Most automakers will tell you their cars are safe. But are they "safe" enough to withstand a Molotov cocktail attack? Why certainly, say Mercedes-Benz and BMW AG.

Both companies offer several lines of vehicles with armored protection ranging from light - stopping baseball bats, axes and hammers - to heavy - stopping military firearm projectiles and explosives.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz Guard program was a tight-lipped secret for 70 years, with exclusive customers like Japan's Emperor Hirohito. But a rise in drug-related crime and worldwide violence pushed the company to go public with its line of protection vehicles.

Mercedes is the market leader for armored vehicles, says Roland Folger, marketing and product management, Mercedes Guard. The automaker has sold about 4,000 since 1928; in that period, versions of its 600, 280 SE 3.5, 350 and 450 SE/SEL all have been Guard-modified. The global market for armored vehicles now touches 5,000 units per year.

Troublingly, "We foresee considerable potential growth in this market," Mr. Folger says.

Currently, armored protection is offered for the new S-Class, E-Class and G-Class in markets including Europe, South Africa, the Middle East, Russia and Central and South America. Some 40% of the Guard vehicles are exported outside of Germany. The cars are not currently available in the U.S. because of exhaust emissions. The automaker hopes this will change within two years.

The Mercedes vehicles are available in several protective categories. "B4" withstands ammunition from handguns and revolvers up to .44 magnum caliber - the perfect road-rage package. The B6 and B7 classes resist terrorist attacks and assassination attempts along with military firearm projectiles and hand grenade shrapnel. The Guard vehicles are hand-built in a separate area at the company's Sindelfingen, Germany, factory by specially selected experts. The vehicles also are tested at the factory, where the in-house firing range is important - and spectacular, says Bernd Harloff.

"The customer can choose to be present when the car faces the firing squad," he says.

Because the vehicles are assembled from the beginning as a protection vehicle there are no weak spots. Mercedes also can insure the top-quality ride of the vehicles, which are covered by warranties from Mercedes and can be taken to any Mercedes dealer for servicing.

"Our experts also protect areas of the bodyshell that would be inaccessible for retrofitting," Mr. Harloff says.

The body structure of guard vehicles is adapted to withstand the added weight that comes from serious protection. The S500 with a B6/7 protection package has a grossvehicle weight of 8,400 lbs. (3,810 kg) versus 5,200 lbs. (2,359 kg) for a normal S500.

Sturdier door hinges and window frames account for some of that weight, along with larger brake discs, a steel subframe instead of aluminum, larger differential and forged wheel carriers. The windows have a high-strength polycarbonate layer to protect against glass splinters.

"The doors alone weigh more thaan 220 lbs (100 kg)," Mr. Harloff brags.

Armor plating on the vehicles combines glass and plastic or high-strength special steel in the B4 class and steel combined with synthetic fiber components for classes B6/7.

"They surround the passenger cell like a protective shell," Mr. Harloff says.

Protection doesn't come cheap. The B4 E-Class starts at $100,278, the B4 G Class starts at $128,130, the B4 S-Class at $144,846 and the B6/B7 S-Class starts at $278,551. If ordered today, a G-Class could be delivered in three to eight months, an E-Class could be delivered after October and an S-Class in the middle of next year.

Mercedes Guard vehicles are hand-built in a special facility, but BMW builds its vehicles on its standard production line.

Three vehicles are now available in BMW's Protection Line and are based on the 540i, 740iL and 750iL. The 540i Protection is not currently sold in the U.S.

BMW offers three levels of protection. The first level provides protection mainly from theft by petty criminals and professional car thieves. Protection comes from BMW's break-resistant laminated glass that is used in all 7 Series BMWs. It plans to make the special glass available on all BMWs in the future.

The Protection Line, which represents the second level of security, consists of light armoring for protection against kidnapping, carjacking and robbery where handheld weapons are involved. Here multi-layer, high-performance aramid-fiber mats are used in the doors, in front of the luggage compartment bulkhead, in wheel arches, throughout the roof lining area and in the A, B and C pillars. The mats are made of a newly developed, extra-light plastic tissue that can resist bullets up to .44 magnum caliber.

The windows use an extra-strong glazing that can resist attack from striking weapons, projectiles and large-caliber handguns.

BMW's third level of protection - available only for the 7 Series - provides protection from large-caliber rifles, hand grenades, Molotov cocktails and so forth. BMW doesn't disclose the security technology used for this third level. - with Bill Siuru