Heaven, Hell or Hyundai

May 3, 2010

I wrote here a few months ago about my wife’s decision to replace her 1998 Olds Intrigue. I detailed my grand plan to give her the 2006 Toyota Avalon while I procured myself a slightly used Mercedes S550 as a new daily driver.

The interesting thing about the Mercedes S550 is that, without expensive and rarely-equipped options, it offers fewer bells and whistles than a minivan of half the price. Consequently, it was near impossible to find one with adaptive laser-guided cruise control and a back-up camera, at least one with a reasonable number of miles that wasn’t being sold by a dealer at a typical narcotics kingpin’s profit margin. I did finally find a low-mileds 2008 S600 (the model with all the bells and whistles as standard, powered by the fire-breathing bi-turbo V12 and usually purchased new by professional athletes and CEOs) offered at a sell-it-today price of $72,000, but getting it to my door and licensing it would have put it at $80,000. Still, at nine in the morning on one beautiful day I had the deal ready to go.

It’s funny how spouses have the ability to bring us back to ground-level. My wife reminded me that no matter how far under-value I could buy the S600, I was making a poor financial decision. She also pointed to the other cars in the garage and asked if I really needed another expensive car for myself. This was the point when I again got to swallow hard and use my signature line “you’re right, I’m wrong, I’m sorry, I’ll change!”

It had taken me months to get to nearly buying the S600, but thanks to my wife’s decisive nature, by 5pm that night she was at Titus-Will Hyundai signing for a brand new 2010 Genesis 4.6 Sedan–for her! A Hyundai? On my property? What the hell?

In all fairness, my wife knew I had talked about the Genesis ever since seeing a pre-production version years ago at Pebble Beach, and also was aware that I gave a stripped version just a passing test-drive before pursuing the Mercedes. For her it was a strictly rational decision to revisit a possibly overlooked option and jump on it when it met all the right criteria. I’m here to tell you, though, that as far as rational large sedan purchases go, the Hyundai Genesis is a surprisingly emotional hunk of metal.

It’s easy to have missed hearing about the Genesis Sedan, because Hyundai has opted to spend the bulk of its marketing dollars on the Mustang-fighting Genesis Coupe and its recently redone Accord-killer Sonata. The Genesis name was actually originally designed to be placed on a new luxury brand a la Toyota’s Lexus, Honda’s Acura and Nissan’s Infinity, but after realizing that a stand-alone brand added over $5,000 to the cost of each car, Hyundai elected to make the Genesis a new upscale rear-wheel-drive product line under its primary brand and dealerships.

At 196 inches, the Genesis sedan is a large vehicle sized to match the BMW 750i, Lexus LS and Audi A8. It is slightly smaller than the long-wheelbase versions of the aforementioned, as well as the Mercedes S550 and Toyota Avalon. Genesis Sedans are available with a 3.8-liter V6 or the 4.6-liter “Tau” V8 — and given the options on the 3.8 that come standard with a 4.6, a fully loaded V8 is only about $2000 more. With a real-world out-the-door price with tax and licensing of under $45,000 for this top-of-the-line Korean, it is a steal…and one that has already picked-off sales from prestige luxury brands.

At first glance, the Genesis is visually indistinguishable from the current crop of luxo-rides, and if you park one next to a same-colored Lexus ES350, you’ll find yourself looking for badges or the slightly longer car. With most of the lines stolen from Mercedes, BMW and Audi, it’s even more surprising how the overall design blends nicely into an outcome that is very muscular and handsome, especially in Black Noir Pearl paint.

The interior is very visually pleasing with contrasting leather (in this case, Cashmere,) and offers supple surfaces with nice stitching, Lexus-like panel gaps, and an uncluttered layout for buttons. Cost cutting is only noticeable to guys like me who recognize the plastic HVAC buttons as being from the same supplier as cheaper Toyotas.

Delivering niceties like a backup camera, parking sensors, adaptive cruise control, rear sunshade, iPod and USB connectivity, Bluetooth, and navigation system with a usable input device for forty-some-grand means cost cutting somewhere else. It didn’t take me long to find these areas. While the driver’s seat offers a basic level of cushion angle adjustment, lumbar support, heat and ventilation, the passenger seat is a fore-aft only deal with heat, but no ventilation, cushion height adjustment or lumbar support. Luckily, both seats are well bolstered and as comfortable as the base seats on the S550. As for rear seat room, it’s limo-like comfortable and offers almost as much space as the German long-wheelbase luxury players.

