Friday, February 13, 2009

The compact 2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK propels the German importer into a new segment of more fuel-efficient crossover utility vehicles that include the Acura RDX, Infiniti EX, Lexus RX, BMW X3 and Land Rover LR2.

Last year’s skyrocketing cost of gasoline makes the compact segment more appealing because of better fuel economy than those of the jumbo SUVs, while still offering many of the characteristics motorists desire - rugged appearance and off-road capability. But the GLK not only achieves those features, it’s loaded with engineering features, some of which are unique to the segment.

Among the engineering improvements is a seven-speed automatic transmission, the first in the compact crossover segment. The transmission allows the driver to skip up to three gear ratios, when necessary. You can shift from seventh to fifth gear, or from sixth to second seamlessly. Of course, you can shift the gears manually also, but the transmission won’t let you make shifts that would make the engine over-rev.

One advancement on the GLK creeps in almost stealthily because little attention has been paid to pedestrian-safety engineering that has been highlighted by new European regulations that take effect next year. So far, pedestrian safety has been provided with a few basic things such as snap-off sideview mirrors. Other more sophisticated pedestrian-injury mitigating systems are only available in a small number of super-luxury vehicles. But the 2010 European pedestrian-safety regulations will spark a new generation of systems aimed at safeguarding walkers and cyclists. It will be the next big push in reducing the highway death toll.

Previously, survivability of vehicle occupants has been uppermost in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration‘s drive to reduce fatal road accidents. That has paid off by cutting the highway death toll significantly in the past four decades. Without letting up on this effort, attention is now turning to cut pedestrian deaths that take a high toll in urban areas.

While pedestrian deaths have actually been declining, according to NHTSA statistics, they are the third biggest category of highway fatalities after vehicle and motorcycle deaths. New safety engineering specifically designed for mitigating pedestrian and bicyclist injuries and preventing their deaths is on the way.

The numbers reveal the necessity for this. Nearly 5,000 pedestrians were killed in 85,000 road accidents in 2006, according to NHTSA. That’s far too many lives to lose. New York with almost 2,000 pedestrian fatalities in 2006 leads the nation in such accidents. Los Angeles is second with 986 pedestrian fatalities and Chicago is third with 687.

Europe recognized the need for more forgiving vehicle designs to protect pedestrians first. The European Union has mandated automakers offer new pedestrian mitigating designs beginning in 2010. NHTSA will require such improvements in the U.S. later.

Mercedes has jumped the gun and introduced the first of its pedestrian safety innovations in the S-Class. That flagship sedan now has a hood with an underside that deforms to absorb impact energy if the car hits a pedestrian. It enlarged the deformation space beneath the hood that’s 0.87 inches higher than the preceding model. At the same time, engineers lowered the engine, shock absorber towers and other under hood equipment by up to 0.51 inches.

Mercedes engineers give the GLK similar injury-mitigating capability. For instance, the GLK has a fairly high hood that creates a crumple zone designed to cushion a pedestrian’s head and upper body if struck by the vehicle.

The 2-inch crumple zone is engineered into the hood to absorb energy that would otherwise be transmitted to pedestrians. The high hood position helps prevent reservoirs, control units and the wiper assembly from striking the a pedestrian.

Later this year, Mercedes will introduce a new E-Class that takes pedestrian safety even further. It will come with spring actuators on the hood hinges that raise it just under 2 inches in milliseconds to help reduce pedestrian injuries. However, the system won’t be available on the U.S. model this year. It will only be available in Europe and Japan, for now.

The Mercedes innovations can be helpful in reducing pedestrian deaths and mitigating injuries. But it won’t fully eliminate the gore without efforts by pedestrians to cross streets more carefully and cautiously. Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009

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