Monday, September 8, 2014

A Year with a High Performance Vehicle

About a year ago, Sarah and I purchased a vehicle.  It was on June 20, 2013 that we drove our Mercedes Benz SLK55 AMG to her new home. While it was a used vehicle, it was new to us. It had low miles and had been babied by the previous owner, so it was in exceptionally good condition. When we bought the car, it had just over 12,000 miles on it, despite being a 2006 model year car. The interior and exterior were immaculate, despite the age. Considering we purchased it for around $80,000 less than a new one would cost, I really had nothing to complain about!

When we bought the vehicle, I really only knew a few things about it. I knew it looked nice, handled extremely well, and had a ridiculous amount of horsepower. The horsepower to weight ratio meant it would go fast. I also knew that it was expensive, and that being an AMG model, Mercedes considers it one of their high performance models.

In the past year since I bought it, I have learned a lot more about it. Some of what I have learned is simply statistics. The engine is a 5.5 liter V8, which produces 450 horsepower. On paper, the zero to 60 time is 4.2 seconds. It is electronically limited to 155 mph, supposedly. I have never really had any opportunity to test that. I also learned that AMG is not simply a model designation for Mercedes, but actually a separate corporate subsidiary of Mercedes. The cars they build are their own models. While they usually correspond to existing Mercedes models, they come from a different plant and have different parts. All AMG vehicles are also hand built, and there is a placard on the engine with the name and signature of the person who built our vehicle.

Some of what I have learned has been more experience based. On dry pavement, it is possible to navigate a traffic circle at 50 miles per hour and only make the tires squeal a little. At 40 mph they do not squeal at all. I have also found that with 450 horses under the hood, you can feel like you are driving fairly hard and never get the engine over 3,000 rpm. However if you push the pedal a little farther into the floor and let the engine get to 4,000 rpm, the cars in the mirror get very small very quickly! If you go to the floor with the gas pedal and get the engine up around 6,500 rpm, you feel like your eyeballs are at the back of your head, cars in the mirror look like toys before you even have a chance to glance in the mirror, and you very quickly exceed the speed limit, regardless of how high it may be. I have also found that 100 mph in the Mercedes is surprisingly unremarkable. In all previous cars that I have owned, 100 felt like an achievement. Usually the vehicles would be making a lot of noise, the wind noise would be deafening, there would be at least a little shake or shudder in the suspension, and the handling was slightly questionable at best. In the Mercedes there is no change in the handling from half the speed, only slightly more wind noise, and no shaking at all. 100 mph feels kind of insignificant actually. But you sure cover a lot of ground fast!

I have also learned that, despite having a reputation for being gas guzzlers, the big AMG V8 up front is not as bad as you might think. Of course, it does depend a lot on how the vehicle is driven. Just by way of comparison, our Volvo has a 2.5 liter turbocharged, five cylinder engine. On a really good day on the highway, at about 65 mph, it gets about 29 miles per gallon. For that we get roughly 250 horsepower, which is more than sufficient for getting around town. (Sarah can give you all the exact specifications for Volvo products.) Driving around town, the Volvo averages around 22 to 24 mpg. The AMG, by comparison, when I drive really conservatively on the highway around the speed limit, gets about 22 miles per gallon. That said, I have found that the AMG is more fuel efficient, in terms of miles per gallon, at higher speeds. In the Volvo, driving at very high speeds really kills fuel economy, because the vehicle has to use nearly all of its horsepower to maintain the high speed. When we used to drive to Billings, we set cruise control at 85 mph, and we did good if we got anything over about 22 mpg. By contrast, when I drive at 100 mph in the AMG, I actually get better fuel economy than at typical highway speeds! The car was designed to go fast, and consequently at 100 mph, it is not using nearly as much horsepower as is available. It may burn a little more fuel in an hour at that speed, but it covers a lot more distance in an hour! I found I can get better than 24 mpg at 100 mph in the Mercedes! In town the numbers are not amazing, although that is where driving habits can have the most effect on fuel economy. Driving conservatively, I can get about 18 to 19 mpg. If I drive pretty hard around town, getting up to the speed limit very quickly at every green light, it does burn a bit more fuel, but even with that, I have never been able to push the fuel economy below 16 mpg. The only explanation I can come up with is that when you drive it hard, it really does not last long, because you get up to speed in no time at all, and then you have no choice but to simply keep driving at that speed.