Push the starter button and the Tau 4.6 V8 comes to life. Like any modern overhead cam V8, it is as unobtrusive around town as Loggins & Messina over a department store Muzak system. Punch it, though, and it announces its presence with authority…and rear wheel spin. Gearing from the ZF six-speed automatic transmission plays well with the Tau’s 375 hp and 333 ft-lb of torque to deliver 0-60mph in 5.7 seconds. For a 4000+ pound sedan, this is quicker than a New Jersey mugging.

With minimal seat time, I still questioned if the Genesis V8 could blend all of its strengths under pressure, so I decided to take it with me to my friend’s house for our annual fantasy baseball draft. The trip has always proven a great test of cars, providing 70-plus miles of highway, a few miles of city traffic, and a final leg of a mile-long hillclimb of limited-access tight switchback road that looks like a special rally stage.

As I entered I5 North, I set the adaptive cruise control. Almost immediately I noticed the speedometer needle reading 2mph higher than the digital readout for the cruise control setting. Odd, indeed, and most certainly an unnoticed bug (or as product marketing guys say: “a feature”). With adaptive cruise control a new addition for the 2010 model and a part of the optional Technology Package, only a small percentage of Genesis owners have witnessed the different speed readouts competing for their attention. Luckily my trusty iPhone speedometer application determined that it was the cruise control display, not the speedo needle, that was correct.

On I5 the Genesis delivered a par-for-the-course 22 mpg on premium gas. A 20-and-change gallon gas tank meant the needle didn’t dip too far. During the trip the car’s easy to identify corners and lack of bad blind spots meant tightly contested lane changes were a breeze.

After the highway portion, my normally sore back was still in great shape. My ears, though, felt like I had been making the trip in my Corvette. Road noise was horrible, but can mostly be attributed to the deafening hum from Dunlop tires.

Through the stoplights and traffic the Genesis displays the smoothness of a $5 bottle of tequila. The ZF transmission tended to hunt for gear and delivered binary throttle tip-in from a stop: either waiting too long for a gear to engage or dislocating head from neck as the car rocketed away like it was being timed for acceleration. Sadly, this behavior seems to be de rigueur now as manufacturers use increasingly complicated shift logic to maximize EPA fuel mileage ratings at the expense of driver comfort.

I made the turn-off onto the final mountain climb and punch the throttle. The Genesis built speed rapidly. With the shifter in manual mode, I prodded on the brakes, which instantly scrubbed enough speed to allow a downshift as I enter the first decreasing radius turn.

The Genesis followed steering inputs perfectly. The Tau V8’s torque enabled a little tail-steer to leave the corner, as well as to deliver a quick burst of speed before needing to slow for a hairpin.

Steering in the Genesis is heavy, but direct. There’s plenty of feedback, but with springs stiffer than moonshine and strong-sidewall Dunlop tires, the ride feels more 1984 Corvette than 2010 BMW. Brakes bite too quickly, but it feels like throwing the Nimitz’s anchor out to stop a kayak.

On the gas strongly, gravel on the road gave the traction and stability control a workout. Unlike in Toyota and Lexus cars, not only were the electronic nannies less intrusive, they could be turned off if desired. Given my lack of experience with this new, large, heavy sedan, however, it was probably a smart idea to keep them on.

After a few more turns, the heavy steering began to weigh on my arms. Still, as I reached the top of the mountain, I realized that I had bested times I had achieved in my 1986 Ferrari 328 GTS and matched those of my 2002 Corvette –a pretty impressive feat.

At the end of the day, there’s no doubt that Hyundai executives tasked its engineers to create a car that could beat the handling and braking figures for BMW and Audi. On that, the Genesis is a home run. Given the cost-cutting necessary to build to a target price, however, there are some trade-offs in noise, comfort and refinement.

Think of the Genesis as to the world of executive performance sedans as the Corvette is to sports cars: the snobs might snicker at its badge and joke about the noise, vibration and harshness in comparison to German rivals, but it can wipe the smirk off their faces with its performance and still leave its owner with at least an extra thirty-large in the bank.


