Beauty and the beast

Two news items caught my eye last week, both on Wednesday evening. One was a world-class event of grand proportions; an affair magnificent as it was expensive — making liberal use of a massive aircraft, a lot of fireworks, an R&B singer, a Formula 1 race driver, and talk of “massage” and “scents”.

It was not an orgy, though: safety regulations ban the use of fireworks in those, and anyway, I do not know much about orgies, I am just guessing. To cut a long story short, the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S Class made its earthly debut and it comes as no surprise: the vehicle is just epic. There is no other word for it.

The other news event to hit my desk was about a car called an OX. It is meant to be built for Africa mostly, but the makers think other continents could be convinced to purchase the vehicle in small numbers. Very small numbers. The news item barely managed to avoid the words “if any”. I have been known to compare unlikely cars before, and today you be the judge of whether I am doing it again.

The 2014 S Class at a Glance

It looks elegant, as an S Class should, and it is packed full of impossible-to-believe technology, again as an S Class should. There are cameras that look at the road and decide what chassis settings are best suited for the prevailing driving conditions. In other words, this car can actually see you.

I guess it was only a matter of time before the gift of sight became standard in a road-going car, after speech. Coming soon to a Mercedes-Benz outlet near you: a car that can raise your children for you. “This sounds a little bit like Frankenstein, but it’s much more attractive,” Zetsche said. Zetsche is the guy behind the 2014 Sonderklasse. We live in a scary world.

The climate control system can waft “scents” into the car, so you do not really have to inhale regular smells like poorer people do in their cheaper cars with weaker air-conditioning systems. These scents are varied: there is Freeside, Nightlife, Downtown, and Sports, and these are deployed by an adjustable “active perfuming system” that sprays molecules from replaceable glass canisters.

The front seats offer a “hot stone” massage by means of 14 air chambers and six programmes. This is controlled via a smart phone, which also controls radio, TV, Internet, navigation, DVD, and USB devices. In movies I always see how relaxed women are (it is almost always women) when they get a stone massage. I am not sure I want to be that relaxed when behind the wheel of a car costing Sh8.3 million (starting price in the US), I could easily fall asleep or daydream.

I cannot dwell too much on the detailing because it will take forever, but I can gloss over some of the features. The car boasts 500 LED lamps, making it the first car ever not to sport a single incandescent light bulb. There is a heat-seeking, sorry, heat-sensing infra-red camera (called Night Assist) that identifies warm bodies and automatically switches the speedometer to a hi-res thermal view when triggered, more so if those warm bodies are likely to put a dent on your Sh8.3 million car. Active Lane Keeping Assist constantly monitors vehicles in the adjacent lane and prevents the driver from going into a head-on smash by applying the brakes on one side to centre the car.

This car watches other people too, not just you (stalker alert). Distronic Plus radar-based adaptive cruise control automatically maintains the car’s speed and position, even in gridlock. The Benz will steer itself through curves, allowing the driver to remove his/her hands from the wheel for up to 30 seconds at a time. Yikes!

The PRE SAFE system brakes the car automatically to avoid hitting people at town-bound speeds as well as using the front seat belts to pull driver and passenger away from impact in the opening moments of an accident. It will also quickly pulse the hazard lights to warn following traffic of looming rear-end “coming-togethers” and apply brakes and fire seat belt tensioners on rear impact to reduce whiplash. There is a Spotlight function, which directs a tracking beam on warm bodies beyond headlamp reach, but only after the cameras and algorithms determine the warm body is about to walk onto the road and get slammed.

The OX

This is no 2014 Mercedes-Benz S Class. Not even a 2013. Or a 1970. Anything whose selling point is “built for Africa” cannot be. For one, it is a commercial vehicle. It looks like one of those miniature Bedford street sweeper lorries used by the Nairobi City Council.

The driver sits in the middle, “like a McLaren F1”, a petrolhead would say, but also “like a tuk-tuk”, as anyone who has seen pictures of this car would easily identify. This eliminates the need to “adapt” the vehicle to a particular market as, more than a century after the invention of the automobile, the world still does not agree on who is getting it wrong during the steering wheel placement stage at the assembly line (it cannot be the Germans getting it wrong: these people came up with the 2014 Mercedes S Class, for crying out loud).

Other than the motorbike-based driver location, the vehicle has interchangeable panels. There are no right wings or left wings or fenders. There are panels and there are doors. These go on either side of the vehicle provided the panels create a convincing passenger safety cell (the words “safety” and “cell” are being used loosely here, I must add) and the doors cover an aperture between the panels through which one can enter or exit the OX. The doors are to keep the weather out. The weather and/or marauding wildlife. Unlike the S Class, this car was not built for the autobahn (German expressway). It is more at home in rugged terrain, where encountering wildlife is a bit more likely than on the autobahn.

