- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

Mercedes-Benz has seen the future, and it is diesel.

The German manufacturer, a division of DaimlerChrysler, says it is working on a range of substitutes for gasoline-fueled vehicles, including hydrogen power and hybrids. But it considers diesel to be the most promising, at least in the near term.

The reason: diesel-fueled vehicles, on average, provide about 30 percent better miles per gallon than those that run on gasoline.

In Europe, where gasoline prices approach $7 a gallon in some places, people understand. Diesel light vehicles there now total more than half of new car sales.

But Americans have shunned the oil burners for a variety of reasons.

One is availability. Only a few manufacturers offer diesels because U.S. pollution laws are more stringent than Europe’s, and some states, such as California and New York, are even stricter, so that diesel cars can be sold in only 45 states.

Moreover, the standards are becoming even stricter. One result is that only Mercedes-Benz will offer a diesel car in the U.S. in 2007.

The car is the E320 Bluetec, a name for a new, modular technology tailored to meet the tough emissions requirements here.

It will happen in two stages: In 2007, which was timed to coincide with the introduction of new, low-sulfur diesel fuel across the country last month, the Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec uses two catalytic converters and a particulate scrubber to meet the emissions standards.

But because of the stricter state standards, the Bluetec still will be sold in only 45 states.

In 2008, Mercedes-Benz will introduce a different Bluetec system that injects urea, a nitrogen-rich organic compound, into the combustion process, which it says will enable it to exceed all of the emissions requirements.

Even at that, it is likely to be some time before diesels win widespread acceptance in the U.S. One is cost. Diesel-powered cars are more expensive than their gasoline-fueled counterparts, although Mercedes-Benz has reduced the premium to $1,000 on the 2007 E320.

But the E320 also is an expensive luxury car. The Bluetec model starts at $52,325 and, with a few options, the test car had a $59,855 sticker price. Fuel costs enter in as well. In Europe, diesel fuel is the least expensive; in the U.S., it sells for about the same as regular gasoline.

Attitude is another factor. Surveys have shown that most American motorists believe that diesels are slow, smelly, noisy and hard to start in cold weather.

While that certainly was true in the past, the state of the art has advanced in the 2007 E320 Bluetec to the point where anyone would be hard-pressed to identify it as a diesel. The only way you can tell is to stand outside, near the hood, and listen closely. Even then, all you hear is a subdued diesel clatter.

Inside, there’s no indication whatever. Twist the key and the engine fires up instantly.

There’s no wait, as in days of yore, for the glow plugs to warm up. Shift the seven-speed automatic transmission into drive and punch the pedal. The E320 Bluetec surges forward with real muscle.

Zero to 60 miles an hour comes up in 6.6 seconds, according to Mercedes’ tests, and there’s no reason to doubt that figure.

The strength of the 3.0-liter V-6 comes not from its modest 208 horsepower, but from its massive 400 foot-pounds of torque, which is a measure of low-rev power. Big torque numbers are characteristic of diesels, which is why they are popular in big trucks.

On the E320 diesel, the torque is available from 1,600 to 2,400 rpm. By way of comparison, the E320 Mercedes with a gasoline-fueled 3.5-liter V-6 has 268 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. The car weighs 120 pounds less than the Bluetec, and accelerates to 60 about one-tenth of a second faster.

But the gasoline E320 is rated at 19/26 miles per gallon on the government’s city/highway cycle. The Bluetec, on the other hand, is rated at 27/37.

That enables the Mercedes folks to brag that the Bluetec can cover the distance between New York and Chicago — about 670 miles — on less than one tank of fuel.

The Bluetec is a quiet highway cruiser, with precise handling and a supple ride, though it is somewhat susceptible to crosswinds, where steering corrections are required.

Along with the other E-Class models, the Bluetec sports new exterior styling, especially noticeable when you look at the huskier new front end.

Inside, there’s ample room in this midsize sedan for four adults. Though there’s a seat belt for a fifth passenger in back, the center position is an uncomfortable perch with no place for feet except straddling the drivetrain hump.

The leather-covered front seats are comfortable and supportive, though sticky in hot weather, notwithstanding perforations in the surface.

Mercedes-Benz plans to extend the Bluetec diesel technology to other models, as well as worldwide.

Some candidates: the Mercedes-Benz ML, GL and RL SUVs, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

In an ideal world, the technology should be available on popular-priced cars as well. That would hasten the number of diesel converts in the U.S.

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