Fleet News

Drivers find comfort in cold with Mercedes technology

CAST your mind back to January 2003 and you may recall that half of Britain's road infrastructure ground to a halt after a piffling snowfall of around two inches.

Cars broke down and were abandoned and thousands of drivers bashed into other vehicles after failing to take account of the road conditions. Two members of the Fleet News' staff spent a whole night stranded on the M11 – one going north and the other south – before the road was finally cleared the following morning.

Afterwards, the accusations were flying back and forth as to whose fault it was and I well recall the local authorities coming in for a good pasting – rather unfairly I thought – for failing to grit the roads properly.

The fact is that Britain's drivers, and indeed their vehicles, do not cope well in the snow. We aren't used to driving in blizzards and our vehicles don't generally come equipped with all the gubbins needed to get from A to B. How many of us, for example, carry a set of snow chains in the boot?

For the UK's busy fleet drivers it is a nightmare. A fall of snow can result in millions of pounds' worth of lost business, not to mention all the hassle of sorting out insurance claims and replacement vehicles while dented ones are being fixed.

So do the country's fleet managers simply sit back and accept that chaos is an inevitable part of their lives or can steps be taken to overcome the problems that snow brings? Not if the assorted staff at Mercedes-Benz have anything to do with it.

The problem can be tackled from two ends. Firstly, drivers can be given special tuition on how to react in adverse conditions and secondly, vehicles can be built with hi-tech systems that will correct them in the event of the driver 'losing it' in the snow.

The German manufacturer takes care of both sides of the story, firstly by organising a series of special driver training programmes across Europe and secondly by loading its vehicles to the gills with all sorts of fangle-danglery that would have baffled even a rocket scientist a few years ago, including anti-lock brakes (ABS), brake assist (BAS), acceleration skid control (ASR), electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) and electronic stability programme (ESP). The good thing for drivers is that they don't have to understand it all – the systems work quietly away by themselves under the bonnet and only lurch into life when they feel that the stability of the vehicle is in doubt.

Even then, most drivers won't know they are working apart from a little orange light flashing on the dashboard.

I joined a party of British journalists in the Swiss Alps on a snow driving event hosted by Mercedes-Benz and in an action-packed two-day programme, we were taught just about everything there is to know about coping with snow.

The Swiss know a thing or two about the soft white stuff. They don't measure snow in inches – they measure it in metres. Starting your car in the morning isn't just a question of scraping the ice off the windscreen. Some days you have to find the car first – it could well be completely buried under a nine foot high snow drift.

But do the Swiss give up and stay at home grumbling all winter? Do they hell – they get out the snow ploughs (there are millions of them in different shapes and sizes), slap on a set of snow tyres and carry on driving at exactly the same speed as in the summer.

The event began with a classroom session hosted by chief instructor Uli Ansin and if I thought I knew all there was to know about driving a car (which I did) I was soon shown that I didn't.

For example, everybody thinks they know where to position the driver's seat and steering wheel. I favour the 'arms and legs outstretched boy racer' approach.

Ansin told me: 'If you drive in this position and you crash, your arms, legs and hips are in danger of being broken.'

All limbs, he told me, should be bent at an angle, even when the body is pressed into the seat while braking at maximum force. Then there is the seatbelt. If you are driving in snow, the chances are you'll be wearing a big coat. Most people strap the belt over the coat, leaving an area of slack which could result in the driver being injured.

And what about hand position on the steering wheel? Well, everyone knows you are meant to be in the 10-2 position. Not so, said Ansin.

9-3 is best – and none of that namby-pamby 'passing the wheel through the hands' stuff while we're at it either. Turning the steering wheel 90 degrees in either direction will be enough to change lanes on a road and should be done with the hands in place on the wheel.

Next, Ansin asked me if I knew how much of the surface area of a tyre is on the road at any given time. I guessed the size of a sheet of A4 paper but was way out. It is, in fact, the size of a postcard – and only half that area is actual rubber.

Next we went on to cover understeer and oversteer. Understeer is where you turn the wheel to go round a corner and the car carries straight on because of the ice and snow. In that case, deceleration must be made by taking the foot off the 'loud' pedal (while NOT depressing the clutch) and – if ABS brakes are fitted – they can be used as they allow the car to be steered under braking.

Oversteer is where the back end of the car tries to overtake the front on a bend. Here the brakes must not be used, but the driver should countersteer with a small amount of power on until the car starts to correct itself and the power can be removed.

Mercedes-Benz has spent a great deal of time and effort on safety systems for its cars and vans and has been in the forefront of airbag and ABS technology for years.

ESP is an ingenious device which can put the brakes on different wheels when it feels the vehicle losing traction. It works in conjunction with ASR, which prevents the wheels from spinning. The systems can be turned off in the cars for use with snow chains or on hilly surfaces with loose shale. All Mercedes-Benz cars and vans are now fitted with these systems as standard.

Next day, we travelled high up into the mountains to the army training ground at Petit Hongrin, where the Merc boys had lined up around half a million quid's worth of vehicles for us to play with. As there were snowdrifts measuring around six feet high all around us, the worst we could do (hopefully) was to inflict a few snow burns on the hallowed cars and vans.

I picked the mighty G-Wagon for my first drive, eschewing the gleaming line of superfast '55' models which glinted temptingly in the sun.

With a four-litre V8 diesel powerplant under the bonnet, four-wheel drive and all the safety features you could imagine, this vehicle was going to stop at nothing. I pushed the needle past 60kph and marvelled at the handling and braking capabilities.

Next up was a rather tidy-looking S350, which I climbed aboard eagerly. As editor of Fleet News' sister title Fleet Van, I am usually allowed out of the office only to drive the odd Ford Transit.

A slalom course in the snow proved a doddle for the big 'S' but I was then told to switch off the ESP system and try the same manoeuvre again.

As the car lurched sideways I didn't know whether to laugh, call for mum or change my underwear, but even with the safety system switched off, the S-class managed to compose itself again. After this, we all swapped cars again and this time a four-wheel drive E-class – which isn't on sale in the UK – proved more sure-footed than a mountain goat in braking and circling manoeuvres.

But it was after lunch that my personal dream came true. I had been eyeing up the one SL 55 AMG all morning and now it was my chance to play. If you've never driven a 5.5-litre V8 500bhp sportscar worth £91,000 in a snow field with the lid down at minus 20 degrees, believe me – after sex and skiing, life doesn't get any more exciting than this.

I climbed aboard with Mercedes-Benz's UK PR man Simon Wood and for the first minute we just sat and blipped the throttle, listening as that big V8 motor with its outrageous power alternately burbled and screamed. Bliss.

Poking the auto box into drive mode and flooring the throttle was little short of miraculous. Wood and I looked at each other to find enormous grins on both our faces. Frontways, sideways, backwards and all points in between – we finally had to be prised out of the car so the others could have a turn and we returned to the smaller vehicles like sulky schoolboys.

And after a whole day spent driving these vehicles to the max, not one was scuffed, stuffed or scraped. As many of the 19 journalists assembled were not expert drivers or even representing car magazines, that must be some tribute to the safety systems that Mercedes-Benz builds into all its cars.

Next time someone tells me that Mercs are expensive, I'll simply reply: 'ABS, BAS, ASR, EBD, ESP........'

  • M-class and AMG drivers have the opportunity to attend driver training events free of charge. Local dealers also organise events for their customers.

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