Want Sushi, Slacks and a Massage With That Mercedes?

How the rich buy cars

Photo by James BunoanThe table of fresh fruit on skewers prepared by Britney Spears' former caterer is the first thing to catch your eyes. Off to the left is a Sony PlayStation and the Mercedes-Benz driven by Will Smith in Men In Black II. Up ahead is a little nook where a comfy sofa faces a large-screen Sony television showing Sony movie trailers. On either side are the latest fashions from Saks Fifth Avenue.

Nearby, counter help pour coffee, juice or smoothies. Across the way, four padded chairs are filled with people whose backs are gripped, rubbed and karate-chopped by massage therapists in white smocks. An attendant at an adjoining makeup station helps women—or men who are into that sort of thing, presumably—freshen up. It's 20 minutes until one of the hosts of the Food Network's Too Hot Tamales will prepare us a lunch of grilled skirt steak—tastier than marbleized beef!—basted in a jalapeŮo/cilantro/crushed-pepper paste.

As you no doubt have guessed, my media brethren and I—gathered in a large white tent plopped in the middle of the most-contentious real estate in Orange County, the runways of the old El Toro Marines Corps Air Station—are here to test-drive a car.

But not just any car. It's the all-new 2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans. An attentive public-relations type tells me that the high-end automobile market is so highly competitive that high-end automobile makers must devise ways to "engage" buyers before they even realize they want a new car. And so there's the local installment of the national, eight-city "E-Motion" tour to introduce existing American E-Class owners and "prospects" to "the next generation of E-Class sedan," which includes the six-cylinder E320 that retails starting at $46,950 and the eight-cylinder E500 with a base price of $54,850.

That may sound expensive, but keep in mind the leather seats actually massage your back while you drive.

This sure beats the way I've previously bought cars at dealerships. No matter how hard I try to avoid them, I always wind up in the same small offices waiting for "salesmen" to come back with counteroffer after counteroffer from "managers" before I finally give in so I can sign a mountain of paperwork and be on my way. Does anyone else get the idea the guys playing "salesman" and "manager" switch off jobs to break up the monotony?

There's none of that at E-Motion. You could buy if so inclined, but no one's forcing you to, something that left at least one Mercedes-Benz executive anxious as to whether this expensive extravaganza gave DaimlerChrysler enough bang for its buck. "We have to evaluate whether events like this actually get people into the showrooms," one executive was overheard telling another next to the hanging Saks slacks.

A little more E-Motion media buzz couldn't hurt. To ensure coverage, we media types were offered rides to El Toro via helicopters or chauffeured Mercedes. (I opted to drive my luxurious '93 Nissan Sentra with the rusty roof and cracked windshield.)

Early on, we were gathered in a special presentation area at the far end of the tent, where the lights dimmed, images of a shiny silver Mercedes flashed on three strategically placed screens and bass-heavy techno music with an Aryan edge—modern Kraftwerk?—blared. Before us, in all its shiny silver glory, was the same car that was onscreen. It was later draped for its "unveiling" a couple of hours later to potential buyers.

Chuck Johnsen, Mercedes-Benz's Southern California regional sales director, gave us the greenlight to do what the prospects would do: nosh, watch TV, get massages, redo our makeup, play video games or go out back and watch Too Hot Tamales host Mary Sue Milliken's cooking demonstration with the beautiful Loma Ridge as her backdrop. The outdoor kitchen was brought to us by KitchenAid, which along with Sony Electronics and Saks Fifth Avenue sponsors E-Motion and also features demonstrations of its products.

"I think we've done a good job of finding the right lifestyle cues that appeal to our customers," Johnsen said. "They need something beyond the driving experience."

Ah, the driving experience. I hit the mile-long test track twice (after my most excellent massage, of course). Naturally, I drove the more expensive E500, whose suspension somehow has you riding on air as opposed to the E320's springs.

I started by flooring it in a straight away and then slamming my brakes to kick the dust off the ABS braking system. I took the curves hot as well—so hot that when I hit the hairpin turn designed to slow the car down before the final, bumpy part of the track—better to test that superior suspension—something inexplicable happened: the tires skipped like my Nissan's do when I take the onramp from Harbor Boulevard onto the 405 too fast.

Other than that, the ride was as magnifique as the massage and the smoothie and the sushi and the egg burrito and the chopped-poultry thing dipped in egg batter I ate on my way out before scoring a Mercedes goodie bag. Will I now buy an E-Class sedan? Certainly . . . when California Super Lotto balls fly out of my butt.

 
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