MIDSUMMER DAY'S DREAM

Auto Biography

A New Shakespeare adaptation sees one of the Bard's most prescient achievements brought face to face with late 20th-century urban crisis by visionary director Kenneth Spanagh. The play is set in a decaying inner city - political corruption is commonplace, services are collapsing and bribes are the lubricant of everyday transactions.

At the heart of this maelstrom is young Hoglet, principled but ambitious rags-to-riches chief executive of a sewage-reprocessing utility. Hoglet must get to his desperate lost love Fourwheelia, the woman who traded in an almost-mint Diahatsu Sportrak for his sake, and whom he betrayed with a succession of giggling floozies, lured by his two-seater. Wracked with guilt and foreboding, he is preoccupied, sleepless, fraught. He knows this is a watershed in his life, the fork in the road where he must decide if he is boy or man. His crisis is captured in the words:

"Thus the dizzying howl of revolutions

Is still'd, the key forever lock'd away.

Wisdom banishes the siren songs of youth,

And with them, that excellent canopy, the air"

At this he ditches the roadster by Putney Bridge, and hails a cab driven by a philosopher-clown with whom he trades epithets.

Fourwheelia meanwhile, comes upon the abandoned car, fears Hoglet has drowned, and throws herself under an approaching Toyota Landcruiser. The Landcruiser veers into the sportscar and both vehicles plunge into the river below. Hoglet leaps from his taxi, swims to the scene and chokes on raw sewage. The play ends with a prayer for the common man by Gatso, a scrap-metal dealer, who on discovering the insurance companies' refusal to accept the wrecks as write-offs, says: "What's he that builds stronger than the mason or the shipwright? BMW and Mercedes, that's life, goodnight."

The retuning of this fine play happens to be appropriate at this time as the innocent public has been more challenged by this dilemma over the past few months than it has in years. Up-market wind-in-your-hair motoring, sparking the crisis between responsibility and adventure, is now available in a striking fleet of newcomers - the Porsche Boxster, the Lotus Elise and the Renault Spider at more rarefied altitudes, not to mention the chic but modest contenders at the lower end, like the MGF and the long- established and still popular Mazda MX5, the machine that may well have kicked off the whole roadster resurgence.

And then there are the sleek and beautifully-finished Mercedes Benz SLK and the bulbous, exciting-looking James Bond-ish BMW Z3 (only now available in the UK although eagerly discussed and even reviewed, in early versions, by the specialist press over 18 months ago).

Keeping one of these cars outside your house even for five minutes could set off a civil disturbance, and there's a look that comes on to the countenances of viewers (male and female, though with a bias toward the former, and any age from around 10 to threescore-and-ten) that suggests the presence of someone who has gone into a trance either at the thought of dreams they once lived, dreams they'll never get to live now, or dreams that they'll make real one day.

These cars were built on the admittedly fragile presumption that there's still fun to be had in motoring - by private buyers rather than companies, and by single people whose responsibilities extend no further than their travelling companion. There are no occasional seats in the back and boot space is of the long- weekend variety. The BMW and the Mercedes are distinct in appearance, performance and price - there's pounds 10,000 between them. Yet both are good enough in their distinctive ways to generate pretty lengthy waiting-lists. The SLK's reportedly runs to 1999.

If you accept the premise that these cars don't make much practical sense, and you're prepared to wait, then the appropriate criteria for evaluating them is how much fun they are - which includes how much fun they remain when you're sitting staring glumly at the motionless bumper of the car in front. In the case of the BMW, ownership alone will be almost enough for many customers. Though maybe the designers shouldn't have fallen for the lure of those big, macho air vents on such a small and well-knit body, the rounded bonnet and graceful nose of the Z3 (for classicists, the car manages to echo even pre-war sporting BMWs with its neat grille and eager lines) are irresistible. The company's own view apparently, is that very few of the car's buyers will be overly concerned with its performance, and style is its real sales-pitch.

The Mercedes, on the other hand, is far more spare and minimalist in its styling and makes a more muted visual appeal but is a delight to drive and inhabit - the SLK seems to compress its maker's august traditions and standards into rather more than the contours of its bodywork. Its instruments and pedals have a retro-racer flavour, its cabin is comfortable and airy, its suspension less nervous (in which respect, less traditionally sporty) than the BMW's, and its bigger engine is more dramatic in its power-flow.

