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Mercedes-Benz's CLK-Class cars combine luxury, power and performance with graceful looks and innovative technology. Lean and quick, they perform flawlessly.
For 2001, a sophisticated hot rod has been added to the top of model line by AMG, Mercedes' high-performance car-building partner and the group that builds and campaigns the sports racing cars. The CLK couldn't have been a better platform for this treatment. Considering the CLK's beauty, balance and size (16.4 overall inches shorter and nearly 800 pounds lighter than a comparable CL-Class), an AMG version begged to be built. Give it the best V8 AMG can build, add superb handling, great brakes and magical electronic driving assists, and you have the quickest roadgoing Mercedes ever built. The fact that the CLK55 AMG is the Formula 1 racing series' safety car is more than symbolic. It takes a lot of speed and style to look great leading a field of F1 cars around a track, and this car has what it takes.
On the other hand, no one truly needs more power than the smooth, highly efficient 3.2-liter V6 that comes in the CLK320 models. And for most of us the powerful 4.3-liter V8 found in the CLK430 is more than plenty.
This car has presence. Rarely has a car so hot looked so graceful. Our CLK55 AMG was black on black, and it was elegant. Never has a square chrome grille looked so sleek, with its windswept rake. There are no untidy or gratuitous strokes on the monochromatic body, while the sweeping arc of the rear roof pillars sweetens the shape and helps bring in an aerodynamic 0.31 Cd (drag coefficient).
The 17-inch AMG alloy Monobloc wheels are aptly named. They're very full, yet remarkably easy to not notice. Wheels with more pizazz might be in order, but maybe the Monoblocs are meant to complement the car's shape by being invisible. More likely, they were designed with the E-Class in mind and re-used. But because they don't draw attention to the car, they allow a low personal profile. The CLK55 AMG does not shout "Look at me!" But when you do, you whistle.
The wide-profile Michelin Pilots are swallowed by fenders that have virtually no flares, yet the 55 doesn't look wide. The stance is understated and belies the power. The two wide chrome exhaust tips that exit together under the left taillight are the only real hint of horsepower, at least 342 of it.
Nowadays there's not much to be gained by looking under the hood at a powerful engine; it's not like looking down on a 454 Chevy any more. Under the CLK55 AMG hood, what you mostly see is plastic. A huge black air intake box covers the engine, offering intriguing glimpses of plumbing down below.
Here's what's you can't see. A super-stiff forged steel crankshaft churns inside the pressure-cast aluminum block of this chain-driven single overhead-cam V8 with two intake and one exhaust valves per cylinder, as well as 16 coils and 16 spark plugs. The complex dual-resonance intake manifold with carefully tuned runners is mostly what delivers the torque, which requires a beefy differential and four-bolt driveshaft that's four inches in diameter. The engine displaces 332 cubic inches, bored and stroked up from the CLK430's 260 cu. in., and has an explosive compression ratio of 10.5:1.
The five-speed automatic transmission is adapted from the gearbox used in the V-12 S-class models, because that gearbox can take the torque. The suspension is upgraded with stiffer springs, tighter shock valving, thicker stabilizer bars and firmer suspension bushings. It rides on AMG Monoblock alloy wheels, 7.5" front and 8.5" rear, shod with 225/45ZR17 and 245/40ZR17 Michelin Pilots.
The front vented discs are 13.2 inches in diameter and the rears 11.8, which increases the braking swept area by about 7.6 percent over the CLK320 and CLK430. The rotors are pin-mounted, a racing technique which keeps them cooler.
CLK-Class boasts room for four with outstanding seats. In terms of its firm comfort, luxury features and solid instrumentation, the CLK interior is like other Mercedes-Benz automobiles. The interior is not, however, traditional Mercedes in terms of decor: there's warmth in the interior color scheme. Mercedes has emerged from a long tradition of funereal hues and dark wood trim into something more contemporary. The CLK430, for example, comes with black Birdseye maple wood trim and light gray gauges.
Our test CLK55 AMG had a black leather interior, and it looked just right for the character of the car.
