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The Project ONE Show Car: Mercedes-AMG Drops The Big One

“Well it’s about time,” I said to myself when this one landed on my desk. For all of Mercedes-Benz’s vaunted and well-deserved engineering acumen, they are, in a lot of ways, a very conservative company. Mercedes-Benz is all about engineering. Always have been, always will be. If you could boil down the company to three words, it would be these: “It will work.” While others had no problem making gloriously fast and beautiful cars that stopped working in half a block, Mercedes-Benz contented themselves with making cars that would dial back on the beauty and the speed in pursuit of never letting the customer down.

Mercedes-Benz never really stepped up to the big time, or at least never did so in any meaningful way, when it came to company flagships. Sure, they’d turn out the occasional limited run of track cars with license plates to satisfy Le Mans rules makers, but, over the years, when it came to halo cars, all Mercedes-Benz had to offer was boulevard cruisers like the modern SLs and such. But now, thanks to the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE Show Car, all that has seriously changed.

Show Business

Okay, first off, let’s just deal with that appended “Show Car” in that name. That is, most likely, Mercedes-AMG giving itself some wiggle room in what we see here, versus what we will see on the road, hopefully in the not too distant future. And, truth be told, Mercedes-AMG has a rather long tradition of doing stuff like this. They would show near production-ready supercars at various auto shows, run them around test tracks, some times even tweaking and modifying them, and then, at seemingly the last minute, not produce the things.

The C-111 is the perfect example. It was a turn key, ready to go, mid-engine sports car set to face off against Porsche and Lamborghini and Ferrari. Then, when push came to shove, Mercedes-Benz decided not to produce the thing, saying it was “only a styling and engineering test bed” all along. I seriously doubt they are going to do that with the Project ONE, and if they do, it will be a monumental mistake.

Supercar Magic

The Mercedes-AMG Project ONE is here to finally answer all the implied challenges and lines drawn in the sand by Merc’s direct competitors. Look, you’re Mercedes-Benz. You continually, and rightfully, trumpet your racing successes, technological innovations, and engineering prowess, how about letting some of that out on the road? Or so asked builders like McLaren with their P1, Porsche with their 918, or Ferrari with the La Ferrari.

You will note that all of these existing hypercars – cars that go beyond being mere sports cars or even supercars, and take over-the-road performance to a whole new level – have a lot in common: They all have hybrid drivetrains optimized for pure performance, not just tree-hugging efficiency. They all put out 1,000 horsepower or close to it and they all flow from their respective company’s racing successes. Where’s Mercedes-Benz?

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Photo: MBUSA.

Roll Call

I’ll tell you where, right here with the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE. It rolled out at the Frankfurt Auto Show, but the specs that were already released must have made engineers in Gilford, Zuffenhausen, and Maranello take notice. Technically speaking, the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE is about as impressive as a sawed off shotgun pressed against your eye. Taking most of its engineering cues from racing in general and Formula One in particular, the Project ONE is a rolling tour de force of vehicle engineering.

A lot of the engineering of the Project ONE, outside of the drivetrain, is rather standard, although still very impressive. The chassis is carbon fiber as are the body panels. The notable technology in these areas, as well as others, are in the details rather than in some sort of “oh wow” revelation. The drivetrain, on the other hand, is nothing but “oh wow” revelations. Yes, as is required by all hypercars today, the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE is a performance hybrid. There are batteries and computers hither and yon and there are electric drive motors that are in place for one purpose and one purpose only: GO!

In short, the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE is motivated down der bahn thanks to a completely integrated and shrewdly networked powertrain system, consisting of one hybrid, turbocharged combustion engine with a total of four electric motors. And no, that does not mean there’s one electric motor at each wheel, oh no. One electric motor is integrated into the turbocharger, another is installed directly on the combustion engine via a link to the crankcase, and the other two motors are driving the front wheels. Those of you that follow the Grand Prix circus will instantly recognize that a lot of this layout comes directly from Formula 1.

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Photo: MBUSA.

Power & Performance

The actual internal combustion engine is rather quirky, especially when coming from a company as stodgy as Mercedes-Benz. It’s a 1.6-liter V6 hybrid gasoline plant with direct injection. That electric motor on the turbo is there to assist with spool up, maintain boost pressure, and relegate notions of “turbo lag” to the dustbin of engineering history. In case you aren’t fully getting the picture, that electrically assisted turbo layout comes directly from the Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 racing car.

