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Utility marries luxury

Utility marries luxury

Tuscaloosa, AL--Think of the couples you know. Sometimes it's the unlikeliest of partnerships that works out best.

For example, how about an SUV and a luxury passenger car? Alabamans and Germans? Both partnerships have to flourish to make the Mercedes-Benz 1998 M-Class All-Activity Vehicle a success.

Having driven the M-Class, I can say that the former are getting along just fine. And as a northern girl sitting down to have grits with Mercedes-Benz folks from Germany and Alabama, I was the one who felt like an outsider.

Give the people what they want. The M-Class is the product of massive market research. Mercedes had already decided to start with a clean sheet of paper rather than modify one of its base vehicles into an SUV so it could truly give people what research showed they wanted.

Mercedes found that SUV owners liked the high seating position, large cargo space, the feeling of being safe, and four-wheel-drive capability. Dislikes included: uncomfortable seats, truck-like ride, too loud, not enough power, and difficult parking due to wide turning radius.

Research also revealed that the premium SUV segment--comprising vehicles priced more than $28,000--has been booming and should experience considerable growth through the early part of the next century. In fact, from 1995 to 1996 alone, the SUV premium segment grew by more than 20%.

A full-time, 4-wheel adaptation of Mercedes's electronic traction-control system, 4ETS lets the M-Class climb hills-including a roller-equipped slope in the Alabama factory-that many other all-wheel-drive vehicles can't. Working somewhat like the inverse of an ABS, the system uses automatic brake intervention to slow a spinning wheel to match the speed of a wheel with traction. When the brake is applied to a spinning wheel or wheels, the locking differentials automatically send torque to the others getting traction-torque that would otherwise be wasted in wheelspin.
1. In this scenario on the roller-equipped slope, the front wheels offer no traction but the M-class keeps climbing as automatic brake intervention slows both spinning front wheels, sending power where traction is best. The rear wheel. 2. Brake action on spinning wheels sends torque to the right front wheel, the only corner with traction. 3. Here, the left rear wheel would spin. Therefore, it's braked by 4ETS, which causes the rear differentials to send power to the right rear wheel, and the slope is scaled.

The task of the development team became clear: Starting from scratch, design a vehicle that combined the on-road motoring pleasure of a Mercedes passenger car with the performance of a true off-roader and top-notch safety features. Mercedes found that 63% of worldwide sport utility sales are in the U.S., so the company decided to locate the plant here and use local suppliers.

The German design team got the go-ahead for the M-Class project in January 1993. Top goals were to keep the price down and to get to market as soon as possible. The dual challenges: combining the two vehicle types and having the two cultures learn to work together.

The 95% factor. Another fact gleaned from market research: 95% of SUVs never go off-road. Was designing an SUV that owners would rarely use to its full capabilities frustrating for the engineers? No, says Gerhard Fritz, vice president, development, Mercedes-Benz.

"The designers were not frustrated because this requirement was called for in the design spec," says Fritz. "Also, we personally wanted to drive it off-road, so we did it for ourselves."

Also, systems such as state-of-the-art four-wheel drive and electronic traction control also find use in normal driving during such adverse conditions as ice, gravel roads, and rain-swollen roads. "Drivers have come to expect this level of performance from Mercedes," notes Fritz.

What it comes down to is that even if an owner doesn't plan to take an SUV off-road, he still wants to know that he can.

One way Mercedes kept costs down was by planning to make more cars. Another, more active approach was coming up with cost targets for each subassembly and motivating design teams to meet them.

After the initial design earned approval, Mercedes divided the car into functional modules--such as doors, seats, axles, and cockpit. Fritz notes that standard practice for vehicle design breaks a car design into part types: body, trim, mechanical parts, electrical parts. This new approach, says Fritz, helped prevent interface problems and permitted the subassembly suppliers to get actively involved in M-Class design.

Fritz assembled interdisciplinary teams and assigned them to each module. Every team member knew all about the money aspect and looked for ways to save money. Says Fritz: "Purchasers save pennies, but engineers can save dollars."

Mercedes brought the 65 major suppliers in early to join the design teams and awarded them contracts for the life of the vehicle. (Other manufacturers may have more than 500 suppliers for a particular vehicle, according to Mercedes.) Fritz held weekly meetings, sometimes five or six hours long, with the team leaders in Germany and made sure they shared the information with team members.

Just in sequence. Because suppliers supply modules and subassemblies, much of the assembly work is done before parts reach the M-Class plant in Tuscaloosa County, AL.

To handle large subassemblies and to coincide with the vehicle moving along the production line, factory personnel broadcast an "order" to in-sequence suppliers. The supplier then ships the assembly so that it arrives at the plant not only just in time, but also just in sequence.

