In Geneva, Daimler Breaks With Convention

Times Staff Writer

Chrysler is wowing 'em again with its eye-popping concepts.

The latest, unwrapped at the Geneva Motor Show in snowy Switzerland last week, is the Airflite.

It's a swoopy, four-passenger, five-door hatchback that takes many of its cues from the Crossfire two-seater that was shown as a concept last year at the Greater L.A. Auto Show and is scheduled to hit dealerships as a 2004 production model.

Chrysler design chief Trevor Creed describes the V-6-powered Airflite as a "sedan-coupe hybrid" that "resembles a piece of uniquely American sculpture."

Although it is a concept, the hatchback is based on a shortened version of Chrysler's production LX rear-wheel-drive platform. Stripped of show-car fantasies such as its free-floating, lounge-like seating and 20-inch wheels, it isn't that far from reality if Chrysler sees a demand.

Diesel with oomph

Critics often complain that despite their low-end oomph, diesels just don't have what it takes to grab the attention of horsepower-hungry American buyers.

Well, consider the Mercedes-Benz E400 CDI diesel sedan, unveiled last week in Geneva.

The luxury car's twin turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 diesel engine produces 260 horsepower and, more important, delivers its maximum 412.7 pound-feet of torque from 1,700 to 2,600 rpm.

That gives the hefty sedan a zero-to-62 mph acceleration time (it actually is a zero-to-100 kilometers per hour acceleration because those Europeans insist on metric measurements) of 6.9 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 250 kilometers per hour, or 155.3 mph -- more than enough to hold its own on the autobahn.

On the fuel economy front, the E400 CDI (it stands for common-rail diesel injection) is rated at 25 mpg, with a range of 528 miles on a full tank ( 21.1 gallons) of diesel fuel.

Mercedes claims the E400 is the most powerful and fuel-efficient diesel V-8 passenger vehicle in the world.

Accouterments include five-speed automatic transmission; electronically controlled air suspension system; dual control, four-zone hearing and air conditioning; 17-inch alloy wheels and power-assisted, speed-sensitive steering.

And, of course, Mercedes won't be selling it in the U.S.

What we'll get -- in 45 states because the engine can't yet meet emissions standards in California and four Eastern states that follow California's tough automotive pollution rules -- is the E320 CDI.

It has the same body, but a turbocharged inline-6 engine rated at 200 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque. Zero-to-60 mph time is about 7.5 seconds, top speed is 130 mph -- fast enough to collect speeding tickets in all 50 states and the District of Columbia -- and fuel economy is estimated at 35 mpg. By comparison, the E320 gasoline V-6 model available in the U.S. gets an average of 25 mpg from an engine rated at 221 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque.

Pricing for the diesel E320 is expected to start at about $50,000, versus $47,000 for the gasoline model.

AMG coupe rolls out

At the Geneva show, Mercedes took the wraps off the latest offering from its in-house performance arm, AMG.

The car is the CL65 AMG coupe, with a twin-turbo gasoline V-12 engine rated at 612 horsepower and 737 pound-feet of torque, available from the time the tachometer hits 2,000 rpm.

The massive engine gooses the car from zero to 62 mph(that old 100 kilometers per hour again) in an estimated 4.5 seconds. Top speed is limited to the same 155 mph as the diesel E400.

Mercedes doesn't have any plans to sell this one in the U.S. We get its little brother, the V-8-powered CL55 AMG, rated at a mere 493 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque and priced at $115,000.

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