My Great Conversation With Rob Larson — Owner Of Mercedes-Benz of Tacoma

January 1, 2010

After I wrote the original article detailing my attempt at buying an S550, I received a call and two emails from Rob Larson, owner of Mercedes-Benz of Tacoma (as well as ten other dealerships). Rob spent over twenty minutes on the phone with me discussing the original experience.

Rob provided definitive proof that the S550 in question had indeed sold during the time period, but his first priority was to apologize for my experience. He never once asked for a retraction, choosing instead to explain how the sales process had failed at multiple points. It was immediately apparent that Rob had researched the case completely and had gotten immediately involved not for the sake of message damage control, but to understand the situation in an effort to improve employee education and information communication processes at his dealerships.

Like many multi-dealership organizations, Rob Larson’s company employs hoards of people. Nobody can expect that each communication between any employee and every customer is going to be perfect. It says quite a bit about Rob Larson’s priorities and leadership, however, that on two of the busiest sales days of the year, he takes time to glean information in an effort to make every interaction with his businesses completely satisfactory.

As a further indicator of my confidence in Rob’s leadership, I emailed him a list of the specifications and options of the S550 for which my wife and I are looking. Provided he can find the right car and offer it at a competitive price, I’d be happy to buy from him and his organization.

Mercedes Dealer’s Tactics Added To My List of Horrible Car Shopping Experiences (And I Still Need To Buy A Car!)

December 30, 2009

I’m here to tell you that automotive journalists do not like to car shop. Sure, we love most things on four wheels, but I, like most of my industry-mates would rather get a prostate check by a broken-knuckled rugby player-turned-urologist than to interact with on-the-prowl car salespeople.

For me, specifically, it’s because I know way too much. I spend more time researching cars than the frequently-wrong-but-never-in-doubt people who sell them. As for the business and sales tactics side, much of my life I’ve been surrounded by dealership owners, salesmen, service managers, and attorneys who represent them. Let’s just say that I know all the tricks, which would be enough to turn most people to public transportation.

My personal log of horrible car shopping experiences is longer than Danny Bonaduce’s 12-Step “people to make amends to” list.They range from the frustrating: arranging for a test drive of a Honda S2000 over the phone with a sales manager at a Honda dealership in Houston, only to be told upon arriving twenty minutes later at that I could “drive it after I bought it”…to the surreal: having a clown-shoe car salesman at Bruce Titus Chrysler in Olympia, WA challenge me and my 2002 Corvette “to a race for pink slips” first against his (meaning the dealer’s) Crossfire SRT6 and then against his “Shelby” (meaning 2.2-liter Turbo I-powered Dodge Shelby Charger) when all I was there to do was take a test drive of a 300 to see if I liked it better than the Toyota Avalon…which I didn’t.

I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been asked “what will it take to get you into this car today?” And if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a car salesman make a claim about a specific vehicle that was such a blatant falsehood that any kid with a car magazine subscription or Internet access could call the bluff, I feel like I could pay cash for a Maybach.

Still, my wife’s twelve-year-old Oldsmobile is in dire need of replacement. She’s going to take the 2006 Toyota Avalon, which leaves me needing another four-door sedan. Like it or not, that means car shopping and the chance of adding to the list of dealer horror stories.

This past weekend we set out to test drive the three finalists, the BMW 750Li, Audi A8L and Mercedes S550, and find our top choice. Our budget and sense of priorities prohibiting the nearly $100K new price, we targeted certified-pre-owned 2007 or 2008 as the sweet spot. So out I went with the wife and two daughters (take your family, and the dealers know you’re not just out for a joy ride) to the dealers in and around Tacoma, WA.

Our first stop was to BMW Northwest in Fife, where a test of a 2006 750Li quickly ruled out any pre-2009 7-Series. When I explained to the salesman that I felt the Bimmer was underwhelming with a very un-BMW-like lack of steering feel and a distracting amount of seemingly useless technology, he politely thanked us for trying the car.

Next it was on to the dealership next door — Mercedes Benz of Tacoma at Fife, where Pre-Owned Sales Manager Eric Brillhart introduced us to a 2007 S550. With black paint and a Savannah-Cashmere interior it looked elegant. During the same test loop as with the BMW, the S550 shined with prodigious power, seamless shifts from the seven-speed tranny, great road feel, and the most amazing massaging seats ever invented. Admitting to Eric that my wife was instantly hooked, I still explained that I needed to complete my due-diligence and drive the A8L. I even said “I know statistics say that if we leave, we’re not coming back…but remember, the same stats also indicate if we come back, you’ve got us.”

