The magic of Mercedes-Benz is its penchant for aiming vehicles at overcrowded niches or faded markets--and proving, as Mark Twain suspected, that pessimism is simply a name that men of weak nerves give to wisdom and confidence.
This year alone:
* With demand for two-seaters restricted to porch swings, parent Daimler-Benz announced it would build a roadster. Although sales have always trailed BMW's Z3 two-seater--which is less expensive, comes in several flavors and has the personal endorsement of James Bond--Mercedes' supercharged SLK is outselling Porsche's stunning Boxster.
* With three dozen sport utes slurping at the trough, Mercedes delivered the ML320 off-roader. Weeks after launch, this fun but suave mud-paddler was named Motor Trend's Truck of the Year.
* In Europe, they snorted in their steins when Mercedes said it would deny its large, expensive, luxurious heritage and enter the low-cost, mass-production, commuter car market. But there were 100,000 advance orders for the undersized Daimler-Benz A-Class. Cars ordered today won't be delivered until next summer, and this little rascal will be heading for the U.S. before the millennium is done.
One develops an eerie feeling that Mercedes could build a three-wheel motorcycle or a huge-sized luxury sedan and bring immediate grief to Kawasaki and Rolls-Royce.
To round out this year of the audacious, Mercedes-Benz has introduced the mid-sized 1998 CLK320 coupe--yet another design to tweak the snoot of fate because it comes when sales of two-doors are off 25% and the segment's next move may be a request for last rites.
It is far too early to tell whether we're looking at smash or splash--although the CLK320 already has been named a "Best Buy" by Consumers Digest.
The car is indeed vital and handsome, looks exclusive, moves with great haste and is beautifully appointed--the pedigrees of any best-selling automobile. Above all, this luxury coupe shows concern for its occupants, introduces intriguing technology, and does it all with such nonchalance.
Here's genius for you. Consider the CLK's ignition key:
It isn't a key, but a snout that mates with a dashboard slot where the keyhole used to be. Turn the unit, an infrared signal talks to a sensor, and when the electronic password is confirmed and returned, the steering unlocks and the ignition circuit is closed for starting.
It's a security device, of course, and MB's answer to GM's anti-theft pellet. Except Mercedes' system changes the access code with each start, and couldn't be cracked by an Olympic-class laptopper, let alone your garden variety car thief.
The system simulates the sound and feel of a key, works even if the car's battery suffers meltdown, and the remote unit contains a conventional, slide-out metal key for the glove box, trunk or operating doors should the remote poop out.
Peruse the CLK's wiper blades:
Actually, there's only one, and we have to wonder why there ever were two. This single arm is mounted to a planetary gear so that the blade reaches into far corners of the windshield and clears 90% with a single swipe. But the serious magic is in Mercedes' rain measurer: a sensor that stares through the windshield, monitors light refracted from raindrops merging and sprawling there, and adjusts wiper speed accordingly. Or stops it when the rain stops.
Examine the CLK's brakes:
Mercedes' researchers have discovered that 99% of all drivers are either too slow to brake, or only use the brakes fully when the omigawd point is long passed. Hence, "Break Assist," a system that recognizes emergency braking and automatically applies an extra shot of oomph and full stomp to the brakes.
That translates to a 45% reduction in stopping distance for the majority of drivers.
Finally, consider the CLK's traction controls:
Goose the gas on gravel, yank the steering, and the car tracks faithfully in any direction ordered. Stamp on the brakes with both feet, on ice, during El Nin~o, and the car will stop straight and true. In short, while you're still wondering what to do in terms of backing off the gas, or trying to figure which wheel has the most grip, the car's computers have done it for you.
So, no oversteer or understeer, no yaw, slide, four-wheel drifting or pirouetting. Just automatic, idiot-proof traction, and on that basis, feel free to turn driving chores over to Great-Grandpa Jeb.
Yet the joy of the CLK320 is so much more than the sum of its systems wizardry. Although sized midway between the Mercedes-Benz C and E classes, styling of its lines has the car appearing smaller than it is--an essential attribute when working overtime to make sure your new coupe doesn't look like a sedan with two fewer doors.
The CLK's Orphan Annie headlights and sloping grille are borrowings from the E-Class, but the rear-end and every square inch of territory in between are fresh from the design studio. Overall, by its subtle dimensions and absolute lack of bulk, the shape and silhouette are rakish and quite stunning.