If I may, a detour on the way to the new Mercedes-Benz GL320 CDI:
At the recent L.A. Auto Show, the 2008 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid was named Green Car of the Year by the influential and subscription-worthy Green Car Journal. This selection struck many people as utterly, utterly meshuga. People like me, for instance.
In the fullness of time -- about two weeks, the duration of my most profound contemplation -- I still can't wrap my head around it. The Tahoe Hybrid averages 21 miles per gallon, an improvement in overall economy of about 30%.
The Green Car Journal jurists looked at the Tahoe Hybrid and -- if I may reconstruct their thoughts -- concluded that it was an enormous net gain in efficiency, in a vehicle class that's anything but efficient. They might have also thought that, given GM's not-so-distant history of sneering at hybrids, the award would acknowledge and encourage right thinking. And they couldn't have been oblivious to the sociocultural dimension: Hybrids and fuel efficiency have been posed on one side of our discourse -- the blue side -- and SUVs like the Tahoe and Hummer have been put on the other. Advocates of the former have been derided as tree-huggers; the latter, eaters of infants. In the Tahoe Hybrid one might see an entente cordiale. And yet.
It seems to me the objections to the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid's being called "green" fall into three categories:
Symbolic: The Tahoe Hybrid is not merely a Prius that can tow a boat. It is a 5,716-pound supertanker of a vehicle that is still twice the mass necessary to do the job it's typically assigned to do, that is, move a person or persons in and out of the suburbs. The Green Car Journal award seems to enable the continuing American fixation on super-sized vehicles.
Practical: The charge is "greenwashing," which is to say, the Tahoe Hybrid program will be a painfully small-volume effort that will net more positive media than real economy.
Strategic: This is the strongest objection. In a time of surpassing urgency -- whether your pet issue is global warming, oil security or economic disruption -- we are accepting, even rewarding relatively modest and incremental changes in efficiency that require no sacrifice, no change in consumer behavior at all. This isn't going to get it done, people. The notion that American drivers can sally on as before, driving the miles and tonnage they do, and only the technology under the hood has to change, is complete bollocks. We will incrementalize ourselves to the crack of doom.
This week, congressional negotiators are hammering out the last dents in an energy bill that will raise fuel economy standards to 35 mpg by 2020 (the United States has the lowest fuel economy standards of any industrialized nation). It appears the House-Senate compromise bill would preserve the distinction between cars and trucks, holding pickups and SUVs to much lower fuel economy standards. The automakers fought hard to keep the second set of rules, and with good reason. As the Tahoe Hybrid proves, it's probably mechanically impossible to make a huge, 5,617-pound truck (76.9 inches tall, 79 inches wide and 202 inches long) meet the 35-mpg rule. With all the exertion of technology in the 2008 Tahoe Hybrid, it would still have to nearly double its fuel economy in 12 years. Not without plutonium, it won't.
Now, punch all of that into the calculator when considering the Mercedes-Benz GL320 CDI, an advanced diesel vehicle that will, with some additional emissions hardware, be legal in California and Northeastern states next year. Like the Tahoe Hybrid, the 320 CDI represents an astonishing improvement on fuel economy: 18 mpg city, 24 highway, as compared with the GL450's 13/18 fuel economy, a net improvement of 27%. And, like the Tahoe Hybrid, the GL320 CDI is still gawdamighty huge, a wheel-bending monster weighing in at 5,313.
I started thinking about this on the drive in this morning, when I saw three GLs on the highway, each with one occupant and -- as it happened -- each occupant weighing approximately 110 pounds. And blond. What is it about Mercedes-Benz and blonds?
So, let's put each of these coeds in a vehicle that gets 27% better fuel economy. Have we solved much? No, because they are still operating vehicles twice or thrice the size required to move their scrawny bits of protoplasm from point A to point B. And let's not kid ourselves. That's what duty these harlots of petroleum are destined to perform. Very few people are going to tow a boat or go off-road in a GL320 CDI.
I've got nothing but respect for the motor in this thing: a 3.0-liter, 24-valve, common-rail V6 diesel with all manner of fuel-air metering, traps, filters and catalysts to make it the cleanest oil-burner since Aladdin's lamp. The 320 CDI puts out major twist: 398 pound-feet of torque at a mere 1,600 rpm. While horsepower seems relatively slight -- 215 hp at 3,800 rpm -- the GL's seven-speed automatic has plenty of range to keep the vehicle from straining at highway speeds.
Under the heading of excess capacity, the GL is equipped with full-time four-wheel drive, height-adjustable air suspension, hill descent control, and a beefy undercarriage that could ward off an improvised explosive. Our test car had the Wheel package, including a stainless steel skid plate, roof crossbars and 19-inch all-season tires.
In most respects, the performance of this vehicle is unimpeachable. The engine starts almost instantly -- the ceramic glow plugs require only a fraction of a second -- and settles into a deep, potent idle. The engine note, when it isn't entirely silent, is a sweet and lush rumble. Off-the-line acceleration is outstanding; actually, this truck would handily stomp a Ferrari 208 GTB in an acceleration contest, and could drive over it during the victory dance.
The fact is, there's nothing wrong with this vehicle. Considering everything it offers -- from limousine luxury to tree-climbing agility -- the thing is a paragon of efficiency, a work of tight-lipped Teutonic genius.
So, is it green? If you tow a boat, pull a horse trailer, or bound through the woods on the way to your cabin, sure, the GL320 CDI is a major improvement over your other options (which include a Chevy Tahoe, by the way).
But, sadly, except in highly unusual cases where needs and vehicle match up precisely, these big diesels offer only a variety of complacency, coaching people to keep their oversized vehicles while assuaging whatever guilt they might feel. I know there are many people out there waiting patiently for the thriftier high-tech diesels. I'm sorry. It's just methadone for gasoline addiction.
The fact is, the bitter truth is, the green car of the year is anything but an SUV.
2008 Mercedes-Benz GL320 CDI Base price: $53,000
Price, as tested: $69,375
Powertrain: 3.0-liter, 24-valve, common-rail diesel V6; seven-speed automatic transmission; full-time four-wheel drive
Horsepower: 215 at 3,800 rpm
Torque: 398 pound-feet at 1,600 rpm
Curb weight: 5,313 pounds
0-60 mph: 7 seconds
Wheelbase: 121.1 inches
Overall length: 200.6 inches
EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city, 24 highway
Range: 600-plus miles
Final thoughts: Green is relative