Courteously, he called over to Audi of Tacoma, another Robert Larson-owned dealership, to let them know we would be over for a test drive after getting a bite to eat.

Going into the day, the A8L had been at the top of my short list. After a ride in a three-year-old S550, though, the brand new 2009 Audi A8L seemed dated. The sporty feeling came at the cost of an overly tight suspension. Despite other journalists who praise Audi ergonomics, I found the interior dark, plain and lacking the comfort of the Mercedes. On the whole the Audi just wasn’t as refined. And the dealership? Had we not gone to pull a salesman away from a conversation outside the building, we would have stood there alone forever!

So we returned to Mercedes Benz of Tacoma at Fife, where we sat in the lobby for about fifteen minutes as Eric Brillhart helped another couple. (Thank goodness for Nintendo DS, or my daughters would have lost it by now.) Finally with the couple out on a test drive he invited us over to his desk. He launched us into about ten minutes of small talk discussing garage space, drums (which we both play), and then finally he asked me how much I wanted to pay for the car, since, he said, I “obviously have a number in my head.”

He had told us before the test drive that the asking price was $62,500, which Eric admitted was way too aggressive for a 32,000-mile 2007 that had sat on the lot for too long. (He was I unaware that I had seen the car offered on Autotrader.com and M-B’s CPO site for $59,900.) I didn’t throw out a number, rather choosing to note that other dealers were advertising their S550s from 48-to-58-thousand and indicating that it would be safe to assume “low fifties” was top market.

Eric got up and walked into the sales floor manager’s office and didn’t return for ten minutes. I pointed out to my wife that I had forgotten to request that he not to try the old wait ‘em out trick — the longer a mark sits in the chair the more they’ll pay at the end of the deal. In my case, it just makes me more tired and less likely to spend anything.

When he got back he said “I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is the car sold while you were out, but the good news is that we have this other car — same configuration, slightly higher miles and we can offer it at $53,00″.

Ah crap, here we go again!

Eric left to check the in-service date of the car’s warranty, and upon returning to the desk, my wife hit him with: “I might be young, but I’m not stupid. Do you really expect us to believe that a car you said earlier has been sitting here for a really long time actually sold in the two hours we were gone?”

Now if someone had called me a liar to my face (and I was innocent) I’d vigorously defend my honor and my practices. I’d even get some proof in the form of paperwork. The salesmen didn’t even seem to put up a fight, instead giving a half-assed emotionless line trying to claim he had nothing to gain by claiming it was sold, and that he was mad that he had gone through the effort of washing it only to have another salesman sell it. My six-year-old daughter gave a more believable performance last month when she claimed she didn’t eat any cookies before dinner, and she had crumbs all over her face.

Still there was the other “available” car that was being offered. With iPhone in hand I went down the list of CPO 2007 S550s available for under $50K on Mercedes-Benz’s own site, and simply explained the price this dealer was offering was three-grand over the advertised starting prices of identical cars, such as one offered at Barrier Mercedes less than 50 miles away. We got up and walked out.

We walked to our car, and parked next to it was the very same “sold” S550 that had lured us to the dealership in the first place. My wife walked back in and notified Eric that the car was still on the lot (and had been moved next to our car while we were in being told it was sold). “They’re doing the paperwork as we speak” he claimed. Seeing nobody else in the dealership, my wife laughed, shook her head and walked out.

Mercedes Benz of Tacoma simply wanted to maximize profit — and that’s not a crime. What they did, however, was bad for business, horrible for its reputation… and statistically a bad play. When the salesman and sales floor manager got the feeling that price was an issue with us, they saw the opportunity to bait and switch in a less desirable car with a higher margin that could look like a better deal by fitting within my aforementioned price range. Unfortunately for them, they had totally misread us. We didn’t try to negotiate down due to being cash-strapped — we could have afforded the full inflated asking price, rather it simply wasn’t a good deal based on competitive listings. Had he or the salesman simply given a slightly better bottom line price, I might have paid more than market on the original car just for convenience sake, but instead the BS led us to leave.

We will certainly be buying a 2007 or 2008 S550…just not from Mercedes Benz of Tacoma. Sure, I could buy one from an auction (I have four friends who are brokers), but I still lean towards a CPO car with a known service history given all the technology. I might also want to take advantage of MBUSA’s subsidized financing.

