Poor old Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Never a driver's machine like the BMW 3 Series, not a hip alternative like the Audi A4. Just an entry into Merc ownership until one moves on to bigger and arguably better models. Now there's an all-new version, but it's not more of the same. This time, the C-Class is blazing a trail.
Mercedes-Benz has taken computer-aided design to a whole new level, creating a completely virtual vehicle before anyone does anything so last century as breaking out a wrench. As well as crash test and wind tunnel simulations, the byte-size C-Class (or should that be PC-Class?) has also been subject to cabin airflow tests, noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) trials, and a variety of suspension settings. Electronic driving aids have been at least partly calibrated by driving the digital prototype through a cyber-slalom. And engineers have been checking the results using a 3D display.
Because this is a German car maker, you expect nothing among the hundreds of thousands of parts to be under-scrutinized. But creating a virtual road for the silicon C to drive down is something else. Yep, there's a long stretch of tarmac in the Black Forest that has been read by laser, every change of camber, every crease, ripple, expansion joint and pothole recorded, millimeter by millimeter, to be stored among the 2100-plus gigabytes this R&D program has swallowed. Then the engineers, who surely must be the type to tuck their shirts into their underwear, put road and car together, tuning 'dampers' and 'springs' with every press of the Return key.
And they got pretty close with their multimedia mule, almost like a real car. Certainly enough to make the analog task notably easier. Tucked away in the bowels of M-B's Stuttgart complex (pretty much a small town in itself) is a platform. On top are two car seats, complete with belts. Below are hydraulic arms, ready to push or pull the platform this way and that. These arms are, of course, computer-controlled. In goes the data, bums go on seats and a drive through the Black Forest is whipped up out of ones and zeros. This exercise helps to provide that all-important 'seat of the pants' feel. Humans are still good for something.
The whole point is that the company can save time, money, resources and more than a few hydrocarbons by putting in extra effort with the keyboard as opposed to the steering wheel. The car can reach a greater maturity before becoming a hard copy. And once the system is set up, it can be applied to future models, refined and expanded.
Once a real-life prototype is made, it's put on a rig that replicates another German road, one that used to be the company's main test route back in the day, just a dirt track in places. And it's punishing, like covering 300,000 kilometers in four weeks. More hydraulic arms attempt to pull the wheels off and disintegrate suspension parts. They dish out the kind of torture that would have Jack Bauer confessing within minutes. But the new C-Class might still be more of a drivers car than a driver's car (sorry, that joke only works if you have a PC), as M-B has been keen to promote comfort as a main selling point. The company is seeing this car like an S-Class with a small 's.'
At the time of writing, no one outside of M-B's test team has driven it, though plenty have sat inside. Build quality seems customarily high, but rear passenger room probably won't be described as class-leading. Given the highly developed state of the rest of the car, Mercedes-Benz will at least have something to improve when it's time for the obligatory mid-life re-vamp. In the meantime, watch this space for when we get to drive it.www.mercedes-benz.com