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2000 Mercedes-Benz enjoys good times

By Marc Stengel

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  The scene could not fail to impress. Arrayed like museum pieces in the lee of Stone Mountain's imposing bald dome, due east of Atlanta, the full line of Mercedes-Benz models for 2000 shimmered with an indisputable gloat of self-satisfaction. Times are good for automakers at the threshold of a next century, and few are enjoying times as good as Mercedes-Benz, whose sales so far are up 9 percent over '98 on their way to a projected record-setting year. In the prevailing mood of millennial hopefulness, enthusiast and poseur alike will be drawn to the distinctive, three-pointed pole star of ambition that adorns the grilles of the luxurious sedans, elegant coupes, and muscular SUVs whose precisely serried ranks Mercedes-Benz recently invited journalists to peruse.

There are a few very important changes to the vaunted M-B lineup for MY00 (as company officials are wont to abbreviate). There is, for example, the company's new USUV--the ML55 ultra-SUV whose stunning 342 HP has been hot-rodded to a new order of magnitude by the German super-tuning gnomes at AMG. This is the self-proclaimed fastest sport/ute on the planet, whose zero-to-60 pace of 6.4 seconds and top speed of 150 mph easily trump BMW's recently arrived arch-rival, the new X5.

Destined for the showroom in January, the ML55 represents an impressive, albeit google-minded, display of "bigger-than-yours" concupiscence. Chesty "power domes" grace the hood, under which AMG bored out an already potent 5.0-liter single-overhead-cam V8 to 5.5 liters. Beefy, pucker-flared fenders do their best to constrain an incredible 376 ft.-lbs. of torque that splits four-by-four ways to trick monobloc wheels measuring 18 inches in diameter. Mercedes' new adaptive five-speed auto learns over time to accommodate individual driving styles, while TouchShift circuitry adds yet another degree of sporting potential by allowing sequential manual but clutch-less shifts between gears.

There is a complete list of upscale standard amenities, including sunroof, leather sport seating accented with black burl walnut trim, and a third-generation navigation/audio Modular Control System developed jointly by Mercedes and Alpine. It's the SUV with everything for the sodbuster who wants everything; and it'll take every bit of $64,900 to get one of the 1,500 ML55s slated for production in MY00.

No less ostentatious--but undeniably more svelte--is Mercedes-Benz's CLK430 Cabriolet, whose 275-horse V8 gives this tasty top-down two-door for four its maximum in-your-face street appeal. This car debuted in September, and its arrival rounds out M-B's eye-catching line of CLK coupes and convertibles with either a 3.2-liter V6 (215 HP) or the 4.3-liter V8. Although purists prefer the classic, sweeping roof line of the hardtop, the new cabrio is sure to be the crowd pleaser: It nicks zero-to-60 in a fleet 6.9 seconds, and its standard equipment list includes M-B's uncanny electronic stability program, the TouchShift five-speed auto transmission, and a new TeleAid safety system that employs both voice-contact and satellite tracking. A different navigation system, the COMAND unit co-developed by Bosch, is an available option. This striking V8 drop-top stickers at $55,600 for starters.

For many loyalists, the whole point of owning a Mercedes-Benz is simply to make a statement; that possibility remains brilliantly alive in 2000. The CL500 four-seater coupe will roll onto the scene in the spring. To determine precisely when, just watch for grown men crying while women swoon. Exulting in the sweep of what Mercedes designers call their "pillarless coupe" architecture, the wind-sculpted CL500 serves as the automaker's flagship. The same 5.0-liter V8 from which the ML55 gets its moxie gives the CL a 302-horsepower punch and a 6.1-second zero-to-60. True "active body control," which employs electro-mechanical technology to maintain absolutely flat cornering at all speeds, is an industry first for production cars. The yet-to-be-designated sticker will no doubt hover close to $100,000.

With the approach of what Mercedes-Benz calls MY00, it is interesting to note yet another "new model" that Mercedes-Benz is insinuating quietly into our general awareness. It is a new model, or version, of the company's own brand image. The car that for so many years has allowed itself passively to become "the statement" expressed by its loyal owners and partisans now seems to want to say a few choice words on its own behalf.

You can detect this gentle but deep shift most conspicuously in Mercedes' advertising, which combines an unpredictable cleverness with an uncommon cheekiness. Times, of course, are good; parent DaimlerChrysler is poised to conquer--or at least to co-rule--the automotive world; exciting technologies, well-executed, are transforming M-B's cars into exemplars of performance, safety, function. But beyond asserting an understandable pride in its products, Mercedes-Benz is suggesting--even demanding--that its owners start patting themselves on the back too.

There will always, of course, be those who rail the mob to "eat the rich." Mercedes' latest communications appear to exhort the rich, without sneaking any nervous glances over their shoulders, to go ahead and "eat the guilt." In one television ad, a fleet of gleaming CLKs swarms around a gang biker and his bint on a desert highway, prompting snitty sneers from Sunday-suited kids in the cars that terrorize both biker and babe. "Badness" is Mercedes' smug tag line--in other words, what's good is bad, which is good. For once, the tables are turned; an anarchy of plenty is loose in the world; let the revolution spiral upward for a change. So saith the prophet of this new age, the right reverend Mercedes-Benz.


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