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Mercedes-Benz steals the show. Image by Adam Jefferson.

Mercedes-Benz steals the show
Mercedes-Benz produced the most dazzling show stand of recent years in Frankfurt.
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Having visited much of the Frankfurt Motorshow before reaching the Mercedes stand, I'd pretty much gauged the standard of the place. In fact I'd mentioned in my article on Lancia that they had perhaps the most impressive stand at the show. This had to be rapidly changed when we got round to Mercedes on the second day. Before reaching the stand, we walked through Smart (free apples) and Maybach, with a car resembling a stretched Hyundai in a ghastly two-tone paint scheme only the Germans could manage, with an interior more reminiscent of a dentist's surgery than anything else.

Entering the Mercedes-Benz area there was an unassuming door, and only an escalator to get into the stand. Odd. There were strange pieces of tracing paper suspended from the ceiling beside the escalator with diagrams and sketches on. And then another escalator. This was going a long way up. Finally we reached the top.

And even after everything I'd already seen at the show, I was absolutely flabbergasted. I stood for a moment, lost for words. We had come out into a huge, enormous arena. The dome of the roof high above us was illuminated in deep blue, and the sheer scale of the place was quite astonishing. I walked over to the edge and looked down. Far below was the main stage on which were a new silver SLR and a matching silver 300 SLR.

We slowly descended towards the really interesting stuff, trying to take in the amazing diversity of models as we went. Numerous E-class' were on show with three new models running 4MATIC four-wheel-drive. 'DISTRONIC' active cruise control is now available on the E-class, which includes the new V8 E 500 luxury estate, with '7GTRONIC' (more on that later). The E 200 CDI and E 220 CDI will be fitted with a particulate filter, a device for diesel engines that helps to reduce the emissions to 2005 EU-4 levels, which will mean tax advantages for various EU countries including Britain. Finally we reached the star of the E-department, the E 55 AMG Estate. Running a supercharged AMG V8, it produces 476 bhp, maximum torque of 700 Nm and can reach 62 mph in 4.8 seconds. Naturally it is kitted out with enhanced bodywork, quad exhaust pipes and 18" wheels, though with some subtlety.

The C-class remains pretty much unaltered save a special edition 'Indianapolis' sports coupé which premiered at the show. Finished in silver or diamond black metallic paint with 16" wheels, it is labelled 'Indianapolis' on the side strips. The interior features aluminium instruments with dark red needles. The gearlever has a silver badge on it while the mats are specially finished. The centre console trim is in aluminium. A choice of four cylinder engines from the normal range is available. Similarly, the only addition to the A-class is the 'Piccadilly' special edition with a high-spec finish and 'Piccadilly' markings.

The G-Wagon was also on display, though it frankly should have been deleted from the range about 20 years ago, but for some bizarre reason it keeps on going. Why anyone would buy this monstrosity is beyond me. Maybe Mercedes are trying to keep up with the Land Rover Defender, but someone needs to tell them they've got it all wrong.

The gorgeous SL couldn't be further removed from the G-Wagon. Modern, sporty and refined, particularly in the new SL600 guise with a 12 cylinder motor.

Finally we reached the ground, which had been tantalisingly saved until the very end. Walking out into the main arena, the first car was the Vision CLS. This is described as a 'four door coupé' of the next generation. The Vision is undeniably elegant, very much a Mercedes at the front with headlights which look as though the bodywork has been melted away up the wings to reveal an unusual amount of glass. Apart from this, the front is otherwise unremarkable. But as the turntable revolves you notice an unusual side profile, with an extremely high upper body edge rising to the C-pillar and then sinking gradually towards the boot. This makes the height of the windows unusually small - rather like a roof-chopped car.

The rear of the Vision is pinched in a very un-Mercedes way - in fact it looks a lot more Swedish than German, a combination of Saab and Volvo, with trademark Mercedes lights and a Porsche-esque fat bumper and twin oval tailpipes. There are all sorts of other influences here as well. Alfa Romeo could be credited with inventing the 'four-door coupe' in the first place. The showy chrome door handles and side detailing bear similarities to the 166.

You could be forgiven for being a little surprised at the choice of engine - a diesel doesn't sound particularly fit for a coupé. But diesels these days are rather a different matter - this one for example, a 6 cylinder bi-turbo, has 265 bhp and can propel the car to 62 mph in 6.4 seconds. This is mated to the 7G-TRONIC automatic gearbox, offering a previously unimaginable seven gears. Other innovations are the 'AIRMATIC' DC suspension, adaptive front airbags, two-stage belt force limiters, and active bi-xenon headlamps with automatic cornering lights.

Overall, there's not a whole lot of unrealistic technology here, which would lead one to believe that it's very likely this car could reach production pretty much as is - and Mercedes are known for making their 'Visions' reality.

Indeed, four years ago in Detroit, the Mercedes 'Vision' was the Mercedes McLaren SLR. And today here it is in the metal. Well, in fact, in the carbon. Despite the lengthy gestation period, it's still a stunning car, and looks thoroughly futuristic. There were a number of new SLRs on display, but the most glorious was on centre stage painted in silver with the propeller wheels and a reddish brown interior. Keeping it company was a classic 300 SLR, admittedly way more beautiful than the new version with its cheeky exhaust pipes exiting mid-flank.

SLR stands for 'Sporty', 'Light' and 'Racing' and originally appeared on the 1955 300 SLR in which Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson won the Mille Miglia. The 300 SLR was directly derived from the W 196 Formula 1 car. Although the new SLR bears little resemblance to the MP4-17D McLaren, like the 300 it inherits many features from the F1 car, such as the high rigidity carbon monocoque and high-strength front-end structures, seen here for the first time on a production car. This can in fact absorb four times more energy in an impact than steel or aluminium. The brake discs are fibre-reinforced ceramic, and are gripped by 8 piston callipers. The suspension is also based on competition technology. Underneath the car is a six-channel diffuser and on the rear is an automatically extending spoiler, which also doubles as an airbrake. Under heavy braking it rises to an angle of 65°, and together with the brakes can bring the car to a halt at 1.3 G.

Under the bonnet is an AMG supercharged 5.5-litre V8 capable of 207mph. It produces 626 bhp and reaches 62 mph in 3.8 seconds. It is located as close to the middle of the car as possible to perfect weight distribution, and as low as possible to improve the centre of gravity.

Sitting in the SLR feels just as it should. Pulling the door down to close it, you can appreciate just how light the car is - the door weighs hardly anything, and that's pulling against the gas strut as well. Once you're closed in, you sit low, surrounded by leather, aluminium and carbon fibre. The cockpit evokes excitement. Naturally visibility isn't great, but it wouldn't feel right if it were.

Approximately 500 cars will be sold per year at a cost of approximately 260,000 each.

Adam Jefferson - 30 Sep 2003

The incredible Mercedes-Benz show stand at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show. Image by Adam Jefferson.The incredible Mercedes-Benz show stand at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show. Image by Adam Jefferson.      - Mercedes-Benz road tests
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2003 Maybach. Image by Adam Jefferson.

The incredible Mercedes-Benz show stand at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show. Image by Adam Jefferson.

2004 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. Image by Adam Jefferson.

Frankfurt Motorshow 2003. Image by Adam Jefferson.

2003 Mercedes-Benz Vision CLS concept car. Image by Adam Jefferson.

2003 Mercedes-Benz Vision CLS concept car. Image by Adam Jefferson.

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