"MISTER, THEY DON'T MAKE diesel engines small enough for passenger cars. If I put diesel fuel in your tank, this car will never run again," grumbled the attendant of a little midwestern station. So we had to pop the hood of Motor Trend's test car to prove there really is such a thing as a diesel car.
So began a story entitled "Is the Diesel the Coming Economy Car?" in our June, 1959 issue. In just four pages, it talked about the pros, cons, and costs surrounding diesel power for passenger vehicles and chronicled a 5122 mile trip our editors made across America in a new Mercedes-Benz 190D “Ponton” sedan.
Fast forward 50 years to a conversation over drinks at the Geneva Motor Show between myself, Geoff Day (the king of public relations at Mercedes-Benz USA), and Christoph Horn and Koert Groeneveld of Daimler AG. With Mercedes-Benz preparing to launch its first three 50-state-legal, Bluetec clean diesel-powered sport/utilities (ML, GL, and R-Classes), the Mercedes guys thought it would be fun to recreate that memorable, and it turns out, prophetic, cross-country jaunt of fifty years ago. I agreed, on one condition: that we also take along a 190, to connect the dots between the decades. On second thought, it might have been one of the others that suggested that notion, but no matter, we shook hands, ordered another round, and set the plan in motion.
Representing Bluetec would be a fully loaded ML320, as it is the first platform to launch with the new powertrain, as an '09 model. For a 190D, we only had to go as far as the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California, and its enthusiastic staff let by manager Mike Kunz. He sourced a restored example identical to our original tester, save for its deep crimson red paint job. Four-on-the-tree transmission, 13-inch wheels with hubcaps, a single speaker AM/FM radio, and no AC. Perfect.
That original, 1959 trip followed a haphazard route from Seattle to Manhattan; reading the story doesn't really tell you exactly where our forbears traveled, so we couldn't recreate the route exactly. Something else that could not be duplicated was the fuel tab: just $32.27. Total. They got about 40 miles to the gallon averaging just 41 miles an hour. We broke the route down into four legs, the first beginning at the Classic Center in SoCal, finishing two days later in Seattle.
"She'll run 60-65, but that's about all" counseled Kunz. He and the ever fabulous Larkin Hill, MBZ's West Coast PR, presented us with a '50s-style picnic basket of period correct road snacks (retro Cokes in glass bottles), a route book containing interesting information about the drive, and a cool card with a DVD full of 1959 factoids and trivia, just to set the mood. After a walkaround of the190D's habits and starting procedures (no such thing required for the torquemonster Bluetec) we fired them up and headed north on I5.
How much fun can you possibly have in a car that has just 50 horsepower? Tons. My teammates will have a lot to say about driving a Mercedes that is older than every one of them (plus the new diesel Benz that is as modern as they come). But don't think the 190 isn't packed full of modern features, such as Dual 60 air-conditioning (roll both windows down and drive 60 mph) and massage seats (at idle, the long-stroke diesel engine vibrates the whole car). The spirit of this machine, indeed this era, is understood when settled into that big comfy seat, wrapping one hand around the 190's giant Bakelite steering wheel, hanging your left arm out the window, and watching America roll by at a less frenetic pace you would in any cruise controlled, satellite radioed, radar detector protected ride. Our 190D isn't fast -- but it's charming.
One experience struck me as we rattled up Highway 5, through California and into Medford, Oregon. 30 years ago, I was cruising through the same area when my '63 GMC pickup's number three piston rod ventilated the engine block. It was towed to the Witham Truck Center and Café where the owner, Rod Witham, tended to me personally. He said his truck shop didn't work on small pickups, but he'd be happy to store the blow'd up Jimmy there until I could sort something out. One of his guys even gave me a ride to the airport that night to fly home. A week later, I'd ordered a rebuilt shortblock from Sears, and Witham said he'd get the truck over there for me. He wouldn't accept a dime for any of his trouble, either. I asked one of the guys in the shop if Mr. Witham was “still around,” if you know what I mean. Not only was he around, but also he was there. Now 84, he doesn't remember my visit from 30 summers ago, but thanked me for stopping to recount the story and said we could shoot photos as long as we like. Thanks for the hospitality, Mr. Witham -- now, and then.
It was my choice to drive my entire stint in the 190, so let's see how editorial intern Carlos Lago is doing up front in the ML320 Bluetec. – Matt Stone
Well, while you're waiting for the glow plugs to warm up in that 190D, I've already got the iPod playing my favorite playlist through the stereo, the navigation system pointed to the next hotel, the air suspension set to comfort mode, the lumbar support adjusted, and the climate control at a cool 74 degrees.
The Bluetec-powered ML320 joins our journey to represent the change brought about by 50 years of diesel technology advancements. The generation gap is drastic. Where smoke billows out of the 190's tailpipe, the Bluetec uses a multi-staged exhaust system to convert most of its fumes into water. Where the 190's diesel makes an unmistakable racket, the ML's 3.0-liter V-6 is quiet enough to double as a gasoline engine. Where the 190 relies on momentum to climb grades, the ML employs 398 lb-ft of torque to shrug away any incline with ease.
So broad is the power-band in the ML that we were able to drive it with the cruise control lever. There's little to no acceleration or turbo lag, and gear changes from the six-speed auto are almost unnoticeable. It felt bored leading the way at 60 mph, but returned an impressive average of 29 mpg during our cruise up the west coast. The 190 may have done a handful of mpgs more, but consider the ML's near 5,000-lb weight curb weight, towing capacity, and strong pull on your gut, and the Bluetec impresses.
While camera-toting spectators flocked around the merlot-colored 190 at stops, the ML fell largely unnoticed. When we explained our road trip to an onlooker in Medford, he shrugged off the ML with, “I don't care about that one.” As pleasant, efficient, strong and smooth as the ML320 Bluetec is, he should. -- Carlos Lago
Photography by William Walker
Visit motortrend.com on Wednesday for an update from the Leg 2 team of Allyson Harwood, Ron Kiino, and Julia LaPalme, as they take the convoy from Seattle to Denver.
Our thanks: Geoff Day, Rob Moran, Larkin Hill, Christoph Horn, Koert Groeneveld, and Mike Kunz and his team at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center.