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It never rains in Southern California but when it does, well, you know the rest. 

Anyway, there I was on the 405 heading north from LAX one dark and stormy night trying to find the windshield wiper switch in the Mercedes-Benz E350 that Hertz had plopped me into after failing to cough up a Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima or other sensible full-sized sedan.

Having owned several Alfa Romeos, I'm accustomed to driving without wipers. The trick is to go fast enough to blow the water off the windshield, something that's not really possible on the 405, which is clogged at all hours of the day and night.

PhotoThe only control stalk on the right side of the steering wheel was -- of all things -- the transmission lever, an oddly designed appartus if ever there was one. (You push it up for Reverse, down for Drive. Neutral is in the middle and you must then push in on the end of the stalk for Park -- a strange procedure).

On the left were two stalks, both of them slightly recessed from the wheel so as to be hard to reach with the left hand. They were also similar enough to make it hard to know which was which. One was, of course, the turn signal, the other the cursed cruise control.

The dash was full of buttons, none of them the windshield wiper. Taking a brief time-out after exiting towards Burbank, I flipped a couple of the overhead switches, hoping to find the interior light. Instead, I got a voice from an OnStar-like emergency service. Another switch opened the sunroof, not the best option when it's raining.

It's on the left

I guess this shouldn't be surprising. In my Porsche-owning days I grew accustomed to having the ignition switch on the left -- an innovation that supposedly makes it easier to jump into the car, start it up and go tearing off into oblivion, though I never really understood the thinking behind that.The next day, when I no longer needed it, I found the wiper switch, cleverly located on the left-hand stalk that also controls the turn signals. 

But while it was a relief to know how to turn on the wipers, daylight brought new mysteries -- like how fast I was going, how much gas I had and whether the engine was running at the proper temperature. The gauges are deeply recessed with black backgrounds and sort of greyish letters and numbers, making them nearly impossible to read.

Then there was the simple act of pulling away from the curb. The beast weighs so much -- a bit over 4,000 pounds -- that to get it rolling requires a fairly hearty stomp on the accelerator pedal, resulting in what is best described as a lunge. 

Once underway, the thing wallows along well enough but there is nothing spritely about it. A sports sedan it's not. Parking is difficult thanks to its Teutonic girth.

Nice seats

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Otherwise, it's fine. The seats resemble something stolen from Lufthansa's first-class cabin, the radio is as complicated as possible and the parking brake is the kind you have to step on.

The entire affair reminded me of a 1974 Chevrolet Impala -- a workmanlike take on a very staid and traditional design. I felt as though I had aged 20 years every time I got into it.

Perhaps adding to my feelings of hostility was the failure of the air conditioning on Day 3, when I had to make a 200-mile round-trip to and from Santa Barbara. Fresh air is fine but, let's face it, the air's not really all that fresh on the 101 and the traffic and wind noise is roughly similar to being sucked up in a tornado.

In Hertz' defense, they were very apologetic when I turned the car in and told them about the air conditioner. The gentleman managing the check-in line, David Webb, jumped into the beast and drove me directly to LAX as an apologetic gesture, allowing me to skip the shuttle bus ordeal -- the type of unexpected courtesy that goes a long ways towards smoothing a consumer's tattered feathers. 

But as for the car, which will set you back $60,000 or so, I'll take my Chevy Volt or Mini Cooper anyday, thanks.     


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