- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

Almaty, Kazakhstan — In what may be the most ambitious promotion of diesel engines ever, a ragged caravan of Mercedes-Benz E-Class diesel cars arrived in this Central Asian metropolis this week.

Among more than 60 diesels, including support trucks and other vehicles, were two 2007 Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec diesels driven by two teams of American reporters.

Mercedes-Benz conceived the trip as a sort of replica of the famed 1907 Beijing to Paris race, the first intercontinental competition of fledgling motor cars, which was won by an Italian team driving a 40-horsepower Itala. The winner, Prince Scipione Borghese, completed the trip in 62 days. Other competitors arrived in Paris three weeks later.

The schedule for the current trip calls for 26 days of driving.

Mercedes-Benz reversed the race and changed the route. Operating like wrestling tag teams or relay runners, the drivers and their cars started in Paris on Oct. 21. Each team was to complete one of six legs of the trip, which totaled more than 7,500 miles through nine countries.

The biggest departure from the original race route took drivers on the fourth leg from Yekaterinburg in Russia, which is near the dividing line between Europe and Asia, south through the vast steppes of Kazakhstan to this southern city of Almaty, which is home to 1.3 million people.

The original racers did not pass through Kazakhstan.

The caravan crossed the Russia/Kazakhstan border and made stops in the Kazakh cities of Kostanai, Astana and Balkhash. Astana is the new capital city, with billions of dollars of new construction underway.Almaty was the capital until 1997.

Of the more than 60 vehicles, 33 were driven by teams from countries all over the world, consisting of reporters,, celebrities, Mercedes-Benz customers and individuals who had won Internet contests to participate.

Most drove the Mercedes E320 CDI, a diesel model sold in Europe. The two American teams drove the E320 Bluetec model.The Bluetec is powered by a 208-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 diesel engine that drives the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic transmission.

Throughout the fourth leg, the U.S. team cars ran flawlessly through the flat, mostly treeless plains of Kazakhstan.

Running at speeds of up to 80 mph over roads that ranged from smooth to undulating and rutted, the Bluetec cars delivered fuel economy of about 25 miles to the gallon.

To make sure that the environmentally correct E320 diesels were not contaminated, Mercedes accompanied the cars with a tank truck full of low sulfur diesel fuel of the type now required in the United States.

Mercedes-Benz produced the first diesel passenger car 70 years ago.

Dieter Zetsche, the DaimlerChrysler chairman who formerly headed the Chrysler group in the U.S., said the Paris-Beijing event was designed “to underline the performance of our modern diesel technology.”

The challenge is scheduled to end in Beijing on Nov. 17.

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