- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

One hundred years ago, in 1907, two decades before Mercedes-Benz came into being, the Daimler automobile company built a special car for the German state secretary, Bernard Dernburg, in what is now Namibia in Africa.

It was very big and, for its time, very capable, with hard-rubber tires, four-speed manual gearbox, permanent all-wheel drive and four-wheel steering to handle the mostly road-challenged terrain. The 6.7-liter four-cylinder engine was rated at 35 horsepower. The car later was named the Dernburg-Wagen for its first owner.

Because Gottlieb Daimler’s company merged in 1926 with another pioneer German automobile manufacturer, founded by Karl Benz, to form Daimler-Benz (later DaimlerChrysler), today’s Mercedes-Benz can claim that its four-wheel drive heritage dates back a century.

Worldwide, there are 48 Mercedes-Benz models with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. In the United States, which doesn’t get as extensive a variety of engines, there are a total of 18 models, vindicating a Mercedes-Benz executive’s prediction a decade ago that all luxury cars eventually would have all-wheel drive.

Generally speaking, all-wheel drive is defined as a system that works all the time, distributing power to all four wheels without any action from the driver.

Four-wheel drive, on the other hand, often is a part-time system that allows the driver to shift among various modes:

• Two-wheel drive.

• Four-wheel drive high.

• Four-wheel drive low.

• Sometimes even all-wheel drive.

Mercedes-Benz calls its all-wheel-drive system 4Matic. With the introduction of the 2007 flagship S550 sedan with 4Matic, Mercedes-Benz now offers all-wheel drive across its lineup.

Except for the semi-military G-Class, which is set up for difficult conditions off-road, all of the cars use the all-wheel-drive 4Matic system.

The three Mercedes-Benz SUV lines — the M-Class, R-Class and G-Class — come exclusively with 4Matic and, in keeping with the company’s new push for alternative-fuel vehicles, are available with diesel engines as well.

The sedans and station wagons in the C-Class, E-Class and S-Class all are offered with 4Matic, but so far only with gasoline engines.

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