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Mercedes CLK Coupe - Merc are on a roll!

Andrew Frankl

The words are those of an envious rival car maker but I have to agree. Right now, with the possible exception of the S class the Stuttgart company seem to be getting right every time. Not that the S class was a lemon but compared to the A class, the E class and now the CLK it will not go down in history as one of the all time greats. I dare say there is a replacement already on the drawing board and if I know Benz prototypes are criss- crossing Alaska and other equally distant places as I write these words.

The CLK is heavily based on the car I saw and admired at the 1993 Geneva Autoshow, I remember saying at the time to various MB Board members what a shame they didn't put cars like this into production..they just smiled. Well, four years on we were sitting by the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica looking at the very same car with an on sale sticker on it! Not even a bad sticker price-39,850 dollars. I can only assume that Mercedes pricing is helped by the dollar-D Mark exchange rate at present because the " out of sight" pricing seems to be something of the past. Let us hope it will stay there.

Well, what exactly are Mercedes offering for your 40 grand? A brand new 3.2 litre engine developing 225 ponies at 5700 rpm and offering a 0-60 of 6.9 seconds which is not staggering but perfectly adequate. Expect a sub-6 seconds figure when the 8- cylinder becomes available, possibly next year. You also get as standard leather upholstery, side airbags, A/C, traction control, split folding rear seat, anti-theft alarm, 16" alloy wheels and lots more. There are various packages of extras, glass sunroof, headlamp washing system ( this should be included in the base price as it is a very important safety measure), Xenon headlamps and all sorts of other goodies.

Mercedes see their main rivals in BMW, Lexus and the new C70 Volvo as seen in that pretty awful film-The Saint. The plan is to sell 9000 units of the CLK Coupe in its first full year which seems like a perfectly attainable target based on my driving impressions and the price. It will help the company to get past the magic 100,000 cars per annum target for the very first time in the United States.

I was sharing the driving with David Coleman who is a part-time racer. Consequently the route to Ojai offered him plenty of opportunities to give the ride and handling department a real shake-down and yours sincerely a real shake-up. To be fair I felt just fine. There was little tyre squeel, plenty of grip-a lovely time was had by all. There were occasions when the V8 would have been handy but we are talking about going up -hill rather quickly or trying to overtake rapidly from 60-80 mph. For 99% of the customers I am sure it will be fine as those looking for a Sports package and maybe a manual gearbox will have to wait for the V8.

Having just driven the new Passat with the Tiptronic gearbox I think that would make a great option as well. I am not-and never have been a coupe fan-for the simple reason that some poor person will have to clamber in and out of the back necessitating a somewhat ungainly entrance and a not very dignified exit. I still hold that view although with a couple of small kids it might be OK. Certainly the CLK engineers have gone to a lot of trouble to eliminate this problem and they have succeeded up to a point.

I thought that the fully " electronic " key was just a gimmick but no. It did make sense once it was explained to me. Apparently unlike metal keys it cannot be copied, consequently it is more difficult to steal the car. Much as I admire the work of the engineers I am afraid that in a world of computer hackers someone sooner or later will find a way but in the meantime it will make it more difficult for the illiterate Saturday evening joy-riders which has to be a very good thing.

Mercedes see the likely customers to be between 30-50 years old with a household income in excess of 80,000 dollars a year. It makes sense as by that time the chances are that they will have settled down and planned vacations together. It is not-in my opinion-a single person's car. I can see a young successful lawyer cruising Union St on a Saturday afternoon in a BMW328 convertible long before he or she would do the same in the CLK. Once they've met, got married and settled down-then I could see them settling for something more practical and robust-a CLK. A good car from a good company who are rather cleverly hedging their bets.

If things stay fine long live the CLK, the E class and the S class. If things go wrong in big way-such as an oil crisis a la 1973 they have the A class and even the little Smart car in reserve. Talk about strategic planning.