Monday, March 24, 2008

Fact Check

I've been very lazy when it comes to this blog. I cant help it, my new job is eating up all my time, plus they're strongly against unlimited internet access.

My love for cars stays strong, but rarely does it intersect with politics. Like almost every Kenyan right now I'm an armchair political analyst, so you can imagine the look on my face when The Standard wrote an article about what they think our Prime Minister Designate will be driving soon.

Now their speculation has been horribly wrong in the past (Ksh 40 Million Hummer H2) and the Government was uncharacteristically swift with its response so there may be some fire behind all the smoke.

Just in case they're right this time, here are the facts

The S-Guard is Merc's armoured S-Class, built from the ground up to protect world leaders - 90 governments worldwide use an S-Guard - and those who need defending from criminals and terrorists, while also whisking them around in supreme comfort.

Demand for special-protection vehicles is rising and is currently especially high in Latin America, Africa and Southern Europe, where most buyers opt for High-Protection vehicles that will withstand bullets from handguns up to the .44 Magnum. In Central Europe and the former Soviet states, however, Highest-Protection Guard models are more the norm, where they have to defend against military-grade rifles and high-velocity ammo. Then there's also demand from, surprisingly, Kenya.

The S-Guard is produced on a dedicated production line at Mercedes's factory in Sindelfingen, so, rather than retrofitting the protective elements in the doors, rear wall, side panels, roof lining and firewall etc of a finished vehicle, they are fully integrated into the bodyshell as the car is built. All the body-structure reinforcements, required due to the extra weight of the protective elements, can therefore be incorporated right from the start.

This means that all a car's potential weak spots - gaps in the body, at the doors or at the joins between metal and glass sections - are fully protected from attack, this overlapping system preventing bullets from getting through to the inside of the car. In fact, there are 250 points around the car that are tested ballistically, all of which are carried out with dummies inside.

The integration of the special protection elements also means that the body structure is reinforced, instead of having extra strain exerted on it by the additional weight. The necessary body-structure reinforcements, such as chassis suspension units or sturdier door hinges and window frames, can also be integrated right from the start.

So the reinforced steel plating and polycarbonate windows added to the shell of an S-Class not only make it a much more impenetrable proposition, but also a considerably heavier one, weighing in at 4,200kg. The doors themselves are 130kg each.

But how good is all this protection, really? Well the S-Guard is built to a standard called B6/B7, which means that the armour is designed to resist military-standard small-arms projectiles (including armour-piercing bullets), which have a velocity almost twice that of bullets fired from a revolver. It also offers protection against fragments from hand grenades and explosive charges.

Of course, it's all very well talking about all the protection the car offers, but what about ensuring that all the vehicles have the right materials to keep their principals intact? That's where DaimlerChrysler's resident sniper comes in.

Deep in the bowels of one of Sindelfingen's many buildings is the company's ballistic laboratory, home to a man with a large rifle, who spends his day shooting at random samples of the steel plates and polycarbonate glass fitted to the S-Guard. This process means that every batch of materials used is rigorously tested to ensure that every S-Guard that goes out can do its job if pressed into service.

Watching the sniper shooting at chunks of steel and polycarbonate-layered glass, it's possible to see how the materials used in building the S-Guard actually work. The energy of the bullet - which travels at a speed of 830 metres per second - is absorbed by the glass or steel and transferred back to the projectile, causing it to fragment. After shooting the glass, it's possible to see tiny bits of metal that previously made up the bullet in the layers.

When used against the steel, the fragments are scattered all around, with the steel left with no deformation to its structure, just a mark where the bullet struck.

All the extra protection means that the fully enclosed passenger cell is highly secure, safe and comfortable. However, it's not just the materials used in the car that keep the passengers safe: there's all the usual electronic control systems such as ESP, ABS, etc (although modified to take the extra weight into consideration) that ensure the S-Class's driving dynamics are maintained. Plus it comes fitted with S-Class safety features such as Pre-Safe brakes and Brake Assist.

There are also numerous additional features to make riding in the S-Guard safer than playing on a bouncy castle while dressed in an American football uniform. There's a reversing camera to monitor the rear of the car; run-flat tyres; a self-sealing fuel tank that uses the same material as military helicopters; a fire-extinguishing system; an emergency fresh-air system that counteracts dangerous gaseous substances; a pneumatic emergency control system for the power windows that operates independently of the on-board electronics; an emergency boot-opening facility that allows occupants to free themselves from the boot of the car using a switch on the inside of the boot lid (handy if you've been kidnapped in your own car); infrared lights and camera; and a Panic Alarm System that can be activated from anywhere in the vehicle, locking the doors to create a protected zone and alerting the outside world by means of visual and audible alarm signals, plus an intercom.

Perhaps the most cunning thing of all about the S-Guard though, is the fact that you can't tell the difference between it and a standard S-Class. From the outside, there is absolutely nothing to indicate that the car is in any way special.

The layers of ballistic glass that form the windows are held together with a sealant that has the same refractive properties of the glass it bonds. The result? Rays of light passing through the glass don't bend, they go straight through, so you don't get that "Bank Teller" look.

When you get behind the wheel, however, and start driving, it soon becomes apparent that you are, in fact, driving a tank. Starting up the engine and driving in straight line is fine: the S-Guard is equipped with the S 600 biturbo V12 engine, which generates 509bhp and 612lb-ft of torque, so there's plenty of power on tap to pull the car along.

However, when you start throwing it around a handling course, you realise that you have to start rethinking your concept of braking. You're steering a 4,200kg car - and that's a lot of weight to try to stop when you need to. The inertia generated by such as weight means that if you try braking where you normally would when approaching a corner, you find yourself running out of road, an act accompanied by tyre-squealing reminiscent of an airliner touching down. Despite the agility that exists in the car's S-Class DNA, brake too late and you find yourself doing some wrestling with the wheel.

After a few minutes, though, you begin to get the hang of the car and can start cornering with speed and precision, while still managing to make the car squeal like a pig.

Moving a four-tonne car through a series of cones at 50mph is no picnic at the best of times: so you'd think that doing it with a flat tyre would be verging on insanity. Not in the S-Guard. The Michelin PAX run-flats mean that you can still manage to steer the car through all the gaps as if on the usual complement of four fully inflated wheels, the car responding to steering inputs with barely discernable difference. Very impressive.

So if you've ever been careless enough to incur a fatwa, have to drive through Colombia while directing the war on drugs, or are just unfortunate enough to have so much money that you and your family a target for kidnappers, you should seriously consider an S-Guard. You'll be able to relax for two reasons: first, the peace of mind in knowing that you're virtually impregnable while in your car; plus you'll be sitting in a car seat that can give you a massage which will make all your cares just melt away.

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