During the first 20 minutes of driving above 35 miles per hour, the camera records eye motions and the safety system’s computer monitors how the driver responds to lane changes and sudden swerves and turns. Using that as a baseline, the system then monitors the driver’s attention span.

            If you are drifting outside your lane or the camera’s computer notices what appears to be inattention and your eyes closing, a warning sound is produced and a message pops up in the midst of the speedometer asking is it “time for a  rest?” accompanied by the image of a steaming coffee cup. It is not quite the computer system governing the automated, interactive Audi driven by Will Smith in I Robot – but it’s heading in that direction

            The driver monitoring system is augmented with an infrared night vision camera which pops a thermal image of the road ahead in the middle of the dash in place of the speedometer – which becomes a digital readout at the bottom of the screen. The infrared screen can see images 500 feet in front of the car and pedestrians are bracketed to make sure the driver notices them. The ability to detect body heat is a serious advantage in places like upstate New York, where Bambi and her cousins run into more than 1,200 cars each week. And while Mercedes doesn’t advertise this, the infrared beam can spot the heated engine of a police car waiting behind bushes with its lights out long before the car is in range of a radar gun.

            Slowing down, staying awake and avoiding tickets are very good things.




2010 Mercedes Benz S-550

MSRP:                                                                       $116,995

EPA Mileage:                        14 MPG City                          21 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   15 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:       

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    5.4 Seconds

            Top Speed:                                                     130 MPH

5.5-Liter, 32-valve, aluminum V-8 engine producing 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque; 7-speed transmission with automatic and  manual mode with paddle shift; all wheel drive; electronic traction control;  rack-and-pinion steering;  air suspension; internally ventilated disc brakes; 19-inch AMG 5-spoke wheels; dual chrome exhausts; active bi-xenon headlights and cornering lights; driver safety system; night vision;  dual stage front airbags;  front and rear side airbags; head curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite and HD radio; 6-disc CD player; iPod and USB port; 40-gigabyte hard drive; 15-speaker Harman/Kardon Logic-7 surround sound; power sunroof; power sunscreens; leather, adjustable seats with massager; wood trim; rear DVD players.

2010 Mercedes Benz S-400H

 MSRP:                                                                       $105,230

EPA Mileage:                        19 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   21 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety: 

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    7.2 Seconds

            Top Speed:                                                     130 MPH

 3.5-Liter, 24-valve, aluminum V-6 gasoline engine producing 295 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque; 3-phase, mild hybrid, 120-volt electric motor producing 20 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque.

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