On the road, the Merc is the car that adapts itself most successfully to a mixture of urban use and fast runs. In town it undulates over potholes and speed-bumps with a fluidity closer to the characteristics of the company's plush saloons, but though it rolls a little more than the BMW, it feels remarkably agile and secure in hard cornering with little of the sacrifice of stability that softer springing usually entails.

The Z3 flutters on bumps more, as well as transmitting the shock more resoundingly to your rear end - though this is a feature that may endear it to older sports-car fans nostalgic for the machines of their youth, which sometimes felt as if the road wheels were bolted direct to the chassis. Both cars have immensely reassuring grip.

You might think that the BMW, with its stubby racer's gearshift and crisp stick action, is the car that puts the engine's resources most rapidly at your fingertips against the Merc's automatic box. But this isn't always the case, because the SLK (which can be switched between sport and economy modes) is remarkably responsive to quick decisions. Its 2.3-litre engine and supercharger (the word "Kompressor" proudly etched down the flank is the nearest thing to osten- tation the car displays) naturally give it more effortless urge than the BMW's four-cylinder 1.9, more or less the engine that appears in a standard 3-series. But in relation to the roadster's weight it's effective, and on motorways in fifth gear even pretty exhilarating.

BMW will be putting a 2.8 litre version of the Z3 on the British market later in the year, and driving buffs who can afford a likely price-increase closer to the Mercedes range may well opt for it instead.

Star turn of the Mercedes package though is the electrically-operated roof, at which audiences almost stop and cheer - it does, however, severely restrict already limited boot-room when retracted. The BMW's is manually operated, though an electric option is on the way. The Merc is also the more comfortable, and the quieter with the roof up, and it has the more supportive seating and flexibility for tall drivers. But both cars will hold their niche-market value well. The clincher? At the moment it's probably the difference between that near pounds 20,000 price-tag for the BMW and close on pounds 30,000 for the Mercedes. If you wanted a two-seater you could live with for years, then the Merc would be the one. If you want a briefer flirtation, with quite a lot of your money back at the end, the BMW has a lot going for it. !

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

MERCEDES-BENZ SLK 2.3: pounds 29,500 / BMW Z3 1.9 ROADSTER: pounds 19,950

GOING PLACES

Mercedes: powerful, fluent 2.3-litre engine, very responsive automatic gearbox, 0-60mph in 7.3 seconds, 50-70mph in top gear 10.8 seconds.

BMW: more modest 1.9 litre engine from the BMW 318i, but effective in this lighter chassis, and with excellent close-ratio gear-box; 0-60mph in 8.4 seconds, 50-70mph in top gear in 11.2 seconds.

STAYING ALIVE/HANGING OUT

Mercedes: rock-solid feel on the road, very stable, ruggedly built, both driver and passenger front and side airbags, anti- lock braking.

BMW: typical BMW handling agility, but with a more restless feel over uneven surfaces; good, responsive-feeling anti-lock braking system, good visibility for a soft-top with the hood up, driver's airbag standard, passenger's optional.

CREATURE COMFORTS

Mercedes: superb retracting roof system, (though boot small when stored), remote central locking, cruise-control, electric windows and mirrors.

BMW: electric seat adjustment, remote central locking, electric windows as well as mirrors, acceptable storage space in the boot for a two-seater.

BANGS PER BUCK

Mercedes: that fancy roof, higher all-in specification than BMW.

BMW: economical for its class, attractive starting-price.

STAR QUALITY

Mercedes: easiest high-performance two-seater to handle, blending chic appeal, driver-appeal and carved-from-rock feel, beautiful instrument display.

BMW: very cute-looking, especially from the front, unique BMW cachet for a moderate outlay.

TURKEY QUOTIENT

Mercedes: limited range (small fuel-tank), restricted driver-position adjustment, very small boot.

BMW: bumpy, routine saloon-style fascia, fiddly hood.

AND ON MY RIGHT ...

Porsche Boxster, pounds 36,550: better steering than both, great engine, for rich enthusiast's; MGF, pounds 18,795: good-looking, able perfor-mer, worthy of its badge; Mazda MX5 1.8i, pounds 18,510: nicer gearshift, noisier, less agile.

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