While the Lexus tries hard to beat the Jaguar at its own game, the Mercedes seems to step back and watch the catfight with bemusement, smug in the belief that its restrained demeanor and general aura of seriousness will make it the ultimate winner. It's an easy argument to consider, because the Mercedes is in many ways the best convertible of this group. For starters, living, breathing adults actually can sit in the rear seats, where they'll be protected in a rollover by the rear headrests, which can be raised and lowered electrically, serving as reinforced roll bars when they're up. Access to the rear is facilitated by front seats that automatically move up and out of the way. A roadster is a roadster is a roadster; it appropriately seats only two people and arouses no feelings of resentment among the friends you've left standing at the curb. A convertible with minuscule rear seats such as the Jag or the Lexus, though, only tempts those friends to come along for the miserable ride. The Merc's fully lined convertible top--and the Jag's--is proof enough that a hard top is not really worth the compromises it produces, although the CLK's requires the twist of a handle and a push to get it started on its electrically powered trip to the rear. The CLK's trunk is also compromised by the folding top but not nearly as badly as the SC430's.
The CLK430 has the least amount of horsepower--275--but is also the lightest car. The 4.3-liter, 24-valve SOHC V-8 is not as refined as its competitors' DOHC units, but its raucousness gives it more appeal. The five-speed manu-matic transmission rips off shifts quickly, precisely, yet smoothly. The steering has good feel and only the tiniest of on-center dead spots, and it's not overly susceptible to road imperfections. Like those of the Lexus, the Benz's brakes are reassuring, and they have brake assist for emergency stops. And, although the car is not quite the piece of Germanic granite its mid-Nineties E-class-based predecessor was, it's still very solid.
These are all extraordinarily good cars, but, by a tiny margin, the CLK provided the most involving driving experience as we barreled through the mountains at high speed. "The Mercedes covers ground at a wonderfully relaxed pace, requiring some input from the driver but always translating it into perfectly coordinated maneuvers. In the long, long loops above Palm Springs, I could marry the brakes and steering with supernatural grace, with the car barely rolling or pitching," said West Coast bureau chief Michael Jordan.
After driving around under palm trees for several days, it was clear to us that these luxury convertibles are like three different flavors of Hagen-Dazs: Every one of them is divine self-indulgence but in its own way. The Lexus is the most pampering, with a lavish interior, exquisite engineering and production quality, and coupe or convertible versatility, plus the world's best factory-installed car stereo. And it's probably what many real buyers in this field would most want, partly because it's the newest. The Jaguar is pure elegance and beauty, and its slick V-8 engine helps you forget that it is, at heart, an old car. For any Palm Springs golfer who has always dreamed of owning a Jaguar convertible, there is no better car in the world. The CLK430, while not pretty like the XK8, is extremely handsome, properly proportioned, and utterly poised under all driving conditions. It's a convertible with function rather than flash, and, although flash might be the very reason many people buy luxury convertibles, the Benz is still the best driver of the bunch.