Front seating adjustments work fluidly and it's easy to find a comfortable position. Two adults will find ample leg, knee and shoulder room in the rear seats, though the convertible top makes Cabriolets more cramped. Getting into the rear seat of coupes isn't always easy, but the Easy Entry system automatically moves the front power seats forward, then returns them to their original position.
However, we found there wasn't enough bolstering in the front seats for the CLK55 AMG, as the car corners with such g-force that the standard CLK seats don't support your sides well enough. Ooh, a CLK55 AMG with Recaro seats, that's the ticket.
Even if you never corner hard, the Mercedes CLK55 AMG is worth the price of admission just for those pedal-to-the-metal freeway on-ramp assaults. Zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds will do that for a car. Of course, you'll be breaking the speed limit before you reach the slow lane.
You can hit the rev limiter at six grand in a heartbeat. Since peak power is 5500, you want to shift before 6000. But it's hard to watch the tach that much. It may be better to stay in the automatic mode until you get in third gear. In Touch Shift, you find yourself short-shifting a lot to stay with the engine.
Fast as the CLK55 AMG is, it's a car that will get you out of trouble with the throttle, more easily than it will get you in it. With that much power underfoot (power that's protected from driver indiscretion by electronic intervention), the capability to avoid accidents is high. It's sensationally functional.
The rumble of the big V8 is audible, and satisfying. Maybe 332 cubic inches isn't old-school big, but the engine sounds bigger than that, and the torque makes it feel much bigger.
When you hammer this baby, it gets hammered good. But it likes to have the throttle rolled, not hammered. The engine delivers huge hunks of power without complaint, but the transmission wants you to take your time. Rolling on the throttle provides that time, and the result will be fewer sudden downshifts and a smoother drive. Because the electronic programming of the transmission is networked with the ESP (electronic stability program) for directional stability, even cornering forces affect whether the transmission will shift -- even when it's in Touch Shift mode. The torque converter has its limits, which also come into play when the transmission decides whether to shift.
If what you want is to outbrake a BMW M5, don't count on it. The BMW has bigger brakes (Tale of the tape: BMW: front 13.6 in, rear, 12.9. Benz: 13.2 front, 11.8 rear). And while the BMW weighs more (Tale of the scale: BMW, 4024 lbs; Benz, 3444), the CLK55 AMG just couldn't stop like the M5 when braking hard from 90 mph to 30 mph to set up for a corner. Compared with the M5, the brakes on the AMG Mercedes seem soft. Generally, the brakes on the CLK55 AMG could be firmer and still be civilized.
Ride quality is smooth and comfortable at all times; did you expect less from a Mercedes?
A BMW M5 should be able to take corners more quickly than a CLK55 AMG. But this isn't a race, it's about driving. The suspension compromises made by the CLK are gentlemanly, and in keeping with its drop-dead gorgeous looks. It likes to be flicked into a turn, meaning it's fun to flick it, but a hard flick doesn't always end exactly at the end of the flick. On an uneven surface in a sweeping corner, the CLK may twitch just enough to keep you honest and under control and out of jail. It never suggests that it might like to take control from you, it teases and excites you. The twitch that comes under real hard braking on uneven surfaces is less secure. But we're talking real hard braking.
At the other extreme of the springs, the CLK can be so light on its feet that they feel like they leave the ground. We thought "Wheee!" when we saw the traction control light flutter as we crested a hump on a two-lane at high speed, especially when we knew the touchdown would be secure.
And then we came upon the patches of ice in the road. We had been looking for them, in order to test ESP, the electronic stability program that corrects a slide by individually braking the wheels. It works. Sudden icy spots can be handled by ESP. Just don't turn the ASR traction control off, because the ESP goes with it.
(For more detailed driving impressions of the CLK320 and CLK430 models, check out newcartestdrive.com reviews from 2000 and 1998.)
In our 2000 review, we said that if there were a flaw in the CLK-Class it was that because it does everything so well, it may seem to lack character. Fat chance, with the CLK55 AMG. It does the high-performance thing so well, and with such style. Trust us, this car has character.
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