Rugged terrain, eh? Says who? There is no 4WD option, only 2WD, and that drive goes to the front, which is also where the engine is. The back is an open bed — bed being a loose term here: let us just say the back is “available for carrying a variety of loads”.

The open back and the mechanically packed front end means that unladen, 73 per cent of the vehicle’s weight is over the front axle. With a full load, the vehicle is still nose-heavy with 53 per cent of the weight pressing down the front. Did somebody say “weight distribution”? I thought not. Brake hard at your own risk when thrashing one of these on the autobahn…

This car, however, has a selling point that the S Class cannot touch. It can be assembled by only three people using “normal tools and skills” (whatever these are) and in fewer hours than it takes to sleep off a bad hangover. Also, for those of you who love importing cars, a regular 40-ft container can bear six OXes (it is not OXEN, as I originally thought), mostly because it will be exported as a CKD. Our local revenue authority would have a field day with this if it ever came here.

The Launch of the 2014 S Class

There was an Airbus A380. This is the massive aircraft that bore the 2014 S Class aloft to the scene of the launch. There was R&B artiste: Alicia Keys, who (probably) sang about the hot stone massage in the back seats. Or sang about the 450hp 4.7 litre V8 engine in the Benz (but obviously did not ask why the car is called S550 instead of S470, as tradition over the past many years has been that the naming is based on the engine capacity).

There was Niki Lauda, a not-very-famous F1 driver, who discussed the upcoming S65 AMG super-saloon with 621hp. There were some fireworks… so spectacular was the show that the 2014 S Class had to be escorted off the plane by a Formula 1 safety car (Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG) and a phalanx of other white Mercs, none of which were the 2014 S Class. The accompanying press release is 120 pages long. I dare anyone to read the entire manuscript.

What about The OX?

The OX underwent no such frippery. It packs a 2.2 litre non-AMG (non-Mercedes actually) diesel engine and it has the capability to wade through 30 inches of water. Clearly these characteristics are not as exciting as quoting “621hp from a twin-turbo V12”. There was no wading at its launch because there simply was no launch. The owner/ manufacturer says he still needs Sh3.8 billion for production to kick off. This is after spending exactly one third of that amount to develop the vehicle. I am not sure we want it here. For one, we have enough cheap commercial vehicles that can carry 13 people.

Significance

The Sonderklasse Benz has always been the car to look at whenever one wants to know the technology poor people will get in their cars 50 years into the future. The car almost drives itself, remember? Also, future cars will all be hybrid: Mercedes made quite some noise about their diesel hybrid for this model. Maybe that is what Alicia Keys was singing about.

Another thing: has the world of automotive engineering peaked? Are chassis engineers out of ideas? Impressive as the 2014 car is, there is an ongoing debate as to whether or not this is a whole new car. The two use the same platform: it is just that the current car lost the silly fender flares of the outgoing one, has a bigger grille, and now offers ambient “scents”… among other things.

The OX? It looks a bit like a too-late-to-the-party pipe dream. We already have Bajaj, TATA, and Mahindra. It is just too basic. It is no secret that Africa is the dumping ground for used/reconditioned vehicles from the developed world. Given the variety out there, this is the one time I will confess: I would rather go for a used import with AC and airbags instead of shelling out my hard-earned for a metal box with interchangeable panels. It might sell in Eastern Europe though… they seem to have a thing for this kind of contraption. And there is the likelihood that it might not see production beyond the prototype phase.

Judgment Day

So, of the two, which is best? Depends. The S Class cannot carry 13 people or lug around eight 44-gallon drums or four pallets (whatever “pallets” are). It will cost as much as an entire office building in downtown Nairobi, and the fact that this car can actually see my feet is unnerving.

Also, as a car buff, the thought of gathering two very idle friends and spending 11.5 hours putting together a motorised OX-cart (pun intended) sounds like a good weekend plan. Nobody will ever ask you to assemble an S Class by yourself, not even with two very clever friends. Also, the OX is cheaper. It might cost the same as a real ox or two.

But what would you rather be in? You will not assemble an S Class, but you will be assembling your dreams and ambitions around owning one, even though the likelihood of ownership ranks close to that of meeting wildlife on the autobahn. Or even seeing the autobahn in the first place. The S Klasse, as the Teutons call it, was, is, and (with the current model) will continue to be the benchmark for all cars, and I do mean all. The car is simply epic. I can confidently say it will outsell the OX by a wide margin, if the OX ever sees production. Watch this space.

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