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« Elsewhere | Main | 2008 is Bad, 1988 was Worse »

January 30, 2008

A Mercedes Mistake

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Car mavens will recognize this as five month old news. I planned to write about it sooner, but noted that my procrastination rating has fallen considerably since high school and college days and needed a serious boost. Anyhow ...

Mercedes Benz unveiled the f700 experimental car at last September's Frankfurt automobile show. I suppose the important news had to do with its novel fuel-economy motor (see here if this interests you).

To me, it's the styling that is noteworthy. The work was done in Mercedes' California design center; here are some photos with snippets of its development.

Many show cars are future production automobiles with dramatized, distorted features; others are simply design exercises intended to elicit public reaction. Some articles speculate that the f700 indeed previews a Mercedes sedan styling. I hope not. Regardless, let's take a peek.


f700 in profile
Nowadays most body shapes are wind tunnel tested, so I assume this was true for the f700. As best I can judge, the inflection of the roof curve is about at the midpoint of the rear-passenger side window -- about 60 percent of the distance from the front to the rear of the car. A typical aircraft wing airfoil for a craft intended to fly at about the top speed of the f700 would probably have its upper curve inflection somewhere in the range 25-40 percent of chord. This suggests that the f700 profile is designed so that the car will experience downforce, rather than lift. Most current cars, especially those capable of high speeds, are designed with downforce in mind, but the f700's shape is extreme. Perhaps this is more a styling gimmick than an aerodynamic necessity.

The pinched-looking front (from the rear of the wheel well forward) creates the psychological perception that the car might be under-powered. For decades, car designers have followed the axiom: big hood = big, powerful motor.

Front three-quarter view
Here we see a massive grille, which tends to soften a little the puny motor message delivered by the low hood.

Still, the front end's relationship to the rest of the car strikes me as a design weakness. This is largely caused by the radical dip of the front side-windows and the shoulder-crease that follows it, coupled with the curve of the windshield. These curves, if extended forward, would converge near the front bumper. But they are interrupted by the massive sheet metal surrounding the front wheel wells. The visual effect is that the front of the car is "tacked on" -- that it doesn't really belong to the rest of the vehicle.

Rear three-quarter view
The rear of the f700 seems weak and nondescript, in contrast to the bold treatment of the front. Perhaps this was intentional; relief is needed somewhere. I find the rear spoiler (that ridge running across the trunk) particularly wimpy. The rear bumper seems too low for U.S. safety standards (as does the front bumper). If something like this car ever enters production, the bumpers will have to be different.

I also wonder about the deep side sculpting. At first glance, this busy-ness and profile-changing seems like bad aerodynamics. But I'm not an aeronautical engineer, so I could be wrong. Or maybe the sides are a little bad, but are more than counteracted by the smooth profile seen in the top photo.

Adler 2.5 Liter from 1930s
Whereas the f700 is high towards the rear and lower in the front, this Adler from the 1930s is almost the reverse. It follows automotive aerodynamic thinking of the period, and its profile is more like that of a low-speed airfoil. I don't know if the Adler could go fast enough, even on the new autobahnen, to experience lift.

For what it's worth, I actually prefer the Adler's styling to that of the f700. It would be even better if it weren't for those fog lights mounted low on the front fenders.



posted by Donald at January 30, 2008


The f700 looks like it would be difficult to see out the back window. I hate cars like that.

Posted by: Genevieve on January 31, 2008 3:10 AM

I like the Adler too -- somehow it's got some real personality. The Mercedes ... I dunno, it looks like a car for the "Transformers" generation. Which I guess is semi-cool, at least for them. Doesn't move me, though. And it looks hyper-inefficient in terms of using interior space. I'm curious about aerodynamics and cars -- past a certain point, do aerodynamics really matter much? You might be able to squeeze out another billionth of a MPG ... But sometimes it seems to me like nothing more than an excuse designers use to play with wind tunnels and streaky forms. Nothing wrong with that, of course ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 31, 2008 7:42 AM

Not as ugly as some BMW's, but - whew! - it's ugly.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on January 31, 2008 8:10 AM

The old Lincoln Zephyr did it better.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on January 31, 2008 8:48 AM

The grille is absurd, far in excess of what's needed for airflow. It makes the entire front end look deformed.

Posted by: Peter on January 31, 2008 9:12 AM

Ghetto design. It looks like a cross between hip-hop and Chicano. Add some glitzy spinner wheels, under carriage glow lights, hang your dice from the mirror, install a throbbing sound system...and cruise the strip. I can see Snoop in this car.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 31, 2008 9:42 AM

SnoopDeVille. Check it out...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 31, 2008 12:19 PM

That Mercedes —

Profile: That rear door frame is practically at roof level. I imagine a back seat passenger would have a view similar to one of those high-up prison windows.

Front: The grille is way aggressive. I'd stay well clear of it for fear of being sucked in.

Rear: Polite and inoffensive, but a ridiculous contrast with the front end.

I guess the Gen ZZZ designers are trying to get away from the image of Mercedeses as cars for corporate lawyers and captains of industry. I agree with Charlton Griffin, though: they seem to be going for the pimp market segment.

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 31, 2008 12:33 PM

Really, the Land Rover is best. Two-box shape, aluminium bodywork, windows that slide, doors that you lock using little wooden wedges, a veneer of wildebeest dung and a smear of leopard blood.

Posted by: dearieme on January 31, 2008 2:49 PM

I don't really know anything about aerodynamics so I'm in no position to judge that aspect of design. That said, I was looking at cars last year and test drove a Nissan (don't remember the model) that had a significantly different shape than the f700 but did have the same rising and narrowing from back to front side windows. That design feature results in narrowing visibility to the point of blindness at the rear roof corners of the car when the driver looks in his rearview mirror.
Anyway, I ended up buying a boxy Subaru Forester which may not have sex appeal but does have great sight lines, front and rear, for the driver.

Posted by: ricpic on January 31, 2008 4:39 PM

That Merc - louche luxury for lounge lizards.

Posted by: dearieme on February 1, 2008 6:44 AM

The Adler looks like a VW Beetle with a big hood for a big engine. 2.5 liters is big. Wiki sez it topped out at 125 kph (78 mph). I bet it could get some lift, though not enough to matter.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on February 4, 2008 3:25 AM

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