When the kids move out and your ship comes in, what’re ya gonna drive? BY PATRICK BEDARD PHOTOGRAPHY BY PLANET-R/RANDY LORENTZEN May 2004 Featured in This Comparo BMW 645Ci Maserati Coupé Cambiocorsa Mercedes-Benz CLK55 AMG Spring is here, the buds are out, the Dow is up. Go ahead, treat yourself to something nice. Heh-heh, nice and naughty and quicker than a sinful temptation. From the market's racks we've selected a threesome of awesome choices. Do you feel like showing off, or slipping under the enforcer's notice? Either way, we've got your mobile. The paint was barely dry on the yet-to-debut BMW 645Ci when we pointed its prow into the sunshine. BMW's 6-series coupe is back after years of evasive answers at Munich headquarters. It's back, and finally, design chief Chris Bangle's new BMW-family look—so troubling in the 7-series, so unsettling in the 5-series—comes together in a gasp of admiration now echoing around the globe. This is a visual slam dunk. Yeah! Of course, the coupe comes with all the latest BMW joys: a satiny-slick 325-hp V-8 paired with a six-speed automatic, and all the most intense BMW agonies. Have we railed enough against the odious iDrive controller that substitutes German computer mouse-think for simple knobs and buttons? Yep, the 645Ci is the latest in the love-us-or-hate-us line from BMW. Less controversial by far is the CLK55 AMG from Mercedes-Benz. The look is sweet and tranquil and vaguely Camryesque as the CLK's unique sheetmetal cautiously ventures beyond the German company's everyday styling gestures. Maybe your neighbors will notice, too, that this AMG version is the top of the CLK range and a special confection from the three-pointed star people, or maybe they'll think it's just another Benz. But you'll know the difference the first time you pedal it. Hang on, Harriet! Behind the innocent CLK face waits the fury of 5439 AMG cubic centimeters teased up to 362 horsepower at 5750 rpm, 60 more horsepower than the CLK500. Those who don't know the subtleties of Mercedes labeling will never suspect the muscle packed into this, well, looks like some kind of, hmm, witnesses will probably say "two-door." Make that an $80,695 Mercedes two-door, for the record, about 20 grand more than a CLK500. Hey, we promised nice, remember? That said, nice is not in the top 100 adjectives any auto writer has flung at the Maserati Coupé. But here’s a chance to try something from a fabled Italian boutique at what is arguably a nice price. When a five-figure sum will buy you something this rare—only 960 Maseratis were sold in the U.S. last year—shouldn’t you, at the very least, try it on? Our test Maserati had the full portfolio of options, including “Vintage” chrome trim, a navigation system, and the Formula 1–inspired Cambiocorsa six-speed gearbox. But before you get that close, you’ll notice the classic coupe proportions sculpted by the old master himself, Giorgetto Giugiaro, and the seats of peanut-butter leather peeking over the beltline. Full of gas, the price is $92,024. C’mon, this is an election year. The Dow always stays strong till the ballots are counted. With these three cars, the mood is gran turismo, a term that was long ago tightened to GT for everyday use. But in the heyday of the open sports car, gran turismo applied to a class of long-distance runners in which the rowdy, wind-blown open cockpits had been calmed by a coupe roof. Nobody confused them with family haulers. After two days in the desert east of San Diego, chasing over the thinly traveled blacktop and switchbacks around Borrego Springs, and a thorough battery of performance tests in the usual venues, we have full profiles of each of these GT coupes. Please fasten your seatbelt, and place your seatback in the full upright position. ----- Third Place - Maserati Coupé Cambiocorsa Maserati. The syllables roll off the tongue like music. Car guys have been enjoying that tune since Nuvolari was in knee pants (longer, actually). To see in one glance the difference between a Maserati and the two other heroic cars gathered here, lift the hoods. In the Germans you see plastic cladding evoking—no, make that simulating—what some graphic-design intern thinks cold fusion would look like. No simulations in the Maser. You see cast alloy in 3-D, meticulously crackle finished, red for the cam covers, pewter for the bunch-of-bananas intake rams. This is ground zero for combustion, and you’re invited to enjoy it. The only plastic panels serve to frame the image, masking the surrounding hardware so it doesn’t distract. As much as the peanut-butter leather inside and the classic Maserati trident emblems scattered about try to suggest otherwise, the Coupé is about machinery and the thrill of hot metal and blurred landscape and noise and living with your foot on the pedal. Yeah, it’s fast. King of most roads, in fact: 0 to 60 in 4.8 seconds, through the quarter in 13.3 seconds at 109 mph. But it’s not quite the equal of the AMG. The Maser’s V-8 is smallest of the bunch, just 259 cubes compared with the AMG’s expansive 332. It’s small and ferocious and unexpectedly torquey. The sound is happy and inviting in the polite rev range, turning fierce as it climbs toward the 7500-rpm redline. We opted for the Cambiocorsa six-speed transaxle instead of the full manual. It has an automated clutch, no pedal. Press a button marked “auto,” and