A caravan of suspicious-looking vehicles was stopped in the searing heat of the concrete along I-10 just west of San Antonio. The state trooper had seen their peculiar plates--California testing permits taped to the rear windows--and decided to see what these strangers were up to.
Savvy negotiating skills are not ordinarily a primary part of an auto engineer's job requirements, but for Aram Setian, the man who road-tests Mercedes-Benz prototypes for a living, they come in handy from time to time.
Setian switched off the ignition on the advanced-model Benz, code-named W220, dangled the keys from his fingers, and invited the trooper to peer inside at the instrument cluster. Even at a dead stop, the speedometer still read 120 kilometers per hour, while the tach pegged engine speed at 3,000 rpm. The preponderance of evidence--all the gauges showed phantom readings and Setian could do nothing with the light switch to make the passenger-side headlamp shut off--seemed to support his claim that he and his team were testing
malfunctioning prototypes and were not part of some ominous alien expeditionary force.
The convoy of four new S-Class models, due out this year from the German automaker, had come to this grassy region of Hill Country where the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers carve up a corner of the vast, central Texas plateau to see how the cars would stand up to summer temperatures that are considered benign at 100 degrees. The caravan, which had left Death Valley, California, a few days earlier, was motoring toward Houston so Setian and his colleagues could pit the cars' air conditioning against the region's remorseless heat and humidity.
The cars are probed, metered and analyzed every mile after punishing mile as they crisscross the United States. That's what Setian was doing when he got pulled over in Texas last summer. Some unknown element mysteriously interfered with the car's control computer, causing it to transmit false readings and errant commands even with the power off. That explanation should have been obvious enough, given the heap of electronic gear in the back seat, the meters, laptops, and data recorders, with a tangle of wires threaded throughout the cockpit, connecting the test equipment to sensors and probes and to the car's nerve center itself. Still, the Texas trooper was skeptical.
"He looked and looked but he couldn't find any violations," Setian says through a wide grin, entertaining himself with the recollection. "Finally he threw his hands up in the air and said, 'You guys win. I give up.'"
When the trooper drove off, Setian disconnected the test instruments, reset the car's computer and hooked up his equipment again, and the caravan resumed course toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Setian spends a lot of time leading excursions like this. He tests cars against every extreme of climate, terrain and roadway, assessing their performance, fine-tuning their design, looking for weak spots so the company can correct them before it begins selling new models to the motoring public. The Bulgaria-born Setian may drive German cars on technical missions, but he takes to the road with an American sense of pure adventure that would rival Jack Kerouac's.
Officially, Aram Setian is a senior staff engineer in the service engineering department of Mercedes-Benz of North America. That's the New Jersey-based subsidiary that markets cars for its German parent company, Daimler-Benz. The primary function of the service engineering department is to sort out the inner complexities of Mercedes models, in order to coach the American technicians who service and repair them. Setian has always been naturally suited for such work, as figuring out and fixing things are his ultimate satisfaction. As a kid in Bulgaria, he salvaged junk radio parts from an uncle's shop, hoarding them under his bed until he had enough pieces to put themtogether.
It is Setian's second official function at Mercedes, however--test driving--that turns him from being simply a high-tech problem solver into an explorer, one whose inquisitive instincts keep his eyes wide open all the time.
"From every respect, America is the greatest place in the world to be," says Setian, whose exploring instincts include scouting out chophouses and taverns and scaring up cigars at unlikely outposts. "Take the diversity of nature. Then the diversity of the people that we meet. It's an adventure. And you can go to the same place a number of times and it's always a different experience. Always. There will be other, different people you will meet. Maybe just the climate is different and you will see it differently. Or maybe you are a passenger instead of a driver. You see it differently."
Setian's entire life has been an adventure, though not always an easy one. A descendant of Armenian grandparents who barely survived an ethnic purge, Aram grew up in communist Bulgaria. In 1965, he defected from the Red Army, making his way overland to Greece before settling in Beirut for about eight months. There, he was reunited with his parents, grandmother and sister, who had left their home in Sofia rather than face government reprisals over the defection. Later that year, the family emigrated to New York, where Setian eventually earned a degree in nuclear physics from Columbia University, in 1972. It was a minor concentration in electronics, however, that led him to his job with Mercedes-Benz.
