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Mercedes-Benz Concept IAA Exclusive Drive

The signature look for all future zero-emission Benzes?

SIEGERLAND REGIONAL AIRPORT, Germany -- We're running on hand carved quasi-slicks in near freezing temperatures as a recurring drizzle falls, but that's not stopping us from hitting speeds above 60 mph in the one-of-a-kind Mercedes-Benz Concept IAA down the airport's mildly curved runway. And as we aggressively turn onto a taxiway in the IAA, we're thinking it's good to finally be behind the wheel of an auto show concept car that's a proper runner -- one that's not only likeable but also surprisingly driveable.

Mercedes first showcased the Concept IAA (short for Intelligent Aerodynamic Automobile) at the 2015 Frankfurt auto show (IAA is also not so coincidentally an acronym for the show itself). The forward-looking family car left a mostly positive impression on the media crowd. And in advance of our airport spin, the IAA has drawn another crowd: an entourage of engineers, mechanics, photographers, cameramen, press people, and cleaners in Hangar 2. Everyone's watching closely as we enter the concept's snug door opening. Once inside, however, head- and legroom are surprisingly generous. As we pull the door of the sculptured starship shut, the screened, tinted side windows reduce the crew outside to little more than mere silhouettes. We can barely make out their faces, some look more worried than others. But after one last laptop check, it´s all smiles and thumbs up. Time for a taste of what Benz has planned for the future.

The Mercedes Concept IAA is a one-off prototype built in Ingolstadt by Ueddelhoven, and its CAD/CAM-generated body, milled virtually from solid, makes a multi-million dollar styling statement. In contrast to its exotic exterior, the cabin layout first follows function, then fashion. The perfectly comfortable, low-mounted seats are fully adjustable via trademark Benz in-door controls, and if it wasn't for the red-light-district window treatment, visibility would be truly panoramic. The IAA's bright and airy cabin is augmented by its white leather upholstery, brushed matte aluminum dashboard, and double-bubble glass roof.

The trackpad on the Concept IAA's transmission tunnel is another familiar feature, and one nudge on the generic stalk-operated shifter gets us going slowly, silently, and safely. The IAA's drivetrain was lifted straight out of a C350e plug-in hybrid, its chassis an improvised parts bin compilation. Unannounced, the whisperliner suddenly changes its tone of voice from lullaby singer to a baritone who caught a cold. We're obviously in hybrid mode now, with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four and whizzy e-motor jointly summoning up a combined 279 hp and a beefy 443 lb-ft of torque.

Moments later, the most compelling and dynamic feature of the Concept IAA announces itself, its shape shift from design to aerodynamic mode, a technique Benz calls morphing design. Its most spectacular function is the extension of the Kammback rear end that can grow by more than 15 inches in length, emphasizing the car's aerodynamically ideal drop shape. In front, two lateral flaps swing out simultaneously to direct air past the wheelhouses and along the flanks of the vehicle.

Also part of the morphing action is an adjustable horizontal deflector, which alters its angle to smooth the underbody air flow. Another clever and relatively affordable element is the adaptive wheel design, a transformation that utilizes five spring-loaded metal elements to change the shape of the wheel from dished to flush-fitting. In an eye-catching maneuver that takes less than 10 seconds, the air dam collection extends at roughly 50 mph and retires again below 37 mph.

The main virtue of all this magic morphing is a staggeringly low drag coefficient of 0.19, allegedly a new world record for a fully functional four-door sedan. Mercedes claims there are no inherent downsides such as reduced downforce, greater susceptibility to crosswinds, compromised aero balance, or directional instability. As you'd expect, its low-drag stance helps lower emissions when the engine's on and extend range when the car is in all-electric mode.

Firm believers swear that it is actually possible to hear the reduced headwind resistance, to physically "feel" the aerodynamic effects of the IAA. How can this be achieved? Because in its low-drag guise you can lift off just a fraction while maintaining the same momentum, and in coasting mode the car will roll a longer distance.

When are we going to see such an application in a production car, Herr Gorden Wagener? "It'll be a while," says Benz's chief designer. "Right now, legislation does not even allow door mirrors to be substituted by cameras, which would make a big difference. Changing the outline of a vehicle in motion is bound to be an even taller hurdle. But we must keep working on it, because besides weight and propulsion, first-class aerodynamics are prime efficiency drivers."

The cockpit of the four-seat wind-cheater is much closer to production reality than its space-age shape. With the exception of the technicolor air vents and flashy surface materials, the IAA features basically the same instrument panel we'll see on the next E-Class due out in early 2016. What looks at first glance like a mildly modified S-Class interior is in fact Benz's next-generation cockpit design, dubbed OFN, for optical finger navigation. No touchscreen? No gesture control? Not even an iteration of the good old COMAND controller, which has led a happy life between ashtray and armrest for the past 17 years? None of it. The only leftovers from Benz's previous generation setup are the two large monitors, the square trackpad, the voice control button, and the optional head-up display. Just as the two index fingers can mastermind the driveline through the shift paddles, the driver´s thumbs are all it takes to execute every single OFN function.

The haptic responsibilities of OFN are clearly divided. The movements of the right paw are reflected by the right-hand in-dash display, which deals with infotainment, navigation, media, and connectivity. The left thumb connects to the left-hand monitor, which shows only car-related data such as assistance system activities. There are four directions to move to: up and down, left and right. As soon as the digit has done its job, one push at the confirmation button in the middle of the touchpad suffices to place your order. Got it wrong? Hit the silver return bar, and the black box will automatically take you back to the previous level.

It sounds complex, but OFN actually works really well, especially in combination with the optional head-up display. Says Thomas Weber, Mercedes board member in charge of R&D: "Hands on the steering-wheel, eyes on the road. There is no safer way to stay on top of the fast growing ergonomic complexity."

The third message relayed by Concept IAA is internally referred to as "the face of EVA." You guessed it: EVA is in this case not a woman's name but the acronym for Electric Vehicle Architecture. EVA will likely come to market in four steps: ELC, a re-bodied GLC-based EV (2018); ELA, a variant of the next-generation GLA powered by the same drivetrain as the all-electric B-Class (2019); EVA 1, the smaller version of an all-new, all-electric vehicle matrix positioned below the E-Class (sedan and crossover, 2020); EVA 2, EVA 1's larger equivalent positioned below the S-Class (2022).

According to those in the know, the face of Concept IAA will likely become the signature look for all future zero-emission Benzes. In the case of ELA, the green message is still quite understated, but EVA 1 and 2 are bound to be about as daringly different from their run-of-the-mill stablemates as Mirai and Prius are to Avensis and Auris. Carryover elements from the Concept IAA will likely include the shark-nose front, the tapered rear, and the unmistakable headlight/taillight graphics. While plug-in passenger cars may feature only three horizontal LED bars, SUVs could stack four or five. But there will be no changes to the three-pointed star, because at Mercedes, one thing they don't mess with is brand icons.