it shifts itself according to the urgency of your gas-pedal position, or you can take control of gearchanges by fingertipping the paddles behind the wheel at 10 and 2. It’s an extravagant system, allowing you to have your shifts or your leisure with no commitment to either. For the record, the 4.8-second sprint to 60 starts with a full-automatic clutch engagement followed by full-authentic tire smoke. Unlike the others, which maintain a polite remove from the gritty details of traversing roads, the Maser always keeps you close to the details. When the surfaces are rough, you hear about it in full fidelity. Full volume, too. The ride is firm, but not so whole-grain crunchy as it sounds. The steering wheel is alive, sending back to your fingers little messages about the surface below, little sags in resistance to your turning, little tugs off the straight path. At first, some of our drivers, particularly the younger ones, were put off by this lack of submissiveness. “Yeah, that’s what steering really feels like,” say the old hands. But all of us agree that the Maser works with you, talks to you, plays along as you pick up the tempo. It’s all so perfectly analog. Even the odos are old-style numbered drums that slowly roll over to record the miles. The dash dials are by Jaeger. A patch of stainless steel covers the tunnel’s carpet down next to your right foot, so you can play the throttle exactly, no friction to spoil your commands. The details are so driver-focused. For example, the shift paddles are covered in perforated black on the side you see to match the leather grips of the wheel; the surface you feel on the back is nonslip suede. And unlike the others, the steering here tells you exactly what’s happening down at the tire-contact patches, even if you’d rather not know. The driving position is long-arm Italian, which is to say mildly awkward. Adds character, let’s say. Should you want to invite passengers three and four into the rear—don’t even think about it for average-size adults—the right-front seat makes a welcoming gesture: When you fold the backrest to open a passage, the seat itself automatically powers forward on its track. Nice trick, but there’s only one seat to go for in the Coupé—the left front. Highs: Drives like a sporting car, sounds like a sporting car, steering feels all-natural like a sporting car’s. Lows: Driving position only a little awkward; lumpy engine when it’s cold, valve lifters pump up on skidpad. The Verdict: Fascinating always, exhilarating when you give it the spurs. ----- Second Place - BMW 645Ci This new coupe is the most exhilarating shape to spring from BMW’s loins since the muscular two-seat Z8. The silhouette is soft and smooth. There’s a hint of cop-car Impala, and of the last Riviera before Buick gave up on sportswear. Any suggestion of a suppository, though, has been removed, thanks to a nose-to-tail sweep of decisively carved sculpting. This is a big statement enforced by assertive bulk. The $69,995 645Ci is high, wide, and generally humongous for the class, with a beam of 73.0 inches and bumpers stretched apart to 190.2 inches, wider and longer than the Benz by 4.5 and 7.6 inches, respectively. The optional Sport package ($2800) includes bold 19-inch alloy wheels wearing 40-series Bridgestone run-flats in front, 35-series in back, and they are pushed wide to the metal’s edge. The coupe’s nose pitches down just a little. This car has a commanding presence. Salute or drool, take your pick. Power flows bountifully from the 4.4-liter Valvetronic throttleless V-8, an innovation that earns our admiration both for its technical astuteness and for its out-of-the-laboratory-and-into-customer-hands daring. The payoff is impressive acceleration that breaks over the 100-mph mark in the standing quarter-mile to 13.9 seconds at 102 mph. Impressive but, remarkably, the others easily run away from it. Run away and hide, actually. The margin is that great, with both the Benz and the Maserati finishing the quarter with 7 mph more in hand. On the scale of Great GT Cars Over the Years, two of this trio have powered themselves off the chart. Through all of this, the BMW’s performance numbers are strong. It shows its relative best on the skidpad at 0.94 g, compared with 0.87 for the Benz and 0.85 for the Maserati. The BMW was also quickest through the lane-change test, but since all three finished within 1 mph of one another, we shouldn’t make too much of its slim advantage. Driver comments just after this test hint at our discomforts here—“lots of grip, little roll, and fast steering, but it feels so alien.” Another of our testers called it the “ultimate driving simulator.” The problem? There’s no information coming back through the steering. You simply dial in the wheel angle you think will produce the right arc and hope for the best. Need a little more? Crank it in. No waiting for the fronts to cut. But we all know g-force doesn’t ramp up to infinity. At some point, slip turns to slide and then to uncontrolled trajectory. The fun of driving comes from expertly playing the slip. The 645Ci simply won’t play that game. It cuts smartly when you turn the wheel, right up until—surprise—it doesn’t, just like a simulator. Should we point the finger at “active steering,” BMW’s new computer-controlled gizmo (included in the Sport package) that automatically varies