Coupe-la-la 

Off the floor

Off the floor

By Marc Stengel

For sheer, outright practicality, you just can’t beat the design of those U.S. Army-surplus fatigue jackets. You know the ones: olive drab to hide the dirt; bunches of hidden-pleat expanding pockets; medium-weight, three-season polyester for decades of dependable wear; straight-cut sleeves and hem for perfect fit without frills. It’s the ideal, universal-use garment for utility and sport—an SUG, I suppose. So when’s the last time—outside of a visit to Fort Campbell—that you actually saw anyone wearing such wonder-garb?

I’d bet that it’s been a while, for the simple reason that, on the predilection scale, ”practicality“ is a bottom-feeder, whereas ”fashion“ is a high-flier. So what if those stretchy leggins don’t got no pockets? If a gal’s got legs, seein’ is believin’. And if that studly Dooright over there likes the way his little slipper-boy Italian loafers offset his block-cut, double-breasted silk Cerutti, who’s to say he’d inspire fewer giggles in Harris tweed, worsted, and Weejuns? There’s a reason we don’t all wear Mao jackets (or olive drab fatigues): We all think our ”selves“ have something special to say, and when words fail we let our fashions do the talking.

How else to explain the recent hatch of two adorable automotive trifles whose very allure depends on a fashionable disregard for practical reality? For practical reality does indeed suggest that the suave Mercedes-Benz CLK320 and the pert Honda Accord LX V6 Coupe are bucking a powerful trend. With their two doors only, these coupe-come-latelies are arriving at the party after most of their predecessors have already been shown the door. Once the bean-counters finished reading the tea leaves last year, Ford told its Thunderbird, Mercury Cougar, and Lincoln Mark VIII to hit the road; the Mazda MX6 and Ford Probe are goners; so are Toyota’s Paseo and Supra, Mazda RX7, Nissan 300ZX, Eagle Talon...you get the idea. Coupes and boomers aren’t supposed to mix—something about too many kids, too much cargo. So why would two of the smartest automakers around flatter themselves that they know better?

Mercedes-Benz CLK320

It’s quite fascinating that Mercedes would associate itself with the coupe cabal at precisely the moment its M320 sport/utility vehicle is changing the way people think about the Benz. After all, SUVs are in large part responsible for the eclipse of the coupe, since they’ve taken practicality and made it fashionable to an absolutely ludicrous degree. Perhaps Mercedes envisions the debut of the CLK as a sort of moral counterpoise to its crass cash-in with the M-Class. Certainly there’s irony in the fact that these disparate carts share the same new V6 powerplant—as if M-B officials were admitting, ”Why consign this beautiful thoroughbred strictly to pulling a truck?“

The CLK story has two plots, really: one is elegant simplicity, the other a simple elegance. The new V6, for example, is an all-aluminum replacement for Mercedes’ venerable straight-six, which had become as long in the tooth as in girth. Ironically, the engine features two spark plugs per cylinder but only single overhead cams. The numbers that really matter, though, are the 215 horsepower that the engine makes and the 105 pounds that it saves, compared to its predecessor.

The five-speed electronic automatic transmission puts a premium on smoothness. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but think of it this way: If you slice the powerband into five smaller pieces instead of three or four larger ones, the step—the shift—from one gear to the next can be smaller and therefore smoother. This CLK gearbox is lovely when it’s rolling along. It accommodates hard charging and smooth sailing with equal aplomb. It’s a pity, then, that taking off from a standing stop can only be described as skittish: The car sort of tiptoes forward, pauses, then leaps forth before finding its poise in second gear.

Technical gadgetry proliferates: Brake Assist circuitry, for example, is standard. It learns a driver’s braking habits in order to sense true panic-stop situations and toss out all the anchors. Mercedes’ proprietary test results show that panic stops averaging 239 feet when unassisted shorten to just 131 feet with Brake Assist. Furthermore, the optional Electronic Stability Program (for $1,950) counteracts tendencies to ”spin out“ in panic situations, and failing all avoidance tactics, front and door-mounted airbags will attempt to cushion a total fall from grace.

