The Continental: A Significant (50-Year-Old) Frankfurt Debut, VW’s Rebadged Benz, and Some U.S.-Market Cars

The Continental

Each week, our German correspondent slices and dices the latest rumblings, news, and quick-hit driving impressions from the other side of the pond. His byline may say Jens Meiners, but we simply call him . . . the Continental.

The 1963 Mercedes-Benz 600.

This year’s Frankfurt auto show is wrapping up its final weekend, making now the perfect time to revisit one of the show’s most significant debuts: the concept car previewing the Mercedes-Benz S-class Coupe. A veritable Bentley fighter, it signifies a new approach for the S-class family, which will include not only the short-and long-wheelbase versions of the S-class sedan, but also the S-class coupe, a fabric-top convertible and a slightly stretched, ultra-luxurious version that ventures beyond the confines of this class.

The proposed face lift for the 600.

Exactly fifty years ago, at the 1963 IAA, Mercedes-Benz made a similarly upward-reaching debut with the 600, codenamed W100. The 600 was intended to take on Rolls-Royce; specifically, it aimed for the Phantom V, widely considered the epitome of automotive luxury. The Benz made it look incredibly dated, and had Lincoln and Cadillac suddenly playing second fiddle as well. Among the 600′s technical highlights were an air suspension and a complicated system of hydraulics, which moved seats and windows in eerie silence and with surprising speed, and the wondrous M100 6.3-liter V-8. I’ve had the privilege of driving a privately owned 600 several times; despite its size, it is an easily maneuverable and agile car. Styled by Paul Bracq, the great Mercedes remained in production until 1981. In the mid- to late 1970s, Daimler-Benz considered a facelift with a W123-inspired front end (pictured above) but it never made it beyond the concept stage.

Xie xie: China is saving the R-class.

In other Benz news, the R-class, launched in 2005 with great fanfare, has been removed from sale in every market except for China. The U.S.-built “Grand Sports Tourer” was yanked from the American market in 2012; since then, 60 percent of its sales took place in China. It always struck me as a brainchild of customer research gone bad, or at least unchecked—similar to the BMW 5-series Gran Turismo. Or the Pontiac Aztek.

Mercedes-Benz will use the capacity freed up in its Tuscaloosa, Alabama plant for the M-class and GL-class, which are selling better than anticipated.

The Mercedes that’s worthy of the VW logo.

The manufacturing contract for the Volkswagen Crafter, a restyled Mercedes-Benz Sprinter currently being produced by Daimler for VW, won’t be extended. Between 2005 and late 2012, 280,000 Crafter commercial vehicles have been delivered to VW. Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans (and former AMG chief) now says that with the next generation of the Sprinter, expected to debut in late 2016, Daimler will need all of the van’s production capacity for itself. It is not clear whether Daimler’s partner Renault/Nissan, which is currently shacked up with GM on commercial vehicles, might get versions of the next Sprinter. It would make sense to join forces.

Kia Cadenza

Cars Europe Doesn’t Get

This summer, I tested several vehicles (or vehicle variations) that are not on sale in Europe; of those, I found the Kia Cadenza and the Acura RLX to be particularly interesting. The Cadenza, sold in the U.S. from $35,900, is currently Kia’s top-of-the-line entry. Closely related to the Hyundai Azera, this front-driver is powered by a 293-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6. The handsomely styled exterior reminds me of the 1990 Italdesign Jaguar Kensington concept; in the Cadenza, the harmonious proportions and attention to detail extend to the interior. 

My test car was fitted with the available Luxury and Technology packages, which jack up the price to $41,900. The cabin execution is top-notch, and there is a full suede headliner. I was annoyed by the too-bright ambient lighting source on the ceiling, and by the ultra-tall seating position that makes tall drivers feel like they are piloting a minivan. The radar-based automatic cruise control lacks precision and smoothness, and the 293-hp engine seems to be missing  a few ponies; a V-6–powered Lexus ES feels far more powerful. Moreover, the chassis is just fine when you are cruising along, but in sudden emergency maneuvers, the body lurches about wildly. Again, here is a Kia that looks and feels fantastic—until you push it hard. But the Koreans are on the right track. 

Angry eyes: The Acura RLX.

Half a segment above the Cadenza, the $49,345 Acura RLX (optioning it up will bring the sticker to over $60K) offers starkly contrasting qualities. I am put off by the exterior, which is Accord-like and dull, while making a bit too much visual fuss about the full-LED headlights. The interior is rather busy, but the worst element by far is the infuriating telematics system. Bizarrely, the lower display is a touch-screen unit, while the upper screen is operated with a button positioned positioned below the lower screen. Many functions are immediately blanked out once the vehicle starts creeping forward. Then you are stuck with a voice-activation system that is not only remarkably obtuse in latching onto your commands, but also needs constant reassurance that you actually meant what you just said. The intention to make the system idiot-proof in the interest of satefy backfires—more than once, I ended up using with my smartphone instead. To top things off, the map view seems to be a graphic holdover from the 1990s.

The worst navigation system I’ve used in a long time.

Once you know where you are going, the RLX is an absolute joy. The naturally aspirated 3.5-liter, 310-horsepower V-6 delivers a silky soundtrack and responds with BMW-like alacrity. This doesn’t feel like just a 17-hp stronger unit than the Cadenza’s, but sometimes gives the impression that it’s packing more like 70 more ponies. The RLX is seriously fast, and it has with a fantastic chassis for a front-driver. The more you push it, the smaller it seems to get; tossing it through tight corners is an absolute delight. Looking at the car’s styling, you could never tell.

The Mazda 6 drives as good as it looks.

A third American ride left me with nothing but smiles: The Mazda 6 in its entry-level iteration. With a 184-horsepower, naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four (not offered in Europe) and a six-speed manual transmission, everything feels right about this car. The slick shifter, the stiff chassis, the responsive and pleasantly sounding engine, and the price: Just $20,990 gets you into an entirely convincing family sports sedan.

About Jens Meiners