steering quickness with speed? Maybe, but we have no way to isolate that feature to test it apart from the overall feedback built into this new chassis, shared with the 5-series. Let’s just say BMW accompanies a new and admirable level of NVH isolation with unprecedented aloofness. Actually, that aloofness goes along nicely with iDrive, BMW’s daring attempt to eliminate all those buttons and knobs that have cluttered dashboards and faithfully executed driver commands since the late 1800s. Instead, the 645Ci gets a screen and a single control wheel on the console. “This iDrive is about as useless as I recall its being in the 745i,” noted one tester, and he likes BMWs. BMW has to take a hit on another issue, too. We’ve long been critical of Detroit’s coupes for being oversized design exercises with too little room inside. A 190.2-inch-long coupe lacking enough headroom in back for the average adult doesn’t seem to be enlightened engineering to us. Exciting in many ways, but troubling, too. That’s our take on this stylish midpack finisher. Highs: “Hey, look at me!” styling swagger, hushed cockpit, comfy carriage for two. Lows: Dealing with the wretched iDrive controller, no feedback in the steering, dinky back-seat space in a huge coupe. The Verdict: An almost convincing simulation of an exciting car. ----- First Place - Mercedes-Benz CLK55 AMG The outcome of this test was remarkably close—just one point between each car, of a possible 235. Call it a narrowly split decision. Let’s just say, in the clinches, big horsepower gets respect. This is a giddy, fast four-seater as stern as it is forceful. Toe into it, and you get authoritative acceleration right now, no waiting for the revs to build, no fiddling while the turbos spool up. The sound barks and the seatback shoves your back. At 3740 pounds, it’s lightest of the three, although the spread to heaviest is only 120 pounds. So this hustler doesn’t make its speed through the method of low mass. Instead, it gets to 60 in 4.5 seconds in the old-fashioned way—via a big engine, 332 cubic inches, 64 more than the BMW. The mood is serious, sober, confident, professional, and unsmiling. The CLK’s unique exterior shape tries to say sporty, and maybe it does in an open-necked Ralph Lauren sort of way. But the look is not about taking chances, and the car itself is not about zingy, runabout fun. And it’s not about fashion, either. The interior is black, trimmed precisely in thin lines of bright chrome and frosty sweeps of white metal. The molded materials have textures that say quality, and the dial numbers express the facts with a cool lack of emotion. Everything is correct. That’ll be $80,695, please. You have the feeling of durable goods. For a certain class of buyer, that’s exactly right. For the sporting crowd, well, the performance results are blue-chip. Acceleration tops the others, and the brakes outstopped them, too. Grip measured 0.87 on the skidpad, very solid for a four-seater, but no match for the stellar BMW. The CLK is poised in the twisties, quite capable, too, but it doesn’t play—it simply takes orders and is careful to avoid encouragement. The suspension moves very little over the bumps and blems, yet it manages to absorb impacts better, by a thin margin, over the BMW’s, although the harder seat takes back some of the ride advantage. The overall feel is stable, composed, imperturbable. The controls are perfectly rational and matter-of-fact. Unlike BMW, Mercedes believes firmly in buttons and knobs. So do we. Maybe, though, a couple acres of black buttons all shoved up tight against each other—miss one and hit an uh-oh—maybe that’s rational but not sensible. The climate-control system responds to 11 buttons, two knobs, and a pair of four-way rockers all tightly spaced like some Chinese mosaic. The radio-and-nav arrangement gets 29 buttons and two knobs, if we counted correctly, all black. Still, compared with iDrive, it’s thrilling! The CLK offers two approaches to manual shifting: When you’re in D (the only go-ahead choice), nudge the lever left or right for downshifts or upshifts. Works great. Or press the M button on the console to activate shift buttons on the backside of the wheel. The wheel locations are less handy, so we rarely bother. Mercedes’ brakes infamously respond with a long, dead, do-nothing zone at the start of pedal travel. The CLK is typical. Oddly, the vent controllers are thumb wheels that look like Oreos on edge (no crumbs, though). Standard equipment on this AMG version is a seriously buckety driver seat with switches down next to the console to selectively inflate four different zones so you can tailor snugness. Very effective, we think. For rear passengers, it’s the same coupe story of too little headroom. But the deficit is smaller in the CLK, and it might be roomy enough for the average adult on a short jaunt. We opened this treatise on the idea of your ship coming in and your kids moving out. If you choose this Mercedes, at least they won’t think you’re frittering away their inheritance on frivolous pleasures. Highs: Ferocious acceleration with a hard-edged yowl, athletic chassis muscles, routine Mercedes style doesn’t raise questions. Lows: Cloudy feel of the controls, slack brake-pedal action, big clock in the cluster right where you don’t need it. The Verdict: Superhero punch behind a Clark Kent face.