Monday, March 22, 2010

Mercedes-Benz GLK - Riding with the M-B Owner's Club

On the first Sunday of each month, the San Francisco Bay Area Section of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America gets together for an informal drive. I’m a member, but I don’t own a Mercedes yet, so for the February drive, I borrowed one of the newest Mercedes models from the press fleet – a Steel Gray GLK 350.

My compact, sharply chiseled five-passenger SUV rolled along with 17 other cars, including sleek two-seat convertible SLs, a classic “fintail” early sixties sedan, a fresh 2010 model E-Class sedan and even a couple of smart cars (Mercedes makes ‘em).

The GLK should appeal to small families searching for station wagon convenience, moderate off-road ability, glorious comfort, complete safety, and reasonable fuel economy. The larger GL, American built ML, and pricey, traditional G fill out the SUV roster in the brand’s 12-vehicle 2010 lineup in the U.S.

We gathered in the now-civilian San Francisco Presidio. We checked out each other’s cars as we pepped ourselves up with fresh coffee and then caravanned out across southwestern San Francisco streets. We joined Highway 1 in Daly City, and then rolled along the Pacific coast.

The GLK is a fine place for driver and passenger. My co-pilot, son David, read off the directions as we stretched out in firm leather seats and looked out over a typical Mercedes dash. The shapes of this brand new model are sharply drawn to match the Jeeplike angular proportions of the car’s exterior. It ends up looking a lot like the more angular Mercedes sedan designs of earlier eras. Everything feels taut, solid, and top quality—just what you expect in an upscale car.

The GLK turns, stops and rolls along with firm precision, but the ride is never punishing. The Agility Control suspension system uses twin-tube shock absorbers fitted with a hydraulic by-pass piston that acts like a very soft shock absorber, dampening road noise and tire vibration on standard roads. When the surface turns bumpy or uneven, the by-pass piston drops out, preserving the outstanding steering and handling response of a stiffer shock absorber.

On our ride, we reassembled in Princeton-by-the-Sea, where some of us purchased fresh crab for later and headed off again. After we turned left onto narrow, winding Tunitas Creek Road and headed east, we were soon lost in a splendid forest, and the GLK provided a great view through the windows and a confident feeling as we wound slowly along with Mercedes-Benzes ahead of us and behind us. The seven-speed automatic picks the right gear for you, or you can use the touch shift to pick your own.

Mercedes-Benz vehicles are luxurious, and the GLK is no exception. Like its predecessors, it can be upgraded substantially. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system is one way, and my Steel Gray tester had it, with its 45-55 percent front/rear split and completely automatic operation.

The GLK has a 3.5-liter V-6 under its chunky hood that puts out 268 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. That provides plenty of energy to the two-ton vehicle while delivering EPA mileage of 16 City, 21 Highway. I averaged 18.3 mpg in 20 hours of motoring.

The EPA Green Vehicle numbers are only so-so on the Greenhouse Gas score—a 4 out of 10—but the Air Pollution score is either a laudable 7 or a wonderful 9.5. In California and other high-standard emission states, verify that you’re getting the model that scores the latter number.
It’s a Mercedes-Benz, so you can assume that all the normal luxuries are part of the package. But my tester, base-priced at $37,475 (including shipping) slipped past the $50,000 mark, thanks to many worthwhile but costly options.

The Premium Package contributes auto-dimming mirrors, a rain sensor for the wipers, a power rear liftgate, an expansive panorama sunroof and the joys of Sirius Satellite Radio (monthly fees apply). The Multimedia Package brings a navigation system, exquisite harmon/kardon sound system , a rearview camera and more.

The Full Leather Seating Package adds fancy lighting and burl walnut trim too. Heated front seats are extra. The TeleAid emergency system will cost you too. By the time you add in an upgrade from 19-inch to 20-inch alloy wheels, brushed aluminum roof rails and an iPod interface, the sticker says $50,235.

But it’s all top drawer here. The navigation system says “Please prepare to turn right.” Because you keep the key fob in your pocket when you enter and start the car, a message flashes across the instrument panel when you turn the ignition off—“Don’t forget your key.” Thanks, car.

