2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Cabriolet SANTA BARBARA, Calif. California driving is often 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 of State Street in this oceanside city. You can follow Highway 154 its full length of 32 miles, from Santa Barbara to Los Olivos, taking in the glories of the 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 that allows you to totally enjoy the experience -- preferably a convertible that grants you full view of the scenery and intimate contact with the road. You'd do well to choose this week's test vehicle, the 2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Cabriolet. It is a car built for romantic motoring. Thus, it lacks 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 of 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 "Keyless Go" system 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 regular car in which the battery failed. But mechanically redundant systems would allow you to open the door and the trunk, according to Mercedes-Benz engineers. Speaking of which, if you lock the car and, as I have done on several occasions, accide ntally drop the keys in the trunk and then close the lid, you are not at a loss. The key "knows" 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 percent stiffer than its now-discontinued predecessor, the CLK430. The new car packs a 5-liter, 302-horsepower V-8 engine, a four-wheel independent suspension system, and a variety of stability and traction control systems to help keep you safe along the ridges and mountainsides of Highway 154. The car 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 pol ution, easily qualifying for California's ULEV (ultra-low-emissions vehicle) rating. And it is devoid of macho, performance-car exhaust-note noises that do nothing but frighten wildlife. This, my friends, is a car for lovers of all things beautiful. Nuts & Bolts Complaint: The CLK500 could use more low-end torque. I wanted more oomph in moving from a stop. Mercedes-Benz says it will offer a 2004-model limited-edition CLK 55 AMG performance version of the car in which there will be torque aplenty. Praise: 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. Head-turning quotient: The car attracts so much favorable attention, especially with the top down, it makes the driver feel beautiful. The car is endowed with shapely, sexy, seductive lines. Body style/layout: All CLK models -- 320, 500, and 55 AMG -- are front-engine, rear-wheel-drive two-door convertibles with fully automatic tops. Engines/transmissions: The tested CLK500 Cabriolet has a 5-liter V-8 that develops 302 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 339 foot-pounds of torque between 2,700 and 4,250 rpm. Capacities: 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. Mileage: I averaged 25 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving at mostly legal speed. Safety: Automatic anti-rollover protection system, side air bags, multiple electronic traction and stability control and brake assistance systems. Price: Pricing is 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. Purse-strings note: Compare with Cadillac XLR, BMW M-3.
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