Jude P. Morte / | December 13, 2006 00:00
Avant GuardFor the wealthy – especially the fabulous, the corrupt and the inconspicuous – sooner or later there are always people that are out to get them, their wealth, their families or all of the aforementioned. It is a given that their means of transportation are heavily armor plated, but the catch is that movement is greatly sacrificed (due to the added weight provided by the armor), and that these transformed vehicles make them more visible whenever they're out in public.
Enter the Mercedes Benz Guard program. This 80-year-old program provides a combination of stealth and protection for Mercedes Benz (MB) owners, all without sacrificing performance.
The sleeper look
The Guard program started in 1928 with the release of its "Nurberg" model – an armor-plated vehicle that included then Japanese Emperor Hirohito as one of its customers. Since then the program has serviced over 80 governments and royal court transport requirements, with the current model E-Class, S-Class and G-Class off-roader as the most recent vehicles signing up for armor protection. "We take our customers' requirements seriously and have been further developing our special-protection vehicles on an almost permanent basis since way back in 1928", said Dr Rainer Gäertner, Mercedes-Benz Guard senior manager.
Common to all MB Guard vehicles is the philosophy of integrated special protection. This means that rather than retrofitting the protective features for the doors, rear wall, side panels, roof lining and firewall in a finished vehicle, the specialists fully integrate them into the chassis on a production line operated solely by hand. Also, the passenger cells of MB Guard vehicles are clad in state-of-the-art materials such as glass/plastic combinations, high-strength, high-tensile special steel or special steel/plastic/Kevlar/carbon fiber (aramid) composites, in order to reconcile the highest degree of protection with the lowest possible weight. This effectively creates an overlapping coat of armor around the entire passenger cell (incorporating even the roof frame struts, door locks, door gaps and exterior mirror mountings) that prevents interior projectile penetration, even in areas where post-production access would be all but impossible.
MB Guard vehicles can be equipped with an (optional) emergency fresh-air system which effectively counteracts dangerous gaseous substances. Sensors detect smoke or tear gas, whereupon the air-conditioning system automatically blocks the supply of fresh air from outside, complemented by a fire-extinguishing system with twelve nozzles and two cylinders of extinguishing agent, triggered either by heat sensors or by the driver or rear occupants. In addition, fresh air from an on-board compressed-air cylinder creates slight overpressure (with manual override).
But that's not all that the MB Guard program has to offer. A pneumatic emergency control system for the power windows can be operated independently of on-board electronics for instant protection during sudden, quick firearm assaults. MB Guard vehicles also feature an emergency trunk opening, which allows occupants to free themselves from the boot of the car by means of a switch located on the inside of the trunk lid. The vehicles also tote F1-derived rubberized fuel tanks that reseal themselves if perforated by projectiles, along with bulletproof batteries with tier-level plating for constant electric power.
MB Guard vehicles offer the option of High-Protection (engineered to the European B4 resistance level) or Highest-Protection (engineered to the European B6/B7 resistance level) depending on the client's needs. The former resists large-caliber handgun ammunition and offers protection against drug-related and violent street crime, while the latter provides protection against the threat posed by terrorist attacks. The B6/B7-ready armor is designed to resist military-standard small-arms projectiles which have a velocity almost twice that of bullets fired from a revolver, aside from protection against fragments from hand grenades and explosive charges.
On the outside, there is hardly any difference at all between a MB Guard vehicle and its stock counterpart. "That's because when it comes to special protection, discretion is just as much of a must as trust, reliability and quality. Because the protective elements in Mercedes-Benz Guard models are already integrated into the bodyshell, they offer effective protection yet are inconspicuous. Nobody actually sees the hard core that lies within," said Dr. Gäertner.
And now, the test
Being resistant to nearly all forms of assault is not enough. MB Guard vehicles must be able to run away from a potential threat, since a moving target is much harder to take down than a stationary one. In this regard, Mercedes Benz invited this writer to test the roadgoing abilities of the MB Guard vehicles, the B6/B7-armored S600 and the B4 E-Class in particular.
The first test was a slalom weave where attendees tested the cornering abilities of the S600, a bone stock S350, a B4-armored E320 CDI and a stock E240. There was little difference in handling between the two E-Class sedans, but very much evident between S-Classes. Unlike the S350 where this writer averaged 60 kph through the weave, with the B6/B7 S600 he had to reduce speed (around 50-55 kph) through the pylons, as the added weight (1958kg for the stock S-Class, 3358kg for the armored version) and an additional steel spring on the rear axle (to support the air suspension) made cornering feel like a boat bobbing on high waves. Also making the weave difficult was the fact that the B6/B7's steering felt lighter than the S350's, providing less feedback and numbing steering feel.
Next up was a braking session where attendees traveled 60kph, 80 kph and 85 kph until the car's front end entered a pylon-filled, box-shaped area. Once inside, the brakes had to be applied hard while steering the car through either one of the prongs of a y-fork immediately after the "box", with radio direction supplied by Active Safety instructor Michael Weykopf. Here the S600's 517hp and 830 NMs of torque from its V12 twin turbo engine provided decent launches from rest, while the twin front calipers, the standard ABS (anti-lock brake system) and Brake Assist Plus system worked greatly to provide stopping power in less than 30 meters.
Last was an emergency lane change session on wet tarmac where attendees rode shotgun in both S-Class saloons, with Weykopf and fellow Active Safety instructor Wim Daens doing the driving. Both S-Classes were launched from rest up to 100 kph, then entered a 90-degree lefthander and had to swerve the cars immediately to the right in order to avoid the kerbs. One run was made with traction control on, and another was made with the traction control off. With traction control the cars displayed manageable oversteer, but without traction control the vehicles' rear ends were all over the place, but with the Michelin PAX 245-700 R470 AC run flat tires providing great grip.
For all this armament and vehicle performance, a potential buyer is expected to fork over an estimated 300,000 euros (for the B6B7-armored S-Class) or an estimated 200,000 euros (for the B4-armored E-Class). This includes intensive driver training that includes threat response and emergency situation car vehicle control. But there is no price for a life, and human lives are what the Mercedes Benz Guard vehicles protect. Throw in an eclectic mix of luxury and performance, and customers will truly experience the meaning of avant guard.