Setian is shooting northward from Washington, D.C., on Interstate 95 in a CL600, a sumptuously large and stately coupe that is the most expensive model Mercedes sells in America. The engineer is monitoring the car's climate-control system, his laptop computer on the floor recording temperature readings from thermal sensors hung inside the cabin. His main interest, he says, is to keep a constant temperature around our heads, since variations in air flow there make motorists feel uncomfortable.
Once it's installed, this data-gathering setup runs on autopilot, leaving Setian to drive in his self-assured and attentive style. He picks out speed traps with a consistency that seems clairvoyant. He also makes good use of the CL600's abundantly powerful V-12 engine. As a heavily trafficked road narrows from four lanes to three, Setian is wedged beside a driver who won't let him merge. The Mercedes engineer deftly creates an opening, scooting the big cruiser into a gap before the other guy can react.
"With V-12 power, the car jumps in front of him," he says with quiet appreciation. The statement was an observation. There was nothing smug or malicious in it. You won't find anything approaching road rage in this driver.
Within the North American engineering staff, Setian is one of four engineers responsible for car electronics. Climate control and convertible tops are his specialties du jour--although throughout his 25 years with Mercedes he's canvassed just about every area where microprocessors and auto mechanics intersect, from fuel injection and engine control to air bags and cell phones.
As a climate-system specialist, he conducts individual road tests and coordinates the long-distance excursions that can involve anywhere from a mere handful of cars to as many as 25 and might run as long as three weeks. Usually they include visiting engineers from the vehicle design staff in Germany, which is where Mercedes vehicles are conceived, designed and manufactured. (A notable exception is the new M-Class sport-utility wagon; it was researched in America, engineered in Germany, and it's made at a striking new factory near Tuscaloosa, Alabama.)
All in the name of science, Setian ricochets up and down America trying out state-of-the-art luxury cars. Often he's leading caravans of top-secret prototypes that are still five years away from their public introduction. (Screwed-on sheet metal camouflages them from prying eyes.) The road trips are formally called engineering drives and their objective is to iron out wrinkles before new models officially hit the streets, so that buyers who pony up as much as, say, $135,300 for that Mercedes CL600 won't be vexed by niggling little imperfections.
Inevitably with Aram Setian the excursions turn into high adventure, typically intermixed with liberal doses of after-hours high jinks.
"We are by ourselves on the road," he says. "There is no management anymore. You don't have to watch out about what you say and what you do. You can be yourself."
Being themselves one night at Ken's Old West steak house in Page, Arizona, a merry band of road testers finished off all the Cuervo Gold Tequila. (On another night, a similar party had exhausted the establishment's stock of Corona beer, a habit that helps explain why Setian's crews are always so welcome there.) By the time the group ventured out into the night, two engineers couldn't figure out how to get back to the hotel. In fact, they seemed uncertain if there even was a hotel to return to.
"So I walked them back," recounts Setian. "It was not far. But the next day they did not even remember how they got there. Anyway, we slept all day. We were ahead of schedule."
The service earned Setian's Drinker's License: a laminated card that the erstwhile tipsy engineers printed up as a gag. Setian carries it in his wallet, ready to produce it as a conversation starter, or to settle a bar-stool debate over who is the staunchest drinker. "I had pretty good training, after that vodka in the army," confides this former radar operator for the Bulgarian air defense. Besides, he says about the Tequila night in Arizona, "I paced myself a little bit while they were getting loaded."
It is worth a pause to consider that the term "getting loaded" isn't something you often hear from a representative of an auto company. But that is part of the makeup of this Benz breaker, who is more candid than he is image-conscious. With equal candor, he stresses that the engineers' carousing is strictly an after-work affair: "When we drive we make sure there's no alcohol. That's our number one rule."
Certainly their cars are the best proof of just how soberly these men and women work to get it right. That evidence isn't limited to the traditional, luxury-laden models that Mercedes makes, cars such as the stately E320 station wagon, the elegant SL600 two-seat convertible and the aristocratic CL models. The company's heritage also shows in two of its newest offerings that exhibit a youthful élan. Both the M-Class and the SLK sports coupe combine savvy innovation and style with hair-splitting precision and heavy dosages of comfort. The two-seat SLK Kompressor roadster is aimed at the driver who enjoys the athletic aspects of motoring. At the other end of the vehicle spectrum, the M-Class manages to overcome the tendency of sport-utility vehicles to be awkward trucks disguised with plush upholstery.