So here’s hoping that there’s a Mercedes dealer out there who understands that some of us are sick of the same old tired dealer tricks, time wasting tactics and scams. Can’t we just agree on a price based on the real market, after which I’ll give them the money and they can give me the car?

Barack Obama: The Lewis Hamilton Of Politics

November 6, 2008

While all the talk around the world has been about Tuesday’s election of America’s first black President, Barack Obama, mainstream media outlets have failed to tie in that, just days before, Formula One crowned its first black Champion. On Sunday, Lewis Hamilton of McLaren-Mercedes squeaked back into fifth place just seconds before crossing the finish line at the Brazilian Grand Prix to win the Formula One Season Driver’s Championship.

To add icing to the cake, Lewis Hamliton was also the youngest to ever win it, as well.

Obviously, there is little comparison in terms of relevance on the world stage between Obama being voted President and Hamilton winning in F1, but Hamilton’s accomplishments should not be dismissed. We’re not talking history back to 1776 here, but 107 years ain’t too shabby, either.

Okay, in actuality the modern era of Formula One started in 1950. The first “Grand Prix” race, however, was in 1901 at Le Mans. During this time not a single man (or woman) of color has captured a season championship. With European, Australian, New Zealander, South American, and North American (including one American and a lone Canadian) Champions, the faces aren’t quite as homogeneous as those of the US Presidents, but every Formula One champions’ has still been some shade of white.

The United States’ reputation for racism is legendary, but thousands of Formula One fans would fit in well in the deepest, darkest parts of the ugliest parts of America. During the last two years, fans have openly taunted Lewis Hamilton. Ugly racist comments from the stands…and even fans painted in mocking black face paint showed that there are plenty of classless David Duke types in Europe.

Unfortunately, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone still is asleep at the wheel when it comes to denouncing the abhorrent actions of F1 fans. Just this week, Ecclestone commented that he felt some of the worst treatment – fans in blackface wearing “Hamilton’s family” t-shirts in the crowd at the Spanish Grand Prix, was just a “bit of a joke”. If the fans had dressed up in Chasidic diamond merchant outfits with signs saying “Ecclestone Only Cares About the Money”, we’re guessing that the Jewish Ecclestone wouldn’t have seen the humor. (And we wouldn’t have, either!)

But sadly, that’s in fact all Ecclestone cares about – and it has nothing to do with his religion or homeland. He has just proven time and time again to care about nothing other than control and receipts. If he cared about F1’s image, he would have squashed the nasty behavior of the fans and celebrated the groundbreaking achievements of a spectacularly talented driver.

So from The Four Wheel Drift: Congratulations to both Barack Obama and Lewis Hamilton for showing children with all skin colors that hard work and talent can translate to the highest honors in the toughest competitions.

Proposing alphanumeric model name rules for manufacturers

May 13, 2008

I’m going to get right to the point here: I can’t stand modern alphanumeric model names. They are more confusing than what you hear eavesdropping on a conversation between two quantum physicists speaking in pig-latin.

Alphanumeric model designations are as old as dirt…or John McCain, for that matter. Actually, they’re older — think 1922 Citroen 5CV or the famous Alfa Romeo 8C 2300. Back in the old days, naming a car model after a combination of number of cylinders, displacement and/or horsepower was standard practice.

For those like me who grew up before the era of Japanese and European automobile dominance, alphanumeric names were the exception, not the rule. Model names showed the creative prowess of domestic product marketing. My family had relationships with LeSabre, LeBaron, Special, New Yorker, LTD, and the neighbors had Corvette, Duster, and even a Beetle and Rabbit.

My parents still live in the same house, but now the carport is home to a Lexus ES300 and BWM 335ic. One neighbor put his ’63 Corvette in storage, and instead drives his Mercedes Lexus LS430.

As an automotive guy holding a Bachelor’s Business Marketing (who whooped-ass in every competition against MBA candidates taking the same courses from the same professors), I certainly understand the perceived benefits of alphanumeric designations.

