Thursday, 19 July 2007

Mercedes-Benz Active Safety Experience 2007 on Friday the 13th!

By Dr Long

Apparently, I had gotten rid of any superstitious bone in my body for having attended the Mercedes-Benz ASE 2007 on that glorious Friday, seeing that it was a practical day to take time off from my clinical practice.

Having been to the Audi Quattro Driving Experience in May 2005 (thanks to Chips Yap of MTM and Euromobil) and more recently, the Porsche World Roadshow in January 2007, I was skeptical of anything new to be learnt at this DaimlerChrysler Malaysia (DCM) sanctioned driving course. Nevertheless, it’s always inviting and valuable to have a refresher’s safety driving course every now and then, I psyched myself upon entering the Paddock area parking lot of the Sepang F1 Circuit.

After an opening speech by Florian Muller, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, DaimlerChrysler Malaysia Sdn. Bhd, we were introduced to our trainers by the chief instructor, Matthias Kleinmichel. The trainers for ASE 2007 were Violetta Weykopf (Mrs.), Wim Daems and Jochen Hees.

We were divided into three groups (naturally!) and mine was headed by Jochen, an experienced German race driver who spoke with quite a thick accent. Thank goodness driving skills and demonstration runs are a form of universal language because there are times when he found it hard to understand our English and vice versa. Mercedes-Benz’s LINGUATRONIC definitely didn’t help here!

The do’s and don’ts of seating position were taught as preliminary basics to all groups regardless of which first exercise we were to begin with. In short, 9-3 o’clock positions ALWAYS on the steering wheel – with both thumbs to be rested out of the steering rim, according to this Mercedes-Benz safety teaching. The usual bent at elbows and knees stuffs were obligatorily highlighted as well. Your left foot should be resting comfortably on the footrest – and left knee still bent – if you are seated correctly. Meanwhile, the upper border of your headrest should come in line with the top of your head, which should be a fist width or more away from the roof lining.

We started off with the emergency braking exercise. This was elementary and very comforting to those novice drivers since the starting attempts were done at 30kph! I reckoned the wet parking concrete enabled the ABS to work at such slow speed. We were all doing very well when we ‘graduated’ to 70-75kph at the end of this exercise. Personally though, my first encounter with the W221 S300 L here was that of a very solid limo with truly excellent brakes! The 'new' C230 2.5 V6 was one smooth, refined and delightful drive. Above it all, the take-home message here is: KICK THAT BRAKE PEDAL REALLY HARD in an emergency stop! (in order to utilise ABS fully).

Next up was the slalom which was pretty boring because the cones were quite widely placed and it was a plain driving-up-and-back exercise. The aim of this was to impress upon us the importance of light, smooth and easy steering manoeuvres for our daily safe driving. My impression here again was that the extended wheelbase S300 L was surprisingly agile and easy to handle, despite its length and size! However, its weight when around those cones couldn’t contain itself since you still feel there is still substantial mass being flung about.

Our morning session ended with an exercise to counter understeer (the front wheels not going the way you intended) on the track. This was a pretty daunting task for most of us, since it required us to execute a sudden right turn at speeds of 80kph. Honestly, I didn’t find myself understeering much since ESP was on all the time, but the C200K and E280 we sampled did steer out of our intended line. We discovered the importance of a full-hard-kick emergency braking followed by a counter-steering manoeuvre then – in order not to veer off into grass (side of track) or even crash into Jochen! I have go to admit my body’s adrenaline rush hasn’t begun yet at this point…well, okay, maybe just a little bit during the few bouts of the front tyres wailing.

Lunch was short and sweet. Our group members got to know a little more about one another. During our little chat, it was incidentally found out that Cycle & Carriage Bintang (CCB) has sold quite a few Mercs recently, namely an E200K FL, an E280 AV and even two S300Ls to participants in our group.

I had gotten a little lazy after lunch break, infused with glycaemic (blood sugar) load from the nice meal. Things were about to get exhilarating after the basics in the morning, I was assured by Chris Loo, Marketing Manager, DCM Sdn Bhd. Sure enough, Jochen herded us together again to the earlier ‘emergency braking’ parking lot and we were thrown onto a skid pad with running water. The S300 L impressed me (again!) with its rigid chassis and axles, being quite difficult to induce an oversteer (back sliding away). Nevertheless, in one last attempt I managed to spin the 2tonne plus luxury saloon 1.5 turns, having been late in executing counter-steering manoeuvre. Awesome! The B170s were quite difficult to execute oversteer at 75kph on the wet skid pad despite the ‘best’ of intentions. Most of us found this surprisingly likeable hatch lacked power, though its interior is spacious, practical and more ergonomic than the C200K. It was truly a joy to execute this skid pad exercise in an E-Class, demonstrating the ability of ABS and occasionally ESP to rein you back to safety zone. Meanwhile, the other group seemed to have more fun next door parking lot, with lots of tyres screeching and wailing, I wondered what they were doing then…more on this at the end.

Almost all of us had to ease ourselves at the nearest washrooms after the skid pad driving experience. Guessed the epinephrine has started to work its way to our bodily systems after all! To calm things down a notch, we were taken out on to the F1 track in E280s and C200Ks. Jochen then guided us on imaginary racing lines, with apexes of corners and tracking lines dotted by cones at the track side. I found the exercise to be not much different from a related PWRS 2007 lesson. However, this time we had the whole length of the track to run, repeatedly and we were doing a convoy ‘race’ in regular Merc saloons that we use daily! A good revision and reinforcement of knowledge I felt. The E280s were really good with nice pulling power as we exited corners. Conversely, the outgoing W203 C200K were starting to show its age in its handling dynamics while its Kompressor engine was somewhat a little hoarse and breathless when stretched towards the redline, traits not found in the similar engined (M271) E200K. Strange!

Last but not the least, the double-lane changing maneovre without braking was the most exhilarating of them all. This exercise demonstrates weight-shifting of the car in sudden avoidance of an obstacle right in front of you at speeds of 80-85kph. The hindrance may be in the form of a stalled/crashed lorry or a fallen tree trunk, Jochen had us imagined. I found the knack of doing rear side drifts repeatedly, enabling PRE-SAFE (opened windows did wound up automatically) and ESP to kick in, while catching the induced-oversteer at the steering, best in a W211 E200K. An emergency braking inducing ABS function was required at end of this exercise, after the vehicle has regained its directional composure. Other PRE-SAFE actions like the AC blower winding down momentarily and the seat belt pretensioners winding up tighter were truly eye-opening! Once again, the B170 was not cut out to easily execute sudden double lane changes manoeuvres due to lack of engine power and maybe, its light but less responsive EPS rack, I imagined to myself. We were too shy to confirm this fact with Jochen or Matthias.

At the end of the day, we were impressed with the PRO-SAFE concepts, PRE-SAFE features, ABS, BAS and ESP fitted standard on all Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. A certificates handing-over ceremony was helmed by Elaine Hew, Senior Marketing Manager, DCM Sdn. Bhd. With the usual debriefing by our chief instructor, Matthias and a closing speech by Florian Muller, we bade our goodbyes, leaving the ASE 2007 driving course at Sepang F1 Circuit quite tired but satisfied, and glad that we were all safe – and the Mercs managed to stay on track - all through out that Friday the 13th!

DCM, bring on the AMG Advanced Driving Course…maybe next year?

Note: The writer expresses his sincere gratitude to CCB for having sponsored part of his participation fee for the Mercedes-Benz ASE 2007.

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