The motor media generally concurs. When citing the M-Class for one of its "Best of What's New" awards, Popular Science magazine's December 1997 issue noted that the vehicle "civilizes the sport-utility while retaining the ruggedness demanded by today's off-roader." Motor Trend magazine picked M-Class as its coveted Truck of the Year for 1998.
In part, such accolades are earned by the tireless testing and refinement that the vehicles undergo during their trans-America field trials. Pretty much all Mercedes prototypes are brought to the United States for testing. This past December a convoy traveling from Texas to Minnesota consisted of the Smart Car, the tiny, economical micro car that Mercedes is developing with wristwatch innovator Swatch. It won't even be sold in the States. But nowhere else can it sweat through such extremes.
"We have the ideal conditions," says Setian. "You can get the long distances to drive. You get the climatic conditions, and the changes in the climatic conditions that are very important. And the changes in elevation."
That makes it just a happy coincidence that many of his best-worn routes traverse some of the country's most picturesque regions. Test drives often start in Houston and Galveston, Texas, where cars endure the twin trials of temperature and the wilting humidity of the western Gulf region. Down in southern Texas, Mercedes rents a bona fide test track, where cars undergo controlled torture in a laboratory environment. Out west in California's Death Valley, vehicles get to test their mettle against blast-furnace heat. From there a day's drive eastward across the Mojave and around Lake Mead takes a test team to Page, Arizona, which sits upstream of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, near the spot where the Glen Canyon Dam creates Lake Powell. Typically the trail leads from Page into the more rugged terrain of Colorado. Setian takes groups to Durango in the southwestern corner of the state, where a place called the Red Snapper serves up the freshest trout he's found outside a stream.
A team may sojourn several days in Colorado Springs to run cars up and down Pike's Peak. Another trip may head the travelers northeast on a days-long journey that traverses the high plains, crosses the Missouri River and finally finishes in Bemidji, Minnesota, which sits just above the source of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca. Testing and monitoring occurs over every mile of this long trek to the northern prairie.
Bemidji's cold speaks the final word in automotive endurance. Its frigid temperatures can deform rubber door seals, creating air leaks. The cold can induce stress fractures in plastic compounds that aren't adequately fortified. Anyone who's experienced even a mildly frosty morning knows what it can do to a car battery.
"Our record there is minus 42 degrees," Aram says. "We have had only a couple of disappointing years when it's been maybe only 10 below or 15 below in January. That's not a challenge. The cars start. All the doors work. Everything works. Ah, the hell with that. At minus 25 it gets to be more interesting."
Even in Bemidji in January, Setian discovers rewards. He dines regularly at the Union Station restaurant, where he finds the fresh walleye unsurpassable. A game fish in the lakes around those parts, walleye used to be a lot more reasonably priced when he started visiting the town 18 years ago. Now, he says, it's as costly as the salmon. Maybe that's why the German engineers prefer the Station's steaks.
Not that pleasure is the primary consideration on test trips.
"Fun is optional. If we have work to do, we bring some food in or order pizza. But that is probably once in every two years. Most of the time we are planning in such a way..."
To help make every excursion memorable, Setian looks for spots that express an area's local character. Often that means they feature hometown bands. Usually they're tough to locate, because these aren't the places advertised in tourist directories. Rule number one is to avoid any place angling for tourists.
"You go to your typical tourist places and you see your typical tourist stuff," Setian complains. "We don't like that. That's not typical American. That's typical tourist travel."
Sometimes the roving testers simply stumble upon an establishment that suggests itself. That happened recently in Colorado Springs, where they stopped for lunch at a fish house and ended up staying three hours. But when nothing shows promise, Setian simply asks the locals.
"When we arrive, maybe there's another hour of work to do. Within this hour of work, my function is to find a place that has a social life." After all, he is the squadron leader.
"The first thing I ask the girl at the desk is, Where is a good place to eat, and where is a place to have fun? What do people do here?"
Admittedly, it sometimes takes some cajoling. Even after she's been bribed with a Mercedes lapel pin, a hotel desk clerk may still try to direct the party to the typical tourist haunts, or worse.
"Sometimes she says, 'Well, we don't do anything. We go to sleep at 10 o'clock.' Ah. No. That can't be. We gotta find something. We've been driving all day. We are bored to death."
