Having jumped from the local daily to the national stage, this Saturn-driving scribe figures it’s time to get a serious set of wheels and learn how to shop for luxury automobiles. And sure, that ticket to ride might be a little steep, but hey, a guy’s gotta splurge now and then…

Having jumped from the local daily to the national stage, this Saturn-driving scribe figures it’s time to get a serious set of wheels – like maybe a $300,000 Benz. And sure, that sticker might sound a little steep, but hey, a guy’s gotta splurge now and then … It was time to see how the other half lives (or the other quarter). Actually, it’s a whole lot less than that. Among car buyers, there’s only a tiny percentage who shop for ultra-luxury, ultra-expensive automobiles at ultra-exclusive car dealerships like Mercedes-Benz. What’s the experience like? I’ve often wondered. How different is it from shopping for, say, a Toyota Corolla or a Buick Regal? I’ve imagined showrooms with glistening marble floors and plasma TV screens to keep prospective buyers abreast of the Seahawks-Jets game they’d been watching at home. I’ve imagined glasses of complimentary champagne and silver trays of canapés. Valet parking, however, never enters my mind until I speak to Stuart Goodman, manager of the Mercedes-Benz dealership at the corner of Broadway and Hemlock in Vancouver. “Parking can sometimes be difficult to find around here,” he advises. “When you come, just leave your car with our valet service.” As I close in on Goodman’s dealership in my blue 1992 Saturn, the one with handles to raise and lower the windows (windows that in some cases only lower and raise with great difficulty) I begin worrying that if I show up in my lovely piece of junk (although I would never say such a thing in front of her), they might not let me through the front door. The car jockeys might split their lips from biting them so hard. So I park at a 7-Eleven across the street and walk over. “Welcome to Mercedes,” says Goodman, emerging from his glass-paneled office. Straight out of central casting, he is tall and wears an impeccable dark suit that might have been tailored by Harry Rosen himself. His moustache is as meticulous in its presentation as any of the gleaming automobiles that surround him. His dark hair is combed straight back, rising perfectly off his forehead like the hood of a car. He looks like his last name is Mercedes. “Would you like a coffee?” he asks, as we head to his office. I don’t, but I’m curious. “What kind is it?” “Starbucks.” Of course. I can’t help noticing how quiet everything is. Sales staff – excuse me, sales consultants – sit at desks with mahogany trim, their eyes glued to laptop computers. When customers wander in, as they do over the next hour, no one jumps up from his desk to latch onto them like a bloodsucker. When someone finally does get up to offer assistance, there is none of the pressure you find at the kinds of dealerships to which most of us have become accustomed. “If there are any questions I can answer, just let me know,” says one sales consultant to a 40-something gentleman in blue jeans and a suede jacket.And that’s it. He disappears. Working for Mercedes has its privileges. It pays better than most dealerships. The average salesperson working in a Ford or GM showroom receives a $200 to $300 commission per sale; the Mercedes consultant, who also works on commission, can make up to five times that and sometimes higher. Most of them earn at least $70,000 a year – and they don’t have to move the same volume of cars as the Ford guy, either. Each salesperson gets a company car and can also buy one a year for a family member at a discount. Goodman oversees a sales team of 11, including two women who work exclusively selling the company’s popular Smart car. The last time I shopped for a car, about a year ago, it was one of the worst experiences of my life – so duplicitous and slimy were the salesmen my wife and I encountered. We stormed out of one place when the fellow asked me, in front of my wife, if I thought “the little lady” would be interested in taking the car for a spin. The “little lady” almost kicked the guy in the balls. We encountered salesmen – all men – who didn’t hesitate to lie to us about numbers. Every day was the “last” day they would be able to offer the “ridiculously” low price they were promising. Of course, the truth is that automakers today are so desperate to move product there is virtually no such thing as a final offer. “People who come here expect a certain type of service,” Goodman explains. “They’re not necessarily looking for a whole lot of bells and whistles in terms of special perks or services. Our customers would get turned off by any high-pressure stuff. Our buyers are usually pretty sophisticated and knowledgeable so you’d better have the information to answer their questions. That’s how a sales consultant makes an impression, by knowing these cars inside and out.” Goodman’s dealership is corporately owned but operates like most car dealerships in the Lower Mainland. In other words, Goodman, as manager, purchases his vehicles from Mercedes-Benz Canada and is on the hook for them in the same way the head guy at any Honda or Hyundai dealership is. The longer a new car sits around the lot, the more it costs Goodman in interest charges. While you can drink Starbucks coffee at Goodman’s dealership, there are none of the plasma-screened TVs you’re beginning to see in high-end showrooms. At the Fletcher-Jones Mercedes dealership in Las Vegas, for instance, there are big-screen TVs, coffee bars and shoe shine and manicure services. There is an area with movies and video games to entertain any children who have been dragged along by their parents. But then, the competition for customers down in the U.S. is far greater than it is in Canada. According to Goodman, Mercedes-Benz will sell more cars in California this year than in all of Canada combined. A Mercedes customer can save herself a trip downtown by getting her car serviced at home for no travel fee as long as the work isn’t complicated (in other words, not much more than brakes, oil changes and a lube job) and her home is within a 25-kilometre radius of the dealership. If she is interested in purchasing a certain vehicle, the dealership will drive it out to her home for a closer inspection. Mercedes also offers free annual detailing for vehicles that start at around $100,000. “Honestly,” says Goodman. “At the end of the day, it’s still the car that sells. At least it is here at Mercedes.” And the car I have my eye on is the $302,226 (including taxes, PDI and freight) CL-65 Coupe, specifically the silver one sitting in the middle of Goodman’s showroom. A stunning stallion you can’t take your eyes off. We wander over