SANTA MONICA, CA - This is the town where they hand out the Oscars. Where spotting a Mercedes-Benz is no novelty. Where Pacific Coast Highway runs north a few miles to fabled Malibu, home of the stars. In short, a perfect spot to introduce Mercedes' newest star, the CLK coupe. WAW already has published details of the new coupe (see WAW - June '97, p.50). Executive Editor Drew Winter won the loathsome assignment of covering CLK's global debut last summer in Verona, Italy.

Now the Yanks get their shot at test-driving the new car in the twisting roads above and around Los Angeles. Verdict: Another winner for the suddenly resurgent German automaker, even if the overall coupe market is not exactly flying as high as the Dow-Jones average.

When M-B folks describe the CLK as an "entry-level" luxury car, you might conclude they've lost their marbles. Who ever heard that term apply to anything with the tri-shaped star on the hood?

Yet at just a few bucks south of $40,000, the CLK is indeed at least modestly more affordable than most of its other stablemates. It's also $23K under the E320C coupe it replaces, last built in 1995.

But what buyers get for their money is a thoroughbred Mercedes, despite the lower price and "entry-level" moniker. If it looks, rides and handles like a Mercedes, it's gotta be a Mercedes. And it is.

Powered by M-B's new aluminum V-6 producing a respectable 215 hp, the CLK is the first Mercedes coupe not from a sedan chassis since the 1930s. It shares the E-class nose and headlamp treatment, but otherwise has its own unique styling and body panels. In the U.S., only a 5-speed electronically controlled transmission is being offered. But it has some nifty standard features such as high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, "brake assist" linked to antilock braking for shorter stopping distances, a Baby Smart automatic child recognition system, and even wipers that sense the amount of rain and adjust the speed automatically.

Mercedes cites numerous competitors, with the Lexus SC300 and Volvo C70 as the most obvious. The high-end BMW 3 series, Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Mark VIII also are CLK targets.

Now going on sale, Mercedes expects to sell 1,500 CLKs by year end and 9,000 in 1998. In all, the German automaker expects U.S. sales to top 100,000 this year for the first time and worldwide sales to exceed 1 million in 1998.