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FIRST DRIVE

It's smooth sailing with CLK500 Cabriolet

Taking in the sights is a breeze in this 2004 Mercedes-Benz drop top, with its seductive lines, improved handling and 302-horsepower V-8 engine.

September 10, 2003|Warren Brown | Washington Post

SANTA BARBARA — California driving often is portrayed as an endless traffic jam on U.S. 101. That's only part of the picture.

There are other roads free of clutter and blessed with beauty -- byways such as California Highway 154, which runs northeast from State Street, the main drag here.

You can follow the highway its full length of 32 miles, from Santa Barbara to Los Olivos, taking in the glories of Los Padres National Forest along the way. Or you can take a relatively short but spirited drive around the highway's twists and curves, exiting at Stagecoach Road, which leads to pleasant dining on venison and rabbit at the century-old Cold Spring Tavern.

It is best to drive Highway 154 in a car in which you can enjoy the experience totally -- preferably a convertible that grants you full view of the scenery and intimate contact with the road. You would do well to choose the 2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Cabriolet.

It is a car built for romantic motoring, lacking anything that can get in the way of a fantasy drive. The fabric soft top is an example. There is no need to tussle with clamps or levers to unlatch and lower the canopy. Nor is it necessary to climb into the car and push a button to bring the top down.

You can do all of that standing outside the car, using Mercedes-Benz's patented SmartKey. Point the key at the car. Push a button on the electronic key fob. As if by magic, the top unlatches and lowers itself along with the side windows. It is all very neat, clean, fast.

Also, there is no need to insert the key into the ignition slot to start the car. An optional system, dubbed Keyless Go, electronically connects the key to the car in all operational matters -- locking, unlocking and starting the car, as well as lowering and lifting the convertible top.

Antennas embedded in several locations in the car pick up a signal transmitted by the SmartKey. As long as you have the key somewhere on or near your body, you can open the car by touching one of the door handles or the trunk lid.

Once inside the CLK500 Cabriolet, or its smaller-engine sibling, the CLK320, you can start the car simply by depressing the brake pedal and touching a button atop the five-speed automatic gearshift lever.

Of course, all of this electronic wizardry raises the question of reliability. What happens, for example, if the CLK 500 suffers the automotive equivalent of an East Coast blackout?

Well, you won't be able to drive anywhere, just as you wouldn't be able to drive a car in which the battery failed. But mechanically redundant systems would allow you to open the door and the trunk, Mercedes-Benz engineers assure us.

Speaking of which, if you lock the car and, as I have done on several occasions, accidentally drop the keys in the trunk and then close the lid, you are not at a loss. The key is programmed to know it's in the wrong place and automatically pops the trunk open after a few seconds.

But more exciting than all of that is the driving.

Like most car companies, especially those competing at the high end, Mercedes-Benz has increased the body rigidity of its newest models, imbuing them with substantially improved handling in the process. That is the case with the CLK500, which Mercedes-Benz engineers say is 10% stiffer than its discontinued predecessor, the CLK430.

The new car packs a 5.0-liter, 302-horsepower V-8 engine, a four-wheel independent suspension system and a variety of stability and traction control systems to aid the driver traversing the likes of the ridges and mountainsides of Highway 154.

The CLK500 Cabriolet I tested develops 302 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 339 pound-feet of torque between 2,700 and 4,250 rpm.

Still, the CLK500 could use more low-end torque. I wanted more oomph in moving from a stop. Mercedes-Benz says it will offer a limited-edition CLK 55 AMG performance version in which there will be torque aplenty.

The car seats four adults. Trunk volume is 8.6 cubic feet with the top up and 5.4 with the top down. The fuel tank holds 16.4 gallons; premium unleaded gasoline is recommended.

And I averaged 25 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving at mostly legal speed.

In keeping with Mercedes-Benz's safety-minded reputation, the car has an automatic anti-rollover protection system, side air bags, multiple electronic traction and stability control and brake assistance systems.

As for price, it's still unsettled at this writing. Estimated base price will be $59,850. Estimated dealer's invoice is $56,000. Transportation charge is $720. Estimated price as tested is $60,570.

Overall, the test car felt light, tight and especially right on narrow mountainside passes. I also was impressed with its ability to dance lightly over bad roads.

Mercedes-Benz's new entry will compete with the Cadillac XLR and BMW M3.

The car attracts so much favorable attention, especially with the top down, that it makes the driver feel beautiful. The car is endowed with shapely, sexy, seductive lines. And all CLK models -- 320, 500 and 55 AMG -- are front-engine, rear-wheel-drive two-door convertibles with fully automatic tops.

The CLK500 also allows you to take in that scenery with an environmentally guilt-free conscience. Though it is big of engine, it is quite small on tailpipe pollution, easily qualifying for California's ultra-low-emissions vehicle rating. And it is devoid of macho, performance-car exhaust noises that do nothing but frighten wildlife.

This, my friends, is a car for lovers of all things beautiful.

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