to it and Goodman opens the driver’s side door. Isn’t opening a door supposed to make a sound? Isn’t closing one suppose to make a sound, too? “Let’s take a look at the engine first.” The engine of the CL-65 – C stands for Coupe, L for light and 6.5 is the size of the engine in litres – is like nothing I’ve seen before. The truth is you can see very little of it, period, because it is housed in a fibre-carbon casing that is probably worth more than the sad little Saturn sitting across the street at the 7-Eleven. Underneath the housing is a V-12 bi-turbo (don’t ask me what that is) engine that produces 604 horsepower. In fact, the motor is so powerful they had to govern it down so it wouldn’t show up Mercedes’ US$450,000, 617-hp SLR McLaren. By comparison, my Saturn has a 1.9-litre engine that clicks on all four cylinders and generates a whopping 85 horsepower. The CL-65 can get from zero to 100 kilometres per hour in 4.4 seconds. My Saturn can get from zero to 100 clicks sometime between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. “The engine is hand-built at the AMG plant in Grossaspach, Germany,” says Goodman, in a voice as rich as the car he is describing. “There is a plate on each engine with the name of the master technician responsible for building it so if anything goes wrong with it, they know where to go.” The man responsible for this engine is Francesco De Luca. Long may he prosper. The inside of my CL-65 is equally impressive: one look and it instantly occurs to you this is the world the truly rich inhabit. Canucks captain Markus Naslund and defenceman Ed Jovanovski both bought their Mercedes sedans (S-class, about $130,000 before taxes) at Goodman’s dealership, as Pavel Bure and Alex Mogilny had done before them. The owner’s manual for my Saturn shows me how to manually slide the head rest up or down. It illustrates how to move the control knob to defrost the vehicle. The craziest feature my car has is a safety belt system that automatically locks you in place as soon as you close the door. It is a gigantic pain in the ass but it is the only feature in my car that is the least bit, well, space-agey. At least my kids think so. Now here is Stuart Goodman describing the features of my coveted CL-65. “The wood trim is a hand-polished burl walnut. It’s a seven-speed automatic transmission with the option to make it manual if you want to have some fun. There are paddle shifts on the backside of the steering column to shift gears, just like an F-1 car. There is a centre console and a rear-window parking sensor that tells you when you’re getting close to another vehicle. When you get within 30 centimetres, an audible warning goes off. There is electronic traction control so when there’s any slippage it automatically applies pressure to the wheels.” And on it goes. A 12-speaker Bose surround-sound stereo system; eight air bags; crumple zones in the front and rear; a GPS navigation system that could give you map-guided directions to just about anywhere; climate control that is seat-specific; air-conditioned seats with fans to circulate air inside, cooling drivers who tend to sweat a lot while on the road. Yes, this is indeed how the other half – quarter, less than one per cent – live. “How about a test drive?” I ask. “Not until we’re ready to close the deal,” Goodman says. He isn’t fooling. Even the rich don’t get to test drive cars as expensive as this one unless the dealer is convinced it is the only thing left to do before a deal is signed. In other words, before anyone tests this car a price would have to be agreed upon, financing worked out and a credit check completed. You don’t let looky-loos take a $300,000 piece of machinery on the road, especially one that reaches 100 kilometres an hour by just breathing on the accelerator. “This is a whole lot of car to handle,” cautions Goodman. “When we take it out on the street there is a lot of exposure there for us. Even the tiniest dent is thousands of dollars.” Eventually Goodman relented, finding me a demo CL-65 I could take out on the streets. Time to see what this baby could do. “Have fun,” says Goodman, handing me the key. For the first half an hour in my dream machine all I thought was, ‘Please, God, don’t let anyone scrape this thing.’ Gradually my paranoia wore off and I was able to enjoy one of the greatest rides of my life. The interior of the CL-65 is beautiful and exquisite and all that, but it’s the beast under the hood that sets this car apart from everything else on the streets. The engine sounds different than any other car I’ve heard; it is loud and menacing, representing the kind of power you imagine could wipe out a city block. The acceleration was like nothing I’ve felt before, at least as a driver. Can you experience G-force going down Oak Street at 2 p.m? I swear I did. Getting it on an open highway was a delight of another kind. You know how Mercedes boasts about this car being able to get from zero to 100 kilometres in 4.4 seconds? It’s true. And I hope I can’t get arrested for this, but I got the car up to 190 kilometres an hour before chickening out. And when I was going that speed it was like being in an airplane – you didn’t feel like you were going as fast as the speedometer said you were. The only time I was in a car going faster was with Mario Andretti. As I return the car to the dealership, I wonder whether Mercedes buyers haggle over the price, like those of us buying Jettas or Echos. Or is haggling somehow beneath a Mercedes buyer? Is there an unwritten code that says if you can’t afford the sticker price, you shouldn’t have wandered into the dealership in the first place? It turns out the Mercedes buyer is not above bartering, and Mercedes dealers are not above massaging the price to get a deal done. “So would you consider taking $275,000 for this,” I say, knowing I’d still have to find $270,000 somewhere if he says yes. “No,” he smirks. “I don’t think so. Due to the limited nature of this car [only 12 were sent to Canada in 2005] we don’t have to do much price-slashing. ”The moment of truth has arrived. Am I in or am I out? “Well,” Goodman says. “What do you think?” I hum. I haw. “What kind of gas does it take?” I ask. “Premium unleaded,” he replies. I pause. “You know,” I say. “If it had been regular, I might have thought about it. But with the price of gas being what it is these days, that would be a little much.” We both laugh, shake hands and I thank him for parting the curtains of a world I hadn’t experienced before and likely never will again. Minutes later I’m putting the key in the driver’s door of Bluey, my beloved Saturn. I hop in, close the door and wait for the shoulder harness system to automatically strap me in. And then it occurs to me. Not even a Mercedes does that.