But falling in love with this car is much more likely—and enjoyable. Just look at this sweet silhouette. Rippling flanks flow seamlessly into taut spans of curving sheet metal that converge ultimately into focused, projector-beam head lamps. The car makes a big impression, both upon driver and bystander. This belies its diminutive stature, however. To preserve a luxurious atmosphere of expansiveness amidst the leather and burl, the CLK seats only four—for two couples, presumably, after leaving their kids behind.

Honda Accord LX V6 Coupe

Ironically, for the same $44,285 that it would take to buy one as-tested CLK, these same two couples could each buy a $21,550 Honda Accord V6 Coupe and have $1,185 left over for a decent meal and a bottle of wine. Shame on the irreverent reviewer for wafting ”CLK“ and ”Accord“ upon the same breath, of course. Shame on the coupe customer, however, who doesn’t accord Honda its due for devising a delicious two-door at an incredible price—with seating for five in the bargain.

Here again, the powerplant is big news. It’s the first V6 ever in an Accord coupe, and this 3-liter employs Honda’s Formula One-derived Variable Valve-Timing and Valve-Lift Electronic Control (VTEC) system to make 200 spirited horsepower. A 4-speed auto is the only transmission offered, and while its shifts aren’t as velvety smooth the CLK’s, its sure-footed directness evinces a refreshing candor.

The Accord coupe shares only its name and its dashboard with the more ubiquitous Accord sedan. Good thing, too, as that allows this attractive two-door to make its own unique fashion statement. Instead of the CLK’s voluptuous swirl and sweep of sheet metal, the Accord coupe turns an ingenue’s innocent face to the world. It plays Honda’s high-spirited pony to Mercedes’ world-wise thoroughbred. Much of this uncomplicated innocence, of course, borders upon downright asceticism in the no-frills layout and appointment of the interior.

Call it Zen-like to be charitable, or call it Spartan if you cherish the military ideal; but the Accord coupe’s interior is little different from any other Honda in providing comfort’s bare necessities—and little else. It’s comfortable enough, and what accessories exist are convenient and functional. Let’s just say that here’s an interior you’re ready to clamber out of once the trip is done; the CLK, meanwhile, calls for you like the Lorelei even when you have nowhere to go.

Topping things off...

No sooner has the Mercedes-Benz CLK coupe made the reviewer rounds than M-B debuts a slinky new cabriolet (Europhonic fancy-talk for ”convertible“) at last week’s Geneva Auto Show. Dealer deliveries are expected just in time for leaf season this fall, and the sticker should start at the upper-40s. Much like Volvo’s arch-rival C70 coupe-become-convertible, the CLK320’s silhouette loses something more than just its top when decapitated. Still, it’s a darn good way to emphasize life’s generous bounty and your own special aptitude for picking the best fruit.

Stuffing the ballot box

Don’t go thinking election fraud is the exclusive preserve of mayoral candidates in Miami. According to the auto industry research firm R.L. Polk, it was Honda Accord, not Toyota Camry, that won the wallet vote with last year’s consumers. Upon close examination of the returns—the sales figures, that is—it seems Accord tallied 352,101 individual auto registrations for last year’s model, compared to 326,925 for Camry. Honda’s winning margin of nearly 8 percent for retail sales trounces Toyota’s claimed lead of less than 1 percent in overall sales.

To finagle the overall title, Toyota shoved nearly four times the number of fleet sales through the system, edging past Accord by a mere 3,081 cars. Boosting fleet sales is a time-honored—if not honorable—tactic in such situations. The notoriously low profit margins on fleet sales—if the profits exist at all—render the final victory more Pyrrhic than psychic. Polk’s year-end re-count also revealed Honda Civic in third place for retail sales, followed by the amalgam of all Saturn models in fourth. Ford Taurus (another fleet sales addict) tumbled to a lowly seventh place in the Polk findings, a far cry from its ”official“ ’97 finish in third place.

Pothole economics

The nation’s crummy roads account for $132 in additional vehicle repairs and fuel expenses, according to a recent study promulgated by a transportation lobby called The Road Information Program (TRIP). That figure derives from the $23.7 billion that TRIP says our substandard roads, bridges, and tunnels are costing American motorists. Maybe next time you get a parking-meter violation, you can protest that you already paid on your way over.

Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com. Or by fax at 615.385-2930.

Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com. Or by fax at 615.385-2930.

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