Thursday, December 8, 2011

Passport to Punishment: Mercedes-Benz Driving Experience

Photos by Ulysses Ang
We car journalists are a spoiled bunch. We’ve been through countless track exercises both in the Philippines and abroad which are supposedly meant to test the car’s abilities. The problem is, most of the time, they’re meh. They’re designed to keep the cars safe more than anything else. So after a while, these things get boring. And tedious. And repetitious. So it’s not hard to imagine what happens when you receive yet another driving experience event invitation. Granted it’s from Mercedes-Benz, the idea of babying multi-million peso cars through a snoozer of a course isn’t exactly something to look forward to. Plus, the drive to Subic and the cost of toll and fuel means it won’t come cheap. But here we are at the sprawling Subic International Airport, having dragged ourselves from bed just three hours ago. Are we ready to sleep again, but this time behind the wheel?


With a wide, Chershire Cat-like smile glued to his face, our instructor for the day Peter Hackett took the center stage. He started talking about how driving has fundamentally changed today thanks to various new features and technology not found on cars ten to twenty years ago. He points out that our very first car is very, very different from the cars we drive today. Point well taken. The car I had back in college (my first one) had 145 horsepower from its 2.0-liter engine. Today, the car I drive has 150 still from a 2.0-liter motor. A five horsepower increase over a decade isn’t the giant leap Mr. Hackett had suggested, but it’s beyond just raw power. My current car may have similar power to the one I first drove, but think about the technology around it: 6 airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability control, all-wheel drive—all of these tech when my first car’s primary and only safety feature was four-wheel disc brakes. Indeed, the car has gone a long way. But have we followed with the times? Have drivers evolved along with the new technology?

This is perhaps the most important point Mr. Hackett raised in his morale-boosting speech. We’ve all been taught to drive. We’ve been taught how to steer, to use the gas, the brake and for some of us, the mysterious third pedal we call the ‘clutch’. But there hasn’t been any refresher course after that. With ABS, ESP and other fancy acronyms becoming mainstream, have we adapted? He then raised an iPhone and pointed out something poignant: this maybe the most advanced smart phone out there, but if didn’t even know where the power button was; then what’s the use? He’s got a point. And ultimately, that’s the reason why we’re at the Mercedes-Benz Driving Experience.

In a nutshell, the Mercedes-Benz Driving Experience puts the drivers into difficult and in the real world, life-threatening situations. The goal here is to impart the know-how on danger avoidance and to teach drivers how to properly and correctly respond to these situations. And as much as it’s an opportunity to flog various Mercedes-Benz cars (with their blessing) on the race track, what’s more important is to learn how the various safety systems work. After all, Mercedes-Benz may have ABS and ESP, but so do other makes and models. Mercedes-Benz did it first and still does it best, but whatever make and model you have be it, chances are, things will tend to work the same way.

Making our way to the runway of the Subic International Airport, Mr. Hackett once again gathered the entire group.

“Today, there’s no speed limit. Push as hard as you want. As long as you know your ability, your car will keep you safe. Your Mercedes-Benz will keep you pointed in the direction you want it to,” and with that, the car flogging began.

At our disposal were various different Mercedes-Benz models from the entire range from the New Generation C-Class, E-Class and ultra-luxurious S-Class. Even the SLK roadster, the different SUVs and the yet to be launched C-Class Coupe made an appearance.

And though everyone tended to gravitate towards anything with two doors, the instructor did say that everyone will get to try every single Mercedes-Benz car. They wanted us to drive and drive until we get tired of driving. They wanted us to know every single square centimeter of Mercedes-Benz. They want us to understand how each car behaves differently and how each on-board electronic system behaves the way it does. And after countless times of slaloming, lane-changing, emergency braking and cornering, we did get tired.

There were plenty of incidences where something looked pretty “interesting”—where tires screeched and rear wheels drifted. But each time you ask the driver afterward, he’ll say that he was firmly in control; that the car felt very stable. Such is the ability of Mercedes-Benz and such is the confidence of Mr. Hackett. From a spectator’s point of view, it’s mighty dangerous to witness, but it’s mighty fun to be in from behind the wheel.

And rounding things off is a special three kilometer top speed run of the Subic International Airport in the just launched CLS 63 AMG. This P 12.8-million car may have four doors, but it goes like no other car I’ve experienced before. Though I was sitting in the back seat, you can certainly feel the g-forces being generated as you’re pushed into the seats by the mighty twin-turbo V8 engine. The 525 horsepower monster simply barreled down with an engine note that’s scary enough to suck in small animals. With Mr. Hackett behind the wheel, he let go at least three times, showing off the CLS 63 AMG’s high speed stability. Our run topped out at 290 km/h. He reckons he could do more (he did 305 km/h the day before), but the weather started to turn.

As we all packed up and left the Subic International Airport, I believe this is the first time I thoroughly enjoyed a so-called track exercise. It’s the first time I’ve been through this sort of event that made me feel alive and appreciative of the different features a modern Mercedes-Benz automobile has. Mercedes-Benz prides itself with the tagline of “The Best or nothing”. With the Mercedes-Benz Driving Experience, the brand and its cars live up to that standard. It made the drive home feel like a bore; my mind telling me I can’t wait for another track event next year.

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