I’m looking forward to another ride with the Mercedes folks. They love their cars, just as people have for well over a century.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Old Red

When Bea V. saw her brother-in-law’s Volvo 122S, she knew that she wanted one, too. So, she ordered a red 1966 model and picked it up, fresh off the boat from Sweden, on December 31, 1965. Three repaints and two engine rebuilds later, she’s still driving it.

“I didn’t shop around,” says Bea. “I had already made up my mind. It was the right size and I fit in it real well, too.”

The 122s is very much a car of its era, with rounded sides and tapered ends that culminate in single sealed beam headlights up front and oval taillamps in back—each rimmed in thick chrome. The tall, wide grille is split in the center and features a lightweight aluminum grid that wouldn’t look out of place on a contemporary Chevrolet. Though obviously old, it’s still handsome and beautifully proportioned.

Despite Bea’s affection for the car, which she named Old Red, she has not babied it, although she has always kept it garaged. For many years Old Red was a daily driver and it went on family vacations too.

“We took it everywhere back then,” Bea relates. “We used to pull a trailer to Washington and Oregon. It was a workhorse.”

More recently, she and her late husband, Ray, drove Old Red to car shows in Southern California and Oregon. Bea proudly showed me the certificate from when they won third place in the 120 Series Class in the 1999 Volvo Club of America National Meet.

No car goes forever without needing some work. After many years of loyal service, Old Red was running poorly and leaking oil, so Bea had the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rebuilt at 328,000 miles. The odometer broke long ago, but she figures the car must have gone a million or so miles by now.

Bea was kind enough to let me drive Old Red around town. As I opened the door and stepped in, I could smell the “old car aroma” of deteriorating cloth, rubber and vinyl and decades of oil and gas. It’s nothing like the antiseptic, perfect ambiance of a brand new 2009 car. I liked it right away—it brought back old memories.

I sat down on the firm bucket seat and checked the mirrors, which attach to the car on chrome holders as slim and graceful as a flower stem. The shallow dash panel is padded on top, with the lower half of red painted metal. How long since you’ve seen a metal dash? The original top pad cracked after many years of sun, so Bea had it replaced with an exact match.

The large, thin steering wheel features a chrome horn ring and a boomerang-shaped bar serving as the two spokes. “Volvo” appears on it in small script. A few simple knobs are mounted at the lower edge of the metal dash for the few basic functions a car of this era and price class would have—lights, wipers, and heater. A modest Bendix AM radio faces the front passenger.

I snapped on the seatbelt. Volvo was pioneer in offering automotive shoulder belts. These are loops of belt fabric through a heavy metal clasp that hooks onto a steel ring on the center tunnel. There is no retractor reel, so I had to make adjustments to fit it to me.

Old Red turned over easily with a twist of its tiny metal key. I spent some time and effort locating reverse using the long shift lever from the floor-mounted manual four-speed. The shift knob looked and felt like a small doorknob.

Once underway, the car goes easily with the flow of traffic, but it’s no rocket—nor does it need to be. I peered through the flat-glass slit of a windshield at the rounded hood of the car. With unassisted steering, you have a feeling of control while moving, but making turns at very low speeds is challenging. Bea, a petite, slim woman, apparently has no issues with that.

Despite being very different from the 2010 Toyota Prius I’d arrived in, the elderly Volvo felt both like a car should and also conveyed some of the directness that is lost in this age of electronic throttles, power steering, and hermetic sealing from the outside world.

The Volvo 122s arrived in America in the late 1950’s after a Swedish debut in 1956. It looked modern—for the mid-1950’s—and remained on sale in the U.S. as the bread-and-butter model of Volvo’s three-vehicle line, which included sedan and wagon versions of the 122s and old-fashioned 544 and the sporty, low-slung 1800s.

After a 10-year run, the by now dated-looking 122s gave way to the new, boxy 144 in 1966. That model, which was sold in various forms into the early 1990’s, is the car still associated with the brand, even as Volvo’s vehicles have changed and rounded over the last decade.

Last year, Old Red was part of a wedding. The best man and maid of honor got a special ride to the church, all because the young couple loved the 122s.

Just as Bea loves her car. “I’ll keep it forever,” she says.