Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Please answer the following questions:
Are you important?
Do people wearing ski masks have a propensity to discharge firearms in your general direction?
Do you make a lot of money?
Do people want to get your money?
Do you collect your paycheck from a government agency that officially doesn't exist?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you might need a more secure form of personal transportation than can otherwise be provided by your average rusted-out '73 Ford Pinto with broken door locks. You need something big and preferably Teutonic. This should be a vehicle that you could trust to protect yourself and your family (or other blue-suited government types with sunglasses permanently attached to their heads). You need a vehicle that can stop attacks ranging from sledgehammer blows to .44 Magnum rounds. You need, in fact, a Mercedes-Benz S500 Guard.
The S500 Guard is Mercedes' first official factory-offered armored car to be available to the U.S. public. It is not, however, the company's first armored-car product. Mercedes has a long history of offering factory-built protection vehicles to the rest of the world. The very first Mercedes automobile with special protection was the W 08/460 Nürburg, built in 1928. A variety of armored cars became available starting in the mid '60s (think the Cold War had anything to do with this?), including the Mercedes-Benz 600, the 280 SE 3.5, the 350 and 450 DE/SEL, and the 380 and 560 SE/SEL.
The main advantage of the S500 Guard over other modified armored cars is that the S500 Guard is purpose-built from the factory. Mercedes starts the armoring process when the car is still a freshly minted body shell. This allows Mercedes to more fully integrate the armored components into the car. Specialized technicians are responsible for installing all of the upgraded and armored components. As such, Mercedes says the effectively hand-built S500 Guard takes five times longer to build than a regular S500. Aftermarket security companies often have to start with a regular production car, meaning they have to disassemble the vehicle completely, install the armored components and then put the car back together.
Mercedes is quick to point out that the S500 Guard is not supposed to be a street-legal version of the M1 Abrams tank. Armor adds weight, and one of Mercedes' goals for the car is to maintain a high level of handling, acceleration, braking and stability. The purpose of the armoring is to survive an initial attack, thereby allowing the car to expedite its occupants safely from a hazardous situation. These hazardous situations might include carjackings, kidnapping attempts and other types of street-level violence.
To match up against these potential threats, the S500 Guard's armor meets the international ballistic protection standard of B4. The B4 rating certifies that the occupants are safe from all acts of mechanical violence (such as hammer or baseball-bat blows) and handgun rounds up to .44 Magnum in caliber. Mercedes does offer the S500 Guard with higher levels of protection, but only in other markets. Buyers in Russia, for instance, can get an S500 Guard that offers B7 protection, a level that is certified to stop all types of military automatic rifles and most hand grenade and bomb attacks.
Mercedes outfits the S500 Guard with a variety of components to make sure it meets B4 certification. Extensive steel armor plating is used for the entire occupant shell, including the doors, the A-, B- and C-pillars, the roof, the firewall and the rear bulkhead. Armoring prevents bullets from passing through door locks and the gaps where the doors are shut. On the doors where metal adjoins window glass, a meticulously tested labyrinth system prevents bullets from entering the cabin.
The windows themselves are composed of thick multi-layer polycarbonate security glass that does not splinter when hit or shot at. The glass is amazingly distortion free, and looks completely like normal glass until you power down the front windows and see that they are about 1 inch thick. Additional security upgrades include run-flat tires with a tire pressure warning system and an optional self-sealing fuel tank that resists fuel leaks when punctured by small-arms fire. To compensate for the additional weight that the armoring adds, the S500 Guard has reinforced suspension components and upgraded brakes.
Because of the aforementioned purpose of being an escape vehicle and not a tank, Mercedes does not provide armor protection for the engine or the trunk. The S500 Guard weighs 802 pounds more than a regular S500, a weight equal to carrying four or five adult occupants. Mercedes says more weight would degrade handling and acceleration too much. Additionally, it is highly unlikely a bullet fired into the engine compartment would disable the engine immediately.
The rest of the S500 Guard is surprisingly stock. In fact, from the outside, it is exceptionally hard to tell the difference between a regular S500 and the Guard edition. External dimensions and body panel styling between the two are nearly identical. About the only cues are the Guard's special wheels for the run-flat tires and its lack of a sunroof. No sunroof is offered on the Guard because it is considered too much of a security risk. Tele Aid, Mercedes' emergency calling system, is standard equipment.
To see if all of these additions changed the S500's character, we were given a chance to briefly compare an S500 to an S500 Guard. If you open the doors, the additional heft of the steel armor is quickly apparent. But once safe and snug inside the cabin, the Guard seems exactly the same as any other S-Class. All of the trim and controls are the same. In terms of handling, the Guard simply feels stiffer and heavier. It does not roll excessively, and ride quality is still quite acceptable. Mercedes says that the S500 Guard's additional weight adds about one second to its zero-to-60 mph acceleration time and about 5 feet to its 60-to-zero mph braking time. The car's top speed is still 130 mph.
In terms of a factory-built armored car that is covered by the factory warranty, the S500 Guard's only competition is the BMW 740iL or 750iL Protection. Both the Mercedes and the BMW offer similar levels of ballistic protection and feature content. The S500 Guard is more expensive, however, with an MSRP of $153,950 at the time of this writing. But as the saying goes, if you have to ask, you can't afford it. This is a real armored car for a world with real threats.
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