For example, an order from the factory to Delphi Packard Electric, which supplies cockpits, might indicate three white vehicles in a row with gray interiors followed by a green vehicle with a beige interior. Delphi would assemble, ship, and convey the correct-color cockpits straight from its truck to the Mercedes-Benz M-Class production line. They'd be in the right production sequence without a worker having to re-arrange them.

This tactic reduces the need for inventory space, increases efficiency, and lowers costs. In fact, the process enables Mercedes to maintain only two hours worth of inventory at line side and less than one day's inventory in its warehouse.

Of the 65 major suppliers, 9 have located facilities in Alabama or expanded existing ones. Which brings us back to Sweet Home Alabama. Mercedes certainly seems at home there, and many of the American M-Class factory personnel I interviewed are squirreling away their earnings. They're saving so they can become proud owners of a German premium SUV.


Key specifications

Curb weight 4,237 lb
Wheelbase 111.0 in
Track, front/rear 60.4/60.4 in
Length 180.6 in
Width 72.2 in
Height 69.9 in
Ground clearance 8.4 in
Engine type V6 (V8 available in 1998)
Bore x stroke 89.9 x 84.0 mm
Displacement 3,199 cc
Torque 229 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Suspension, front/rear.
Independent twin control-arm axle, torsion bars, double-tube gas shocks/Independent twin control-arm axle, progressive coil springs, double-tube gas shocks
Brakes, front/rear. Hydraulic ventilated discs/solid discs, both with 4-channel all-terrain ABS
Steering
Power-assisted rack & pinion 4WD system AWD system with open center differential and front/rear ETS
0-60 mph 9.0 sec
Projected fuel economy 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway
Starting price $35,000


The real first American-built Mercedes

The Tuscaloosa, AL, M-Class plant will be the first Mercedes passenger car plant in North America, but it won't be the first American plant to make Mercedes cars. More than 90 years ago, the Steinways took time out from building pianos. Their diversion: building passenger cars under license from Mercedes. Steinway built about 100 cars in its Long Island factory from 1905 until 1907, when a fire destroyed the facility. Only one or two American Mercedes still exist--one the property of Mercedes-Benz of North America.


Market research meets the road

by Julie Anne Schofield, Senior Editor

Huntsville, AL--The Alabama summer sun was hot, the humidity oppressive. Bugs the size of small birds pelted the windshield. But I didn't care. I was tooling around the backroads in a luxury car.

Or was it an SUV? Too tell you the truth, I didn't much care.

First, I was comfortable. I didn't need a footstool--or to hike my narrow skirt up to kingdom come--to get in the driver's seat. Once there, I quickly adjusted the power seat to a comfortable spot that was still a good foot from the airbag. Another nice feature: The driver's cupholder pops out of the dashboard to the driver's left.

This comfort extends to the backseat passengers. Three normal-sized grownups can really fit in the three back seats, which fold down independently to make room for cargo. Actually, the seats feel more like chairs--they're high enough off the floor that even someone over 6 feet tall wouldn't have their knees bumping up against their chins. And the air-conditioning system is powerful enough to cool backseat passengers in record time.

Second, driving the M-Class model ML-320 was cushy. I felt like a pampered soccer mom--or a soccer mom with attitude. The ride was smooth but not too smooth--I still felt connected to the road. The handling was a little less tight than that of a sedan, but that's to be expected with a vehicle that looks like an SUV. And as a 5-foot 3-inch tall driver, I enjoyed being able to see past the car in front of me in my relatively high perch.

Then I came to the off-road course. At first I was skeptical--I didn't even think the 320 could fit along the path. But the SUV seems a lot bigger from the inside than it actually is on the outside. No matter anyway, I figured, it's not my car.

Mercedes designed the course to showcase the M-Class's SUV features. I shifted into low range by pushing a button on the instrument panel. High range provides a 1:1 gear ratio; low engages a 2.64:1 ratio.

The first part of the course was uphill. Suddenly I had a flashback to a minivan I drove last winter. It was billed as a sort of "all-purpose vehicle," but had trouble climbing the gentle slope leading from the parking garage at work up to the street after a light coating of snow and ice.

The path in front of me was much steeper and narrower and sported mud instead of snow. Low gear gave me enough traction to climb the hills without making me nervous.

The traction-control system really impressed me on the part of the course where only one tire had grip. The other three tires spun in the mud, but power transferred to the fourth tire and I continued on course. I could see wanting this feature during New England winters when visiting friends who live on an unpaved and badly plowed road.

On the second part of the course, the ML-320 handled the sharp curves gracefully and really crawled down hill in first gear. Also contributing to my overall sense of safety were the front and side airbags, crumple-zone body design, and adjustable 3-point seatbelts with emergency tensioning retractors.

The bottom line? I've never been impressed with high-class brand names, but given the M-Class's features, styling, performance, and value, I'd buy one.

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