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The Daimler plant in Sindelfingen has impressive dimensions. On an area larger than Monaco, its 35,000 employees produce more than 300,000 vehicles per year. But what’s hidden behind the gates of this plant, which produces luxury Mercedes-Benz vehicles? What kind of effort is needed to develop a vehicle, and what does all this have to do with the theme of cooking?
In order to answer these questions, I’ve joined an illustrious group of restaurant owners and star chefs that Mercedes has invited for an exclusive tour of its hidden treasures.
As the saying goes, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” That doesn’t necessarily involve dining, as I will find out at first hand today. But let’s start at the beginning. At the moment I’m at the meeting point – the Customer Center in Sindelfingen. I’ve arrived early, so I settle down to wait for a while. After half an hour, a blue coach arrives and the crème de la crème of the restaurant industry climbs out. The group includes star chefs, owners of five-star hotels, and suppliers of gourmet foods. The mood is casual. People joke around and look forward to the hours ahead.
The appetizer: Greetings from the designer “kitchen”
The group’s appetite for the Mercedes brand can already be felt during the first minutes after its arrival. I pick up fragments of words from the conversations going on around me. This group of restaurant owners obviously includes some big Mercedes fans. It’s time to start the tour.
It begins with a special appetizer: a look at the design concept for the Mercedes brand. We are welcomed by Klaus Frenzel, the head of Digital Graphic & Corporate Design, in a movie room at the Customer Center. We first watch a short film about the plant and then listen to a talk by the head of user experience (UX) design.
We quickly realize that the process of designing a vehicle is not much different from cooking a dish. Designers, like chefs, are artists who follow their own philosophy as they produce their creations. At Mercedes, this philosophy is “Hot & Cool” — two simple words with a clear message: Driving these cars should be an experience that pleases both the heart and the brain. It should stimulate hot emotions, and its clever operating concept should provide a certain coolness factor.
The main course: The Mercedes-Benz Technology Center
The appetizer is followed by the actual gourmet meal. A bus takes us into the hallowed halls of the plant – the “Mercedes kitchen” where superb vehicles are created.
Our first stop is the Technology Centre for Vehicle Safety (TFS for short), which was opened two years ago. It’s literally the setting for many a collision course. About 900 crash tests take place here annually, divided among four crash courses. The 90-meter-square accident hall is the main element of the complex.
Thanks to the steel girders located under the ceiling, the space is completely without pillars and thus is ideally suited for realistic simulations of accidents at intersections and street corners. Dozens of cameras and a mobile drone record the tests from every conceivable angle. We also meet the famous crash test dummies at the TFS. The dummies are a big help when it comes to making driving safer and saving lives when genuine accidents occur. The restauranteurs pose for a photo with the dummies and joke around a little.
Then we move on to the next building, the wind tunnel center. The weather is fairly stormy here! Aerodynamics and aeroacoustics are tested here, among other things. What’s the drag coefficient of a Mercedes? Are Mercedes vehicles especially streamlined? And is the noise level pleasantly low inside, even at high speeds? Such questions are answered here. We are led through a vaulted space similar to a cellar and then into an unusually tall room.
The wall to my right, which is colored a shimmering bronze, is an air cooling system. To my left are recessed vertical floor-to-ceiling slats that form a series of dark corridors. I feel my way through one of these corridors, see light, and suddenly find myself standing in front of the biggest Mercedes star, a gigantic propeller nine meters in diameter.
So this is where the wind is generated! I find out that this propeller generates winds of 265 km/h with ease. That corresponds to a Category 5 hurricane. Incredible!
But I don’t have much time to marvel at this, because the next delicacy is already waiting for us. We walk over to another building and enter a lecture hall. Through the glass back wall of this room, we can look into a huge hall. There it stands: the Mercedes-Benz driving simulator. It’s a big black dome mounted on an electrically driven hexapod. A vehicle stands in the center of the dome.
The interior walls of the dome show a realistic driving environment with a 360-degree all-round view. Eight projectors create this view. It’s better than any PlayStation, I think to myself, but it’s probably a bit too big for my living room back home. That’s just as well! After all, the simulator wasn’t made for fun and games. It’s used for conducting extremely detailed examinations of vehicle handling.
Mercedes-Benz does this by confronting external test drivers with a variety of driving scenarios. Weather conditions, light conditions, the sounds of wind and the engine – all of these factors are simulated perfectly. This enables the test drivers to imagine themselves more effectively into a real driving situation and to provide representative feedback on how the test vehicles handle.