Indeed, a day of road testing can sometimes run 14 hours. "Sometimes, in the winter especially, the monotony, it just kills you," Setian explains. "It becomes dangerous. This way, the night before is refreshing, and the next day people have something to talk about, and the drive gets lively."
Setian follows a basic routine for procuring cigars en route: he keeps an eye peeled for tobacconists whenever his caravan motors through towns and cities. The method is hardly foolproof, but as a backup he tries to keep at least a couple of Dominican H. Upmanns stowed in his laptop carrying case. Also, when he's visiting the test track, he crosses the Rio Grande into Nuevo Laredo. He can get Cubans there, but they're disappointingly expensive, especially since counterfeits can be so tough to spot. He looks for high-quality Mexican brands instead.
A satisfying smoke, after all, is a key element of the ritual that closes many days on the road. If the restaurant where they've dined prohibits cigar smoking, Setian and company return to the hotel lounge. They need a place where they can get a glass of Port, which is the second key ingredient.
"Normally it's just one glass of Port and one cigar. It's enough," states the itinerant engineer, applying the same precision to the ritual as he might to, say, equipment calibration.
Names have been given to this general attitude toward living. Hemingway called it a movable feast. To the Beatles it was the longest cocktail party. Mercedes might as well name it Aram Setian. Think of the kick it must be for the locals to have their hoedowns suddenly enlivened by a sortie of high-octane road warriors eager to shake off some of the dust they've gathered on America's endless highways, many of them coming from an ocean away, driving big-ticket luxury cars and wielding corporate gold cards. Like the night they invaded a blues joint in Roanoke, Virginia. Setian swears that it had to be a set for a Belushi/Ackroyd movie--except that the patrons here weren't just acting. "We were buying them beer. They were buying us beer. We were singing and we were dancing with their wives and girlfriends and everything. And country music. And drinking beer. It went to the late hours. The next day was Sunday and we didn't have to leave until the afternoon, so there was plenty of time to recover."
Spontaneity and determination are qualities that have followed Setian throughout his life. Friends once found him in his front yard digging a new driveway with a pickax and shovel. One of these unexpected visitors was the woman he ended up marrying, on the day after Christmas, in 1976. They have two daughters.
Indeed, these attributes have driven Setian since his youth. As a boy in Bulgaria, he dreamed of becoming a scientist, which would have been a perfect outlet for his native curiosity and predilection for fixing things. Besides, in the communist states, with business basically outlawed, science and research was one of the few ways a person could hope to achieve anything.
In most other places on earth, his performance in advanced classes at the gymnasium--a more-rigorous equivalent of an American high school--would have assured him admission to a university. But in communist Bulgaria, the unaccountable bureaucracy placed him in the Red Army instead. So Setian defected after only a year.
"The night [I escaped] everyone was paid, including the dogs," he says in characteristic good humor.
He liberated some civilian clothes that had been hung out for drying and then made his way overland through Greece. Rather than face government reprisals over Aram's defection, his family had left their home in Sofia, Bulgaria, at the same time. Aram and his father, mother, grandmother and sister lived in Beirut for about eight months. One of his stopgap jobs was gluing together paper bags, at $5 per day.
When he and his family came to New York in November 1965, Setian was still eager to study science. He remained undeterred by two significant handicaps. First, he had no money. Second, he didn't speak English. He was still only learning the language when he entered Columbia University in 1967. He acquired the language the same way he earned his tuition, working as he went along. (In addition to English and Bulgarian, Setian today speaks Armenian, French and German; only the Armenian was school-taught.) During college, Setian harnessed his technical know-how to land odd jobs making things work. For an importing company he refitted European lamps so they could run on American house current. He saw to it that Italian radios were rejiggered for the wider spectrum used in North American broadcasting.
Mercedes took him right out of college. Electronics was just appearing in automobiles then. He's helped nurture the craft along these past 25 years, doing stints as manager of the company's test and service center, and of its electrical group. During those brushes with management, Aram completed an MBA.
Talk of schooling sometimes gives a hint to Setian's only faint wisp of regret: that he never pursued a formal career in science. Of course, his job provides a lot of the same stimulation. But still, when the conversation turns to research, science and discovery, you can hear a dim longing that persists from his childhood.
But who knows? Maybe someday he'll make it into the laboratory. It's impossible to say exactly where this guy will end up. But for the foreseeable future, you can find him cruising across America, laptop at his side.
Jeffrey Zygmont is a freelance writer living in Salem, New Hamphire.