I have found that the Mercedes has a few little quirks about it that you might not expect from other vehicles. I do not think this has much to do with it being a Mercedes product specifically, but rather has more to do with it being a high performance vehicle and a hand built vehicle. The thing is when a machine builds car after car after car, like any economy car on the road, it builds each one exactly as it built the last one. There is no variation from one vehicle to the next that is not specifically programmed into the machine that builds them. With a hand built car, you get little variations in the build that are hard to notice at first, but you start to see small things when you look closely. For example, in the trunk there is one plastic rivet that just will not stay in place. There are three others just like it which stay in fine, but this one falls out. It is not a critical component, it just holds a piece of plastic molding in place. If you look at the rivet and the hole it belongs in, they are not broken or deformed at all, they just do not quite line up as well as the other three do. Also the rubber seal around the top of the driver's window has one little spot where it pops to the outside of the glass when you close the door. The passenger door does not do it, just the driver's door. One of the stickers under the hood is slightly crooked compared to the one next to it. The AMG badge near the top of the passenger seat pops out once in a while. Little things like that have no effect on the overall performance of the vehicle, but they do remind you that it was a human that built the vehicle, and not a machine. When a person builds vehicles, they all have some slight variations, no matter how many he or she builds.

Economy cars are designed with a different mentality than any performance vehicles. They are built as consumer products, for a market where features like having a fancy radio display, iPhone connectivity, or backup cameras are more likely to sell the car than engine performance figures or handling qualities. Most drivers are looking for comfort and gadgets first, and specific engine and performance characteristics second, if at all. AMG has a completely different approach, but they also build vehicles for a completely different group of customers. First and foremost, AMG products are designed with specific engine performance and handling characteristics as the primary objective. Creature comforts are always secondary to performance. As a result there are occasionally weird little quirks with the car. For example, the passenger window has been a bit uncooperative lately. It still works, it just seems to have a mind of its own. If you roll it down, it may not want to go up later. But if you shut the car off and leave it alone for a while, chances are when you come back, the window will roll back up with no problem. It may not want to roll back down right away, but again, if you give it a while, it might change its mind. It is not a major problem at all, and it really does not effect the performance of the car, but it can be a little frustrating. Sometimes when you make a nice slow stop, the brakes squeal a little. They are not worn out and there is nothing wrong with them, they just squeal. I guess they use different braking materials on high performance cars than on economy cars, and they are just known to squeal on slow stops. If you come racing to a stop and hit the brakes hard at the last minute, they do not make a sound. When it comes to the stuff that matters though, the handling and mechanical performance, the car functions great! It seems that no matter how hard you drive it, it stays just as responsive and performs exactly as expected. It fires right up when you start it, and then right from the moment you put the transmission in gear, it handles great.

We only drive the AMG in the summer. She takes the winters off and stays in a climate controlled garage, waiting for the return of warm weather. The temperature is not really the problem, and we do drive the AMG in the cold, but once snow and ice hit the roads, we put the car away for the winter. During the winter months it can be easy to ask ourselves whether owning such a car is really worth it. We have to share the other car in the winter, which is not impossible but can be a little inconvenient at times. We only really get to drive our AMG about half of the year. In the spring, when we drive the AMG for the first time that year, it only takes about a second to decide that it is totally worth sharing the other car half the year! Alaska may not be the ideal place to own a high performance vehicle, California, Arizona, or Florida would be much better, but it is still a great car to drive, and I enjoy owning such a vehicle, even with its quirks.

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