There’s even more racing tech to be found in the four overhead camshafts which are driven by spur gears and actuate valves that are regulated by pneumatic valve springs. Also in the waste basket are the mechanical valve springs. I believe this is the first road car to run pneumatic valves, and the results are magnificent: The redline is at a stratospheric speed of 11,000 rpm. Mercedes-Benz humbly notes this “. . . is currently unique for a road going vehicle.”

While that max engine speed is appreciably below what an F1 engine can do, the electric motors at the front end can rotate at up to 50,000 rpm. Let that sink in for a bit and then consider that a dentist’s drill works around 22,000 rpm, and that the current state-of-the-art, more plebeian electric motors run around 20,000 rpm. The Mercedes-AMG Project ONE nearly triples that current benchmark.

One of the main reasons that Mercedes-Benz went with such a small displacement engine is throttle response. That little V6 has the rev ballistics of a small explosive charge, revving from idle to that towering redline in next to no time. This type of response, with completely eliminated turbo lag, equals impressive enough acceleration as is, but when you add in the electric motors, the Project ONE will effectively have two speeds: Here and gone.

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Photo: MBUSA.

Electric Avenue

So, about those electric motors. How are they powered, you ask? Very cleverly indeed. The motor powering the electric turbocharger uses part of the surplus heat energy from the exhaust system to generate electricity. That excess heat energy is stored in the Project ONE’s high-voltage lithium-ion battery packs. It is then sent to any or all of the four electric motors as the Project ONE’s electronic brain sees fit. If the Project ONE wants electrical energy sent to that 120 kW motor installed directly on the engine, the engine gets it. If the brain senses the Project ONE needs more grip and go up front, those electric motors residing at each front wheel will get juice as required.

Speaking of those two electric motors at the front wheels, each is packing a heavy 120 kW punch. They are controlled so they can provide individual acceleration, braking, and torque vectoring to each front wheel. Merc states the axle motors recover up to 80 percent of the braking energy when you nail the binders. And all this power stored in the flat pack batteries is recovered not only from wasted turbo heat – via the MGU-H (Motor Generator Unit Heat) as they say in Formula 1  – but also from the MGU-K (Motor Generator Unit Kinetic) that picks up wasted energy from the braking system, slowing the car to a stop.

All of this adds up to a combined power output “in excess of” 1,000 horsepower, and it’s put to the ground via an automated AMG SPEEDSHIFT 8-speed manual transmission. The combination is good enough to get you to 60 in less than 6 seconds. Oh wait, did I say 60? So sorry, that’s zero to 124 in less than 6 seconds. It’ll top out at “more than” 217, which is not Earth-shattering, but how much do you want to bet the Project ONE can sustain speeds close to that through corners? I wouldn’t put my down against it.

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Photo: MBUSA.

Skin Deep

Of course no car is perfect. The La Ferrari is rare but they won’t sell me one for $3,000. The McLaren P1 is ugly. The Porsche 918 suffers from the same deficiencies the La Ferrari does and it’s a Porsche. The Mercedes-AMG Project ONE is, in addition to being rare and expensive, not all that distinctive or good looking as a car. Lots of people, and I am one of them, have faulted it for being “generic” in appearance. In a bunch of ways, the Project ONE looks like any number of supercars from the past. The nose and headlights look like the sainted McLaren F1. That scoop on the roof looks lifted from a Pagani. The overall blockiness and heavy appearance reminds a lot of people of Koenigseggs. Oh well, nobody’s perfect. Not even Mercedes-Benz.

But the bottom line here won’t be how many they sell or how drool-worthy the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE will be. No, what will be most interesting about the Project ONE is how people like McLaren and Porsche and especially Ferrari will respond.

Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He means well, even if he has a bias toward lighter, agile cars rather than big engine muscle cars or family sedans.

Mercedes-AMG Project ONE show car
Rear-wheel drive 1.6-liter V6 with direct injection, four valves per cylinder, four overhead camshafts and electrically boosted single turbocharger, electric motor connected to the crankshaft.
Engine capacity 1,600 cc
Rear-wheel drive output > 500 kW
Front-wheel drive output 2 x 120 kW
System output > 740 kW (> 1,000 hp)
Electric range 25 km
Drive system Variable AMG Performance 4MATIC+ all-wheel drive with hybrid-drive rear axle, electrically driven front axle and torque vectoring.
Transmission Automated AMG SPEEDSHIFT 8-speed manual transmission.
Acceleration 0-200 km/h < 6 seconds
Top speed > 350 km/h

Mercedes-AMG Project ONE Gallery

Photos & Source: MBUSA.