My brother-in-law, Bill Reed, was hurting the way people hurt after several days of chemotherapy. He was having a bad week -- until my wife and I rolled into his driveway in the 2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 coupe.
Bill's teenage daughter, Chloe, noticed the car first. She poked her head out of the front door of the house and shouted: "Wow! Dad, you gotta see this!" Bill, who still looks like a movie star despite his battle with cancer, came to the door. His face lit up. He went back into the house and emerged from his bedroom 15 minutes later dressed in one of the finest of his many fine suits, hair slicked back, clean-shaven, gently draped in the aroma of sandalwood cologne.
"The keys," he said, extending a hand. Bill is a car guy, a former foreman at the huge General Motors Corp. plant in this Texas city. I gave him the keys.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"To the plant," Bill said. "I'm goin' to do a little bit ah showin' off." Bill returned several hours later all aglow. "That was the best kind of therapy you could have brought me," he said. "That car can move!" I said "Amen" to that. The new CLK 320, the first remake of the car since its introduction five years ago, hits top speeds so seamlessly, you absolutely must keep an eye on the speedometer to see how fast you're going. Conventional speed warning signals -- such as engine roar, wheeze or whining -- are absent from the CLK 320. Ditto wind noise. The car just flies!
I almost discovered that the hard way on Interstate 30 heading east toward Dallas. It was early evening. Traffic volume was moderate. Median traffic speed was about 80 mph, 10 miles above the posted speed limit. I thought I was moving at that speed, too. But a glance at the speedometer told another story: 100 mph! I slowed to the legal speed moments before entering a cleverly set speed trap that was catching speeders left and right.
The CLK 320 comes with a 3.2-liter, 215-horsepower engine that feels like something bigger and much more powerful. There is another CLK coupe, the 500, that comes with a 302-horsepower V-8 engine. I probably would've gotten into lots of trouble in that one. Luckily, it wasn't available for this trip.
Normally, I prefer a big sedan or a big sport-utility vehicle on long drives. Such vehicles are more comfortable. They also offer a greater illusion of safety -- you know, the idea that "bigger is better" and all of that.
But the new CLK proved to be a pleasant counterpoint to that line of thinking. It is longer, taller and wider than the original car. Its interior is much more accommodating than that of its predecessor. But the new car is so wonderfully tight, so precise in handling, it made me question the wisdom of taking sloppier-handling leviathans on long runs.
The CLK 320 gave to the trip something that giant rides seldom give -- fun. Pure, unadulterated fun.
I didn't mind passing up rest stops in this one, not even on I-30, which, though much of it has been repaired, remains one of the bumpiest roads in the nation. Mercedes-Benz increased the torsional rigidity of the new car by 40 percent, a remarkable achievement considering that the 2003 CLK 320 has no center, or "B," pillar. That stiffer body rides atop a much improved multi-link suspension system. The result is a smooth ride over paved highways good and bad.
We had planned to leave the Dallas area a day earlier than we left.
The delay was caused by our niece, Chloe.
"Oh, like, Uncle Warren, you can't leave before I register," said the incoming freshman at Summit High School in nearby Mansfield.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because I want you to take me to school in that Mercedes. It's so cool. My friends will be there. I've got to make an impression."