Mercedes-Benz had installed them for our pleasure alone. "Goddamn it, I told them not to put tomatoes on my club sandwich!" a large man bellowed. There's a term on the circuit for guys like this who live for their frequent-flier miles and luxury perks. They're called "Frank Bacon." And they're always around.A few steps below the lobby at the Amangani Lodge in Jackson Hole, one of the finest hotels in the world, several car writers sat around a massive wooden table, eating Caesar salads and Kobe beef burgers, the snow-capped Tetons framed behind us as though
It was a slow week for new-car launches, with the Geneva Motor Show coming up soon. In such fallow hours, manufacturers get creative when they're seeking a little easy press. Therefore, 25 car writers had been flown to Jackson Hole for a "winter driving workshop" featuring the Mercedes 4Matic all-wheel-drive system. The 4Matic originally evolved for tractors, or trucks plowing through the jungle. Now Benz had installed the system into its relatively compact C350 and E350 coupes. It was our job to bear witness in high style.
The car-promotion racket encompasses a constant parade of foie gras-laden luxury "experiences," but no one throws them like Mercedes, whose trips simply manifest decadence. Other guys had told me Mercedes stories about when the Oaxaca federales mysteriously disappeared and 120 mph suddenly became the norm on the highway, of the band and fireworks in Tennessee, of the time in Montana where it rained and they danced in the barn all night long, or of that Maine lobster roast where the waitresses and writers jumped naked together into the pool at 1 am. It all sounded somewhat appealing, and enticingly free.
Geoff Day, Mercedes' U.S. director of communications and a living legend, presides over the glitterbomb. Once the press representative to Margaret Thatcher and later Princess Diana, Day sets the standard to which all auto flacks hope to aspire. "I need to get out the message that it's not just about the cars, it's about the lifestyle that the people who buy our cars enjoy," he said in a New York Post profile of him last year. "It's about selling the experience that goes along with owning a Mercedes-Benz."
Car writers are either moderately well off older guys for whom this is a retirement kick or starving young dudes trying to make a mark. Occasionally a middle-class, middle-aged schmo like me will stumble in and attempt to support his family. But nearly everyone, no matter their status, finds themselves susceptible to the unsubtle charms of Geoff Day-styled luxury automoting. So as the large man ordered the waitress to "tell that goddamn hillbilly in the kitchen to get it right this time!", I didn't feel superior. True, I was polite to the staff, but I'd still traveled to this elite location, which I could never have afforded on my own, via the Mercedes nickel.
When it comes to car writing, we're all a little bit Frank Bacon.
In the morning, Mercedes held a brief 4Matic press conference about "mechanical locking differentials," "45/55 front-rear torque distribution," and "a constant refinement heading to the perfect balance between driving dynamics, traction, and overall ride comfort." One of my colleagues asked, "Is there a difference between ride heights and spring and damper tuning between the 4Matic and the two-liter?"
Then we drove.
My partner, a capable young Detroit-based straight shooter from Automobile magazine, took first shift. He chose a jet-black C350 coupe, and we headed out into the winter. The coupe dragged us through the Teton Pass in a near whiteout. There was a quarter-inch ice pack on the road, with snow piled on the edge several feet high. We could barely see in front of us. Most of the other cars on the two-lane road were trucks or four-wheel-drive SUVs. By comparison, we were an ant, but the little coupe handled the conditions as well as any F-150 or Outback would. Any time my partner made a mistake, slipping even slightly, the coupe's stability control straightened us out. It was a remarkable performance by the car.
When we came out of the pass, the snows tapered and the roads grew less slick. I took the wheel and headed for a clear segment. Signs indicating "FROST HEAVES" made me a little nervous. But nothing appeared to be heaving at the moment. Traffic was light. I opened up the coupe. We crossed into Idaho. She hummed like a hive. The mountain-pass speed limits in Wyoming, 45-50 mph, seemed pretty high considering how tough the roads were. It really tested what the C350 could do. The car hugged the curves easy, passing slower vehicles on the straightaway. There were no hitches. When we took it up to 90 mph, the C350 floated like it was on pontoons.
We spent a half-hour steadily cruising not far from the banks of the Snake River. While it squalled outside, inside the Mercedes, everything was warm and pleasant. If I had about $50,000, I thought, and I was looking to blow it on an all-wheel-drive luxury car, this C350 is definitely one I'd consider. Of course, the Audi A4 Quattro and the BMW 5 Series are also good. They'll do a competitive death-tango through the snow until the world runs out of oil.
We stopped at a gas station to take a whiz and buy some beef jerky. Two guys with a gun-racked pickup pulled up alongside us.
"Sure are a lotta Benzes around here," said one of them.