Among the upsides:

  • It prevents model identity from eclipsing brand identity
  • Enables dealers to have a better chance at upselling to more expensive cars and more options due to product benefit confusion.
  • Provides upsell potential due to envy of higher numbers that come with a more expensive car in the lineup.
  • Makes a model year-oriented designation publically obsolete (ES 300 vs. ES 330 vs. ES 350) much quicker, causing consumers to either lease or buy new cars on a truncated schedule to keep a new-appearing model.
  • Minimizes problems and demarketing costs associated with curing negative name recognition with failed models, such as with Pinto, Pacer, and Aztek.

    When looking at the benefits, one immediately understands why this is now common practice among the mass-production luxury car brands.

    But Alphanumerics have huge downsides:

  • Lack of convention translates to lack of model recognition and identity.
  • It becomes very hard to differentiate the intersections between product lines, products and options.
  • Most importantly – AN designations often lead to customers linking a model with the wrong manufacturer.

    The market has a right to be confused. In some cases, the letters represent the product line, while the numbers indicate a displacement or other option category. This is true for Mercedes, which offers the S, SL, C, E, CL, CLK, GL, SLK, ML, as well as other product lines with a bunch of engine options, which gets you something like a S550 or S430. Lexus (LS, LX, GL, GS, GX, IS) and Infiniti (Q, G, M, QX) follow Mercedes lead with first the letters, then the engine displacement.

    Acura once relied on AN model names — flipping the Mercedes/Lexus/Infinity convention by listing the engine size then the model line, as in 3.2TL. Now, however, they also just offer the RL (which used to be the 3.5RL), MDX, RDX, TSX.

    BMW uses a different methodology. Its product lines are numeric or alphanumeric – 7, 6, 5, 3, 1, Z4, X3, X5, and M (in 3,5 and 7 guises, as well as “M Roadster” and “M Coupe” forms of the Z4s). BMW used to also attach a number indicating the total displacement of the car’s engine and a letter for the body configuration, so a 740iL was a 7-series sedan with four-liter fuel injected V8 and a long wheelbase. Now the numbers no longer always identify the displacement, as the 3.0L sixes in the 328 and 335 prove. (For the record, the 335 has the twin-turbo engine, while the 328 has the normally aspirated engine.)

    Audi uses yet another letter-number methodology. They have the 8, 6, 5, 4, and now 3 series lines. Most can be had in A (standard) or S (sport). One can have a four-cylinder engine, six-cylinder or eight-cylinder in the 4 and 6 lines. Oh, then there’s the Q7 and R8…which has a V8 now, but will have a V10 next year.

    Since seemingly all the foreign luxury brands went away from real names, so are Caddy (DTS, STS, CTS) and Lincoln (MKZ, MKX). If I were an executive for Ford, the brain surgeons who decided to rename the Zephyr to MKZ just a year after the product launch would all be blackballed from holding any marketing or product management positions anywhere. In fact, I’d ensure the only things out of their cornholes was “Welcome to M-C-D’s, would you like fries with that?”

    The FTC needs to mandate some type of naming convention, so car shopping (or in my case – helping people car shop) is less like trying to pick up a girl in a bar who doesn’t speak English.

    So this is what I suggest: When using alphanumeric model designations, the letter must identify a series (product line) and the number following it must either represent the number of cylinders or engine displacement. Displacement can represent the total, or in traditional Ferrari-style, of a single cylinder. A letter can follow either the number or initial letter to designate a body style.

    While we’re at it, companies should be banned from using an “I” to indicate fuel injection anywhere in the model name. BMW – when was the last time someone thought your cars might be equipped with a carburetor?

    I’m not a guy who likes to yearn for “the good old days”, because as Billy Joel once said “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”. My kingdom, however, for a model line of clever names like Studebaker’s President, Dictator and Commander.

  • Mercedes Announces the Marriage of Lithium-Ion Batteries With Gas…and Soon Diesel Engines

    March 3, 2008

    Our inboxes have been working overtime due to the insane number of press releases issued by the automotive manufacturers. Needless to say, most of the email fails to catch our attention, because we honestly don’t care about which insider got promoted to division head.

    One specific release did indeed peak our interest. This one from Mercedes Benz:

    Stuttgart – Daimler AG has achieved a crucial breakthrough in battery technology. The Stuttgart-based automaker is the world’s first manufacturer to have succeeded in adapting lithium-ion technology to the demanding requirements of automotive applications. Until now, the technology has been used primarily in consumer electronics. The new battery will be used in the series-production S 400 BlueHYBRID beginning next year. This important technology was possible thanks to 25 patents held by Daimler.

