Test-driving the new 'baby Mercedes' on roads of Spain

At first light, we head out for a ranch just south of here where automotive journalists from Britain, Australia, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere will be testing out the all-new ''baby Mercedes,'' a bow to the times by the prestigious West German vehiclemaker.

The total test circuit covers some 40 miles and many kinds of roads and conditions, all of which are designed to ''check out'' the car.

Daimler-Benz even blacktopped a portion of a remote road for the test.

Code-named W-201, the new compact Mercedes, which only comes as a 4-door, is sold as the 190 and 190E in Europe, but will be dubbed the 220E and 220D when it hits the American shore next fall as a replacement for the 240D.

The cost of developing the car, including the expansion of the vehicle-assembly plant in Bremen, is put at 2 billion marks ($800 million). The cars are now being built at Sindelfingen, near the Daimler-Benz headquarters at Stuttgart, but Bremen production will start in either late 1983 or early 1984.

Highly aerodynamic, the new 190 records a coefficient of drag of 0.33, one of the lowest of any production car in the world. Yet the company did not sacrifice safety for the sake of low drag.

While the standard European 190 comes with a carburetor, the 190E uses a mechanical-electronic, fuel-injection system, which, ''according to Dr. Werner Breitschwerdt, head of research and development for Daimler-Benz, ''corresponds to our philosophy of using mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, or electronic components according to which yields the best advantage.''

The point is, if the electronic portion of the system fails, the 190E will still run, in contrast to the total breakdown of some systems in the past.

The car we are driving in Europe is not at all the same car that will be sold in the US. The 220E will have a larger engine - a fuel-injected, 2.3-liter gasoline ''4'' instead of the 2-liter cars we're driving here - while the 220D will be powered by a 2.2-liter normally aspirated 4-cylinder diesel - and will include all of the safety and emissions standards which US law now requires. Further, the US cars will be fully equipped and include some features that are not being offered on the European cars, even as options.

As to performance, the US gasoline model will perform at least as well as the 190E, according to a Mercedes-Benz of North America spokesman, despite the required modifications to comply with emission-control regulations and the much higher level of standard equipment.

So while no US versions of the new car are available for test here in Spain, it is easy to get a good idea of the overall ''feeling'' of the car as well as some sense of the ambiance to be found inside.

Performance of the carburetor-equipped 190 with 4- or 5-speed manual stick shift checks out at zero to 100 kilometers an hour (62 m.p.h.) in 13.2 seconds; the fuel-injected 190E takes 10.5 seconds.

The European version, now on sale in West Germany, costs just over $10,000, but when the new car crosses the Atlantic next October, the window sticker will be at the same level as the present 240D; in other words, about $23,000, give or take a few dollars. Remember, however, it will be a far more luxurious car than the standard European version and include some of the items that are optional overseas.

Too, the company wants to recover the cost of ''federalizing'' the car to meet US safety-related requirements for bumpers, glass, lights, and so forth, as well as all the emissions-control hardware.

Daimler-Benz plans to keep the 5-m.p.h. bumpers in the US even though the law now only calls for 2 1/2-m.p.h. bumpers.

What I found out in Spain is that the European 190 is, after all, a real Mercedes. It is not a smaller version of the 380-SL. After switching from a 190 into the back seat of a 380-SL and being driven 50 miles south of Seville to Jerez de la Frontera, the difference between the two cars was as distinct as tenderloin and a lesser cut of meat. But that doesn't mean this isn't top-grade beef. Indeed, there is no fat visible in the car anywhere.

Yet the new smaller-size car may be the way the company will go in the future as the price of gasoline goes up.

''The 190 is a Mercedes,'' insists Dr. Breitschwerdt.

It has virtually the same dimensions in front as other cars by Daimler-Benz, he adds, except width. Thus, the seats are closer together. ''It's in the back that space is tight,'' he concedes.

While smaller all around, the 190 is built as tough as the larger-size cars, and it includes a new damper-strut independent front suspension and sophisticated 5-point system in the rear. ''The rear suspension was a challenge to the designers in order to maintain the same standard as the larger models,'' says Dr. Willi Reidelbach, top safety engineer for Daimler-Benz.

The multilink rear suspension was one of many systems studied by the engineers.

Indeed, there is little front-end dip in acceleration and braking. Too, the steering is essentially neutral with no severe understeer or oversteer.

''A car must have high control, but also be comfortable,'' Dr. Reidelbach asserts. ''The axles and suspension are an offspring of the computer age,'' he adds. In sum, the 190 is a balance between comfort and precision.

As for safety, the wedge-shaped seat pans, all new, are designed to prevent an occupant from plunging forward in a sudden stop. An antilock brake system also is available to pump the brakes when the wheels begin to skid. A driver can feel the pumping through the soles of his shoes. It could be an option in the US as well.

As in all other Mercedes cars, the company is sticking to a front-engine, rear-drive configuration, rather than front-engine, front-drive.

''Front-drive is not the way to go with all cars,'' Dr. Breitschwerdt insists. West Germany's BMW and Sweden's Volvo agree. ''We stayed with rear drive for car balance as well as handling,'' he adds. ''Too, rear drive allows more options in the choice of engines.''

In the view of Daimler-Benz engineers, ''standard drive gives handling and ride qualities which are superior to front drive,'' Dr. Breitschwerdt reiterates.

As part of the safety package, the company will continue to offer an optional wheel-hub airbag with 3-point belt in West Germany. An airbag option for the US is still under discussion.

The 190 is fast with a top speed of about 125 m.p.h. with the European 2 -liter gasoline engine. The fuel-injected 190-E, of course, performs with more zest and is quicker off the mark.

There is some engine vibration and noise at high speeds. Wheel covers are ventilated to cool the brakes.

The windshield wiper is a single blade.

When the car comes to the US in October, it will have, besides the 2.3-liter gasoline engine, a 4-cylinder diesel engine and a choice of a standard 5-speed manual transmission or 4-speed automatic. A 5-cylinder diesel engine is being developed at the factory as well, but when, or even if, it will become an option is still undecided.

''There will be no turbo, especially in the gasoline engine,'' says a Mercedes engineer. A turbocharged diesel, however, may indeed be down the road.

The 4-speed automatic has two performance ranges for either performance or economy.

Wrapping up, the Mercedes-Benz 190-series automobile (220 in the US) shows the thoroughly modern, fussy, inquisitive-type engineering that still prevails in the company. Confident of the future, Daimler-Benz, which will build some 450 ,000 cars in 1982 (64,000, an all-time record, will be sold in the US at an average price of $33,000), is expanding its production facilities in Germany.

It's target by 1984? A half-million new cars a year - and more. The new 190 will help it meet its goal.

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