Behind the Wheel | White Out: 4th Generation Mercedes-Benz 4Matic
First things first. The snow covered roads of Jackson Hole, Wyoming are not the ideal venue for a test drive. Even less so for a car packing over 400 horsepower and fat rubber. But hey, we’re always up for a challenge. And so here we are, with our driving cohort, behind the wheel of a 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS 550, perched on a looming mountain road long overdue for snow closure. As we listen to the sounds of trucks equipped with tire chains clanking along, I warily eye an abandoned Subaru nearby wondering if I should knock on the window to make sure there aren’t any Alive shenanigans going on.
So with conditions worsening on a road that increasingly looks like a poorly groomed piste, and visibility hovering somewhere around the negative two-feet mark, we set off in our 5th Avenue chariot. Our goal: to give the 4th generation Mercedes-Benz 4Matic all-wheel drive system a thorough go at the white stuff.
All-wheel drive? Now that should come in handy.
Mercedes’ all wheel drive roots start further back than your dad’s old Merc. Rewind to 1907 and you’ll find Daimler’s first “all, wheel, drive” system in the Dernberg Wagen (above). Commissioned by the German Colonial Office, looking for a reliable vehicle that could withstand long journeys on unmade roads, the 7,200 lb Dernberg (without steamer trunks) ventured its way through the unpaved roads of Africa, powered by a 35 horsepower engine and what we imagine are pulsing forearms and dusty faces.
Elsewhere in history, Mercedes’ iconic G-wagen, and its outstanding three-differential 4-wheel drive system, was swallowing up every type of terrain, from bush to Beverly Hills. But it wouldn’t be until 1987 that Mercedes introduced 4Matic for the first time.
The first 4Matic system weighed 300 lbs and essentially worked by engaging and disengaging power to the front or rear axles as needed. It worked to the effect of what we imagine German engineers would consider “passable”. 25 years later, the 4th generation 4Matic has evolved into an entirely different machination, more intelligent and capable than ever before. The entire system weighs half as much as its 1st generation forbearer, is fully integrated into the transmission, and works full-time to keep all four wheels moving. It also boasts plenty of other engineering advancements including the ability to send a 70/30 power bias in either direction, dozens of electronic aids, virtually no effect on gas mileage, and is now available on 21 models, including the one we’re driving. The CLS 550… which brings us back to our present, slippery situation.
Further negotiating our treacherous road, we make the occasional attempt to fool the traction control into thinking our self-induced donuts are more like poor road conditions (unsuccessfully). Along with a few other relatively unscientific, yet jarring test we come to the conclusion that the 4Matic has an even bigger aversion to plowing a $100,000 vehicle into the handsome trees of Wyoming than we do.
The result is a bit ironic and here’s why.
Without fail, 4Matic judiciously deposes of drifts (both involuntary and cajoled), sliding, or any absence of traction.
Without fail, 4Matic judiciously deposes drifts, (both involuntary and cajoled) slides or any absence of traction. Whether you choose to spend your money on a sensible luxury sedan or opt for one of Mercedes’ ultra sleek coupes like our segment busting CLS, ticking off the 4Matic option virtually ensures that no matter what the situation, you’ll remain on the straight and narrow. Conditions be damned.
The backwash of all that is an abundance of curious stares — stares from the big pick-ups, stares from SUVs, stares from the mountain goats — all from people or mammals, wondering why your car, which looks more appropriate en route to the Hamptons, is navigating its way through a snowstorm without falter. A jet black CLS barrelling past with heated (and massaging) seats and 14-speaker Harmon Kardon surround system at full-bore is most certainly not “everyday Wyoming”. Just add a Beach Boys CD for the full-effect.
Outside the promise of a few hair-raising, white-knuckled moments, you may never choose to plunge across the Pine Creek Pass between Wyoming and Idaho on the eve of a crippling snowfall in your Mercedes. A wise decision. But take our word when we say that it’s certainly nice knowing you can.
Our photo essay continues below.