    Dr. Thomas Weber, member of the Daimler AG Board of Management and responsible for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development, says: “What we have here is a groundbreaking key technology that is going to be a decisive factor for the future success of the automotive industry. That is a tribute to our intensive research efforts, which we have been conducting in this area since 1992.”

    The engineers’ success is above all a result of the Daimler-developed integration of the lithium-ion battery into the vehicle’s climate control system. This ensures that the battery always works at optimal system temperatures of between 15 and 35°C, which in turn makes it possible for the battery to provide long service life and maximum performance.

    The main advantages offered by the newly developed lithium-ion battery are its very compact dimensions and its far superior performance compared to conventional nickel-metal hydride batteries. The weight/power ratio of the entire battery is 1,900 watts per liter (W/L). What’s more, the battery stands out by virtue of its high ampere-hour efficiency, long service life, and great reliability, even at very low temperatures. Its high level of safety is the equal of that provided by today’s auto batteries.

    Lithium-ion batteries are ideally suited for use in hybrid vehicles to help reducing fuel consumption and thus also CO2 emissions. At the same time, the Daimler engineers are investigating to what degree this technology can be applied to other vehicle concepts, such as electric and fuel cell-powered cars.

    S 400 BlueHYBRID — the world’s most economical luxury sedan

    The S 400 BlueHYBRID consumes only 7.9 liters of gasoline per 100 km in the NEDC. This results in very low CO2 emissions of only 190 grams per kilometer, a very low value for this vehicle class and power class, making the S 400 BlueHYBRID the world’s most economical luxury sedan — unrivaled by any gasoline, diesel, or hybrid drive system offered by any competitor. And S 400 BlueHYBRID drivers will still enjoy impressive performance: combined with the hybrid module, the maximum output is 220 kW/299 hp, and the corresponding maximum torque is 375 Nm. The S 400 BlueHYBRID accelerates from zero to 100 km/h in 7.3 seconds on its way to an electronically limited top speed of 250 km/h.

    Even more potential is offered by the combination of clean BlueTec diesel technology with a hybrid module, a duo that is featured in the S 300 BlueTec HYBRID, for example.

    This definitely spells the end of Toyota’s worldwide dominance in hybrid technology, as well as puts the kibosh on its advantage from having Lexus as the only luxury division offering a hybrid.

    Anyone familiar with “The Four Wheel Drift” knows we aren’t the poster-children for hybrid and diesel vehicle cheerleaders. In the past we’ve called-out hybrids for being a net loss for the environment, as well as challenging their economic value. The same holds true with diesel, which is currently much more expensive than gasoline, while only being able to claim lower greenhouse gasses (hence causing less global warming/climate change) at the expense of giving people asthma. Diesel also has an additional hurdle in America: our refineries are set-up to produce less from each vat of crude, so it will always be less economical than in Europe…that is until we build new refineries. At last we checked, nobody was volunteering their backyards for one.

    Mercedes, though, has gone to great lengths to continually improve diesel to the point where we can see the firm in the near future offering oil-powered vehicles that emit less particulates than gasoline-powered counterparts. Furthermore, by combining diesel and advanced battery technology hybrids, the value benefits increase in terms of both economy and ecology.

    This is not to say that other automakers are asleep at the wheel. General Motors actually provided an interesting story with its announcement that “Virgin Atlantic Airways, Ltd. … will use Chevrolet Equinox hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for its ‘complimentary ground transfer service for upper class passengers’ for planes landing at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).” The thought of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle from GM is a great story, but it’s a little too little too late to get the standing ovation. After all, BMW already has H-cell 7-Series in the hands of real customers.

    At least it’s better than Ford, which competed with announcements indicating, among other things, that “Ford’s new Focus and SYNC are connecting with small car buyers. Focus retail sales were up 36 percent in February – the fourth month in a row of higher retail sales” and Mazda North American Operations (MNAO) today announced that Mike Nakashima has been named director of marketing for Mazda North American Operations, reporting to Jim O’Sullivan, president and CEO of MNAO.

    Congrats Mike! Maybe you can convince your parent company that what would be great for Mazda’s product strategy is if Ford would get off their asses and provide R+D money to build next-generation energy-powered vehicles to compete with those coming soon to BMW, Mercedes, Toyota, and Chevy dealerships.