The dessert: Driving at high speed along the test course
After enjoying so many informative and visual delights at the Mercedes-Benz Technology Center, we’re already feeling rather full. But of course every good meal must end with dessert! Accordingly, we leave the driving simulation building, climb into our blue bus, and are taken across the plant grounds to the test course. What awaits us here is the absolute highlight of the entire tour: a 60-minute test drive.
The atmosphere for this drive couldn’t be any better. The day is already coming to an end, and the sun’s last rays are shining on the test course. We enter a big vehicle hall and are amazed by what we see there. Vehicles are standing bumper to bumper in two rows, sorted according to the segments Sport, Luxury, and Off-road.
We are greeted by nine test drivers, all of them professionals behind the wheel. Every member of our group chooses a vehicle or gets into one that still has room. Seven test runs are driven in all, and in the pauses we have the option of changing vehicles.
For the first test run, I land in a S 63 AMG 4Matic (combined fuel consumption: 9.3 l/100 km; combined CO2 emissions: 211 g/km*). The exit gate of the hall is opened. Sunlight pours in and makes the vehicles gleam in the red of the sunset. Engine noises echo through the hall. We drive out one after the other, position ourselves at the starting line, and take off!
The strong acceleration pushes me backward into my seat. A steep curve reminds me of the force of gravity. I have a tingling feeling in my belly. It must be love, the kind that goes to your heart through your stomach, even without eating. Admittedly, after two test runs this love starts to feel a bit excessive. I take a break, get my breath back, and wait in the vehicle hall for the next round.
Five minutes later, the high-horsepower cars return, one after the other. The hall is full of the roar of engines and the smell of burned rubber. Brake disks give off clouds of smoke. I sit down in the back seat of a G 350 d Professional (combined fuel consumption: 9.9 l/100 km; combined CO2 emissions: 261 g/km*). Sitting in the passenger seat is the star chef Nelson Müller. We start talking and arrange an appointment for an interview. After that, we take a bumpy ride over Belgian cobblestones.
For my last test drive, I get into an E 63 AMG (combined fuel consumption: 9.1–8.8 l/100 km; combined CO2 emissions: 207–199 g/km*). Sitting in the car with me are two restaurant owners from Switzerland. The test driver makes a few sweeping turns in the fast lane and then enters a course that is marked with pylons. The electronic stability program (ESP) has been turned off. We drive three rounds that feel like a spin cycle. “Fantastic, fantastic!” shout my fellow passengers in the Swiss German dialect. By contrast, I’m once again dealing with an upset stomach.
Though I’m slightly dizzy, I subsequently have a talk with Nelson Müller. When I ask him what cooking has in common with vehicle development, Müller refers back to the philosophy of Klaus Frenzel.
“I think the design message ‘Hot & Cool’ is very inspiring and very easy to transfer to my own profession. As a star chef, you try to make your restaurant into a brand. On the one hand, you have to make dining there an emotional experience; on the other, you also have to cook with reason and intelligence. That’s because it’s all about food, and we want people to be satisfied with their meal. Nonetheless, a restaurant meal should also be a special experience.”
It’s no different at Mercedes-Benz. The plant in Sindelfingen is ultimately similar to a huge kitchen. In order to create a perfect product, you have to carefully select ingredients, combine them, and adjust the seasoning. A vehicle should not only look impressive, it should also be safe, economical, and user-friendly. These stringent requirements, and the effort involved to fulfill them, show that vehicle production at Mercedes-Benz reflects both positive emotions and intelligence. That’s exactly how a chef creates his special meals.
In any case, I thought the products of the “vehicle kitchen” in Sindelfingen were delicious. The restaurant owners also seem to have enjoyed themselves, as I can see from their beaming faces. I’m convinced that even if any of the participants were not already fans of the Mercedes brand, after today they’ve developed a taste for it.
* More information about the official fuel consumption and the official specific CO₂ emissions of new passenger cars can be found in the publication “Leitfaden über den Kraftstoffverbrauch, die CO₂-Emissionen und den Stromverbrauch” (Guide to the fuel consumption, CO₂ emissions and power consumption), which covers all new passenger car models on sale in Germany and is available free of charge at all sales outlets and from Deutsche Automobil Treuhand GmbH.