LAREDO, Texas — Given a choice — and there really wasn't one, apparently — this is not the ideal spot to set a 100,000-mile nonstop endurance record.
Like the world's largest crop circle, the DaimlerChrysler 5-mile test track is round, not oval. It's an effective use of available space, sure, but it also means that test-drivers don't have the slightest hint of a straightaway for a rest — they are constantly turning.
The track was built 40 years ago by Uniroyal, and the exit off Interstate 35 is still marked as the Uniroyal Exchange, though that company hasn't owned it since 1990, when it was sold to Michelin. DaimlerChrysler became the track's landlord in 1998. And while the surface was repaved just four years ago, it's bumpy. Maybe the bumpiest big test track in the country. Clay beneath the surface keeps shifting, we were told, and you can lay down glass-smooth pavement, but it won't stay glassy for long.
It can get warm — 102 degrees in April! — and chilly and windy at night.
And there's the local flora and fauna. Mostly fauna. While most every animal the test track staff could find in the center of the track was "relocated" — that's Mercedes-Benz's word, and politeness precludes asking exactly what that means — you can't get rid of everything. One of the Mercedes test-drivers, Roger Rappoldt, guesses that he hit maybe 20 birds, or "relocated" them into a puff of feathers, and he isn't sure how many snakes he hit. At a steady 145 mph, you have limited opportunities to swerve.
Given all this, the fact that three Mercedes E-Class sedans — bone-stock except for the roll cages mandated by the FIA-ACCUS-USAC test certification trio — all went 100,000 miles nonstop, except for oil and tire changes, refueling, and the replacement of the occasional bird-shattered sideview mirror is undeniably remarkable.
But the story gets better.
It took the Mercedes team 30 days to travel 100,000 miles, at a record-setting average speed of 139.699 mph. With production diesel engines. While getting nearly 18 mpg.
As you would expect, Mercedes-paid spinners came up with some news bite-sized facts, such as: Combined, the three E320 CDIs, with their 224-horsepower turbocharged diesel engines and seven-speed automatic transmissions — covered over 300,000 miles, "or one and a quarter times the distance from the Earth to the Moon."
The central idea is to show America that diesel-powered passenger cars are fast, quiet, reliable and economical. "Up until now," said Dr. Michael Kramer, head of passenger car development for the E-Class, "people in the U.S. just [haven't been] aware of the advantages of today's diesel engines." If the proportion of diesel-powered cars in the U.S. increased to 50 percent, as it is in Western Europe, we'd save 2.3 million barrels of crude oil per day.
Mission accomplished, except for one thing: While there were dozens of members of the automotive media present for the end of the test, only five were from the U.S. The rest were from Europe or Australia, where people already know that diesels can be fast, quiet, reliable, etc. Soon, these three cars will be involved in a 1,000-mile, sealed-tank economy run in Florida, an event this Floridian learned about from a European. Mercedes may need a little work on its focus and U.S. communications.
That said, there's no denying that this is a pretty remarkable accomplishment. I was able to make six laps in a backup test car that, unlike the three test cars, was not governed at about 235 km/h (around 146 mph). This test car ran right up to 260 km/h (around 161 mph), the last number on the speedometer. As we know from testing this engine on the street, acceleration is more than adequate, and torque even better, managed seamlessly by the seven-speed automatic. But what we haven't had much opportunity to do is drive at 260 km/h for an extended period of time, and that's telling: There is no indication — none — that you're driving a diesel. No clatter, no lag, no smoke.
At that speed, the E-Class' suspension is working pretty hard on this track, using what feels like all the available travel. At just under 250 km/h (around 154 mph), the car seems much happier, even happier than at the 235 km/h speed used for the test — a speed the engineers determined was optimum for fuel economy, wear-and-tear and driver safety, but still clocking laps at a git-r-done velocity. Test-driver Rappoldt said that after 100,000 miles, the cars all felt a bit looser, but in a good way: "They were more comfortable to drive," as if all the parts had introduced themselves to each other and decided to work in harmony.
The test began April 1 and ended May 1. The three cars were identical, identified by trim tape, mirrors and foglights that were colored orange, green or blue. They were driven by three teams of six drivers, with an average stint taking two hours and 10 minutes. Servicing, involving fluid replacement and wear parts, occurred 10 times per car. Regular oil changes were accomplished in about five minutes. The tires used were the factory Continentals.
Only the lights, the glass and the two jacking points on either side were kept clean. Well, except for one other thing: The Benz badge on the hood was polished at each stop. Otherwise, the three cars were covered with road grime, and a quarter-inch layer of dead bugs caked the front bumpers.
Typical of Mercedes' attention to mechanical detail, this was actually the third 100,000-mile run, the first two being unpublicized shakedowns. This means there have been a lot of Germans in Texas, for a very long time. Sales of Stetson hats and ostrich-skin boots reportedly skyrocketed. Certainly Laredo is happy to have the business: Just released data suggests that with an average annual individual income of about $17,000, Laredo is one of the poorest of the 361 American cities surveyed. In fact, the only two cities that rank lower are fellow Texas border towns. Considered a premium vacation destination by pretty much no one, Laredo nonetheless left a good impression on the visiting Germans, and vice versa.
As for the future of diesels in America: We drove multiple European models from San Antonio to Laredo, including an AMG-tuned CLK, and there is simply no downside to these modern diesel automobiles. Power is more than adequate, torque is of the stump-pulling variety, and if the cars do what Mercedes says they will — which is meet all state and federal pollution requirements using low-sulfur fuel (available here in September 2006) — sign us up. According to a spokesman for the Diesel Technology Forum, this new fuel will be "only a few cents" more expensive than current diesel fuel.
Mercedes-Benz has thrown down the diesel gauntlet: Diesel cars can be fast, fun, dependable, economical and — most important — legal in all 50 states. If the federal government will give diesel technology some breaks, this could help change things. A lot.