What a difference 25 years makes. That’s how long it had been since I last drove a Mercedes-Benz. It was my prized 1965 Mercedes 220S, an elegant, white four-door sedan, purchased for $3,900 from a family man in Oak Bay.
“Bye, Mercedes,” said his misty-eyed children, waving as if the car was an old friend, as I drove off.
I became equally smitten, despite $3,000 in repair bills and having to replace two stolen hood ornaments before I sold it.
Getting into the driver’s seats of a few 2013 Mercedes vehicles last weekend — including a sleek and sporty black CLS-Class coupe and the stylish, surprisingly affordable new B-Class sports tourer — was an eye-opener.
Despite the comfort and dazzling high-tech features of these dream machines, it was as if time had stood still. These hot new cars are mind-blowing, yet remain as seductive and safety-conscious as my fin-tailed classic.
Participating in Three Point Motors’ Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy was an amazing opportunity to learn more and test the limits of seven high-performance vehicles. Supervisor Joschi Hildenbrand, amiable driving instructors Brent Evans and Adam Pedersen and staff gave 14 keen participants pointers on advanced driving techniques and dynamics — from vehicle control in emergency situations to anti-lock braking scenarios — on a sunny afternoon at Western Speedway.
“You’re going to experience something out of your comfort level,” promised Evans. He wasn’t kidding.
“Safety is paramount,” was the auto expert’s mantra as we piloted these luxury vehicles through various obstacle courses. In one exercise, we drove at a fair clip before “panic-braking” in a sweet spot; another required a similar approach punctuated by a sudden hard-left steer, then an immediate hard-right without stopping until braking was essential.
Easier said than done, I learned as I tried to resist my instinctive tendency to brake on final approach after gunning it in a cool CLS-Class coupe. I’m no auto expert, but the vehicle’s stability despite such rigours knocked me out.
A common objective was to avoid hitting strategically placed cones. The ultimate test was a timed “autocross.” It required speed and precision to zigzag through a row of cones before circling a track and returning, then braking in a split second.
I clocked in second-to-last at 44.7 seconds and took out God-knows-how-many cones with a black B-250 hatch before coming to a screeching halt to merciful applause. It was humbling.
At least I wasn’t alone in creating a spectacle.
“I’m the only one who made the car fly!” chirped Vanja Garic, a Vancouver woman who momentarily appeared ready for takeoff while screeching through two cones on a bumpy stretch. Cheers and laughter ensued.
“Your passenger’s still in the washroom,” someone joked later.
I also learned a Mercedes can make a man a chick magnet, as when Garic playfully embraced me when I emerged from a sporty white coupe for a photo-op.
Also as amusing as it was challenging was an exercise on how to safely steer clear of deer.
“I hit Bambi twice,” said Irene Tiampo with a laugh, after sideswiping two cones.
Which was the point — learning to safely anticipate such potential scenarios.
“You can’t push the limits of a car on the street legally, so this is a way to test them and not get a ticket,” said Richard Vidal, parts manager for Action Motorcycles.
“People don’t usually get a chance to push these vehicles like this, where you can really work them, have the traction control and ABS systems come on and use that brake-assist,” added Pedersen, a dead ringer for actor Paul Rudd.
“People are realizing you’re not going to break these things. We use these cars to just 20 or 30 per cent of their potential most of the time.”
Indeed, these mighty vehicles are so feature-rich, it was as initially daunting as it was awesome. It took a while getting used to such goodies as electronic traction and electronic stability systems, a blind-spot warning system, switching from Sport to Eco modes, an Attention Assist system with a coffee-cup icon that activates when erratic driving is detected, and so on.
“It’s like getting into a jumbo jet relative to my Audi [sports car],” said Telus executive Malcolm Crow after settling into the luxurious interior of a massive white GLK 350 SUV.
Nothing compared to the exhilaration of doing laps around Western Speedway, walkie-talkies crackling.
It was surreal — especially compared to the usual Saturday night mayhem at the Speedway, complete with bread toss — as a fleet of gleaming black, blue and white Mercedes vehicles got up to speed. When you rode shotgun, it could be vertigo-inducing.
“Let’s have some fun!” Evans exclaimed, and this vehicle-orientation experience was definitely that.
Pedersen had a playful farewell warning, however: “Please remember when you drive home that roadwork is not a slalom.”
Life is good. Nothing beats being able to say that and mean it. Whether you define the good life as driving your dream car, luxuriating at the spa, flying first-class or quitting the rat race to raise horses, you can read about it in Michael D. Reid’s new column appearing periodically in the Times Colonist.
© Copyright 2013