It is a Bordeaux-red fantasy powered by a 275-horsepower engine. The seats are leather, supple in feel and cream in color. Walnut wood trims the instrument panel and center console. Deep-pile carpeting covers the floor. It is the 1999 Mercedes-Benz CLK 430 coupe, a stunning work of art in "Park" and a demon in "Drive." But there is no need for a car such as this. It is a fillip in a world gone mad, a finger-snap amid the thunder of artillery and falling bombs. It is an indulgence, a motorized demarcation between the haves and have-nots. Yet it is unquestionably beautiful, irresistibly seductive, the electromechanical definition of lust. Perhaps it's what war is all about--envy and covetousness turned hostile. A story: It was Saturday. I was wearing khaki pants, a sweat shirt and battered tennis shoes. With gray hair, tortoise-shell glasses and brown skin, I was sporting the Bill Cosby look, perfectly friendly and likable. But I was driving the CLK 430. Other motorists, black, white and yellow, gave me the bum's rush. They wouldn't let me into traffic. They cut in front of me. One woman--deliberately, it seemed--refused to move on green until I honked my horn. In return, she shouted through her driver's window: "If you're so [expletive] rich and in such a [expletive] hurry, why don't you fly?" Would she have done and said those things if I'd been behind the wheel of a Hyundai? I don't think so. None of this is the CLK 430's fault, of course. The car was built with affection for people who love cars and who can afford to choose from among the best available. The CLK 430, in terms of sheer driving pleasure, is one of the best. But it is best enjoyed on lonely roads, where the hum of its 4.3-liter V-8 engine and the tread whir of its 17-inch-diameter tires produce a harmony unencumbered by the sneers and sniffs of motorists driving more sensible cars. That does not mean the CLK 430 is entirely whimsical. There's lots of good design here, lots of smart engineering. Take the rear seats. A "coupe," in U.S. auto industry parlance, is usually a closed car with two doors and two usable seats. That is true even for most 2-plus-2 coupes, which offer seating for four people, assuming that the two rear passengers can be disassembled and boxed before entering the car. By comparison, four adults can sit comfortably in the CLK 430. Mercedes-Benz's "Easy Entry System," which automatically moves the front seats forward, eliminates the hassle of getting to the rear. The car's four-wheel independent suspension system is tops. There is no discernible body sway or lean, not even in the tightest curves. That's important for safety. A super-stable car tends to compensate, within reason, for errant driver behavior. There are numerous other smart things, such as Mercedes-Benz's patented "Brake Assist," an advanced, computer-driven anti-lock system specifically designed to reduce stopping distances in panic braking. But none of those technological marvels has anything to do with the social politics of the CLK 430--how it fits into a public mind wracked by class divisions, by warring perceptions of who is entitled to what. It is a case of beauty and the beast. The car is the beauty. The world is the beast. 1999 Mercedes-Benz CLK 430 Coupe Complaints: Itty-bitty trunk, barely 11 cubic feet of storage space. Praise: A car lover's dream. Excellent build quality. Solid. Exceptionally well balanced in terms of feel and performance. And, despite its impracticality--lesser cars have more utility--it does have some welcome nods to common sense. Head-turning quotient: Clean, classic coupe design. Far more stunning on the road than it is on photographic paper. Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces. It is the car as sport, driving for the pleasure of driving. Tremendous launch, zero to 60 mph in about 6 seconds. Safety: A motorized vault filled with items such as side-impact air bags, advanced anti-lock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control. Engine: A 4.3-liter V-8 designed to produce 275 horsepower at 5,750 rpm and 295 pound-feet of torque between 3,000 and 4,000 rpm. Layout: Front engine, rear drive. Capacities: Seats four. Holds 16.4 gallons of gasoline; premium unleaded recommended. Mileage: Not great. About 21 miles per gallon in city and highway driving. Estimated range is 330 miles. Price: Base price is $47,900. Dealer's invoice price on base model is $41,670. Price as tested is $51,135, including $2,640 in options (such as the glass sunroof) and a $595 destination charge. Purse-strings note: A wonderful toy. If you can pay, you can play.
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