I had two options for traveling between San Francisco and Monterey to attend the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August: an Embraer EMB 130, a 30-seat twin-turboprop puddle-jumper; or the Mercedes-Benz CLK500, the company’s redesigned pillarless coupe. The plane, which cruises at a top speed of 362 mph, would hustle me from SFO to Monterey Peninsula Airport in 37 minutes. The journey by car, which has an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph, would take nearly two hours longer. But it would grant me a turbulence-free ride, an open sunroof, charcoal-filtered air, and freedom from salt-soaked peanuts. I took the keys.
Several weeks earlier, Mercedes had introduced the CLK at the Museum of Transportation in Brookline, Mass., just outside of Boston. Because the museum is located in a residential neighborhood, we were prevented from opening up the 500’s burbling 302-hp V-8 engine, the same block that powers the 2003 SL500. The drive was akin to having a high-speed Internet line but being forced to download images on a dial-up connection. In a word, it was maddening. I parked the CLK and spent most of my time examining the swooping curve of the car’s top (unmarred by a B-pillar), its narrow hips, and its aggressive grille, made even more menacing by the AMG-styled air dam placed below the tri-star badge.
The West Coast drive was anything but stifling. The 3,585-pound coupe felt heavy at first, until it got on the freeway, where it sailed along effortlessly. Once free of San Francisco traffic, the CLK500 accelerated to 90 mph on 101 south, pulling out of the fast lane only to allow a pair of screaming BMW M3s to rocket past at ridiculous speeds. While the CLK has a zero-to-60 time of 5.7 seconds—plenty of power to ride alongside sportier vehicles—it is more suited for leisurely cruising.
I turned on the satellite navigation system and checked my progress against the directions that rested on the passenger seat. Once I reached Monterey, the nav system became essential. On a previous visit, I had become woefully lost on 17-Mile Drive, driving ever deeper into Del Monte Forest and feeling more like Hansel with each turn. With the CLK’s computer, however, I could enter my destination, and if I drove in the wrong direction, a female voice would politely advise me to make a U-turn at the next road. No bread crumbs were necessary.
The Monterey Peninsula, however, is no place to fiddle with navigation knobs, especially at night. The roads are tight and curvy, with many rises and dips, made even more challenging by the perpetual fog that blankets the region and the deer that roam Del Monte Forest. I reached for my cup just as a hairpin turn emerged, a mistake that nearly resulted in a lap full of coffee (and an understanding of why German automakers swear a pox on cup holders).
Throughout the week, as I drove to Concorso Italiano, the Monterey Historic Races, and the Concours, enjoying the view of the Pacific along 17-Mile Drive, I repeatedly congratulated myself for choosing wheels over wings. Never mind driving it back to San Francisco from Monterey; I wouldn’t have minded piloting the CLK back to Boston.