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The Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class is a line of elegant coupes and sedans that come in various states of tune to satisfy a wide variety of buyers. Their restrained, understated styling is soothing to the eye.
They range from the CLK320 with performance that is sporty, poised and stately, to the powerful CLK430 to the ridiculously fast CLK55 AMG. The coupe's lines are tidy and classic, while the cabriolet features a soft top that is so nicely finished inside and so quiet when it's up, that you'd swear you were in the coupe.
All CLK-Class models combine graceful looks with luxury, power, performance, and technology. Lean and quick, they perform wonderfully. They feel solid and motor around corners like they're on rails. These are terrific cars. The CLK-Class is a good size for owners who rarely need a back seat but want one for occasional use.
This car has presence, with a design that is graceful and elegant. Never has a square chrome grille looked so sleek, with its windswept rake. The CLK's headlamps build on Mercedes' newer oval design. No gratuitous or untidy strokes break up the monochromatic body, and the sweeping arc of the rear roof pillars sweetens the shape. It is an aerodynamic shape, with a low 0.31 Cd (drag coefficient).
CLK320 models have full body-color bumpers, air dam, and rocker panels. Chrome is limited to the grille and door handle trim. CLK430 models receive AMG-designed Sport aerodynamic enhancements, black window trim, blue-tinted windows, and new five-spoke wheels. CLK320 models are available with a Sport package ($4,600) that incorporates AMG aerodynamic bodywork and 17-inch wheels and tires.
The CLK55's 17-inch AMG alloy Monobloc wheels are aptly named. They're very full, yet remarkably easy to not notice. 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 Pilot tires are swallowed by fenders that have virtually no flares, yet the CLK55 AMG 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 the 342 horsepower.
The interior of the CLK-Class is like other Mercedes-Benz automobiles in terms of its firm seats, luxury features and solid instrumentation. The interior of all models is nicely designed and finished using high-quality materials.
The CLK boasts room for four with outstanding seats that are handsomely finished. The front seats are firm and supportive with 10-way power adjustments. Adjustments work fluidly and it's easy to find a comfortable position. Three-position memory buttons on the driver's door includes settings for the seats and outside mirrors. The CLK55 AMG gets special multi-contour heated seats with pneumatic side, lumbar, and thigh supports, but we found there wasn't enough side bolstering for a car that corners with such g-force.
All CLK-Class models come equipped with a full complement of luxury features: leather upholstery with fine wood trim, dual-zone climate control, Bose sound system, dual heated power outside mirrors. The leather-trimmed steering wheel telescopes manually and features nice audio and telephone controls that are soft to the touch.
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 leather upholstery is available in ash, oyster, and charcoal. Wood trim is tastefully used on the doors, dash, front console and shift gate; the strip of wood across the very top of the dash may escape attention at first. The CLK320 uses burl walnut, while the CLK430 and CLK55 come with black Birdseye maple wood trim.
It isn't a perfect interior, however. The glove box is small. Window switches are on the center console instead of on the driver's doors where they would be easier and quicker to find and operate. The stereo is brilliantly designed and the telephone integration makes us want it fully set up for a telephone. However, the trunk-mounted CD changer awkward and less convenient than an in-dash CD changer, and it takes up space in the tiny trunk.
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. The front seats have enough fore-aft adjustment to move all the way back flush against the rear seats, eliminating rear leg room. A little cooperation from the front passengers, however, makes for a reasonably comfortable rear seat for going to a restaurant. Two adults will find ample leg, knee and shoulder room in the rear seats. The convertible top makes Cabriolets much more cramped in terms of rear-seat legroom, hip room and head room.
Cabriolet models get an excellent soft top that's so quiet when it's up you'd swear you're in a hard top coupe. Look up and the roof liner is so elegantly finished that you'd still swear it's a hardtop. The main giveaway is the release handle. Retailers usually give CLK customers a 90-minute Walkaround on these cars; be sure to take advantage and pay attention to operating this top as it's a fairly complicated process.
Visibility is compromised in Cabriolets by the small rear window. Small outside mirrors don't help as much as they could; bigger mirrors would be better. Power rear headrests are handy, allowing the driver to press a button to raise them for rear passengers or lower them for better visibility.
Passive safety features found in Mercedes-Benz cars are among the best in the world, and include side-impact airbags. Cabriolets are fitted with a roll bar that automatically pops up to protect occupants should you roll the car onto its roof. Be sure to wear seatbelts because they are superbly engineered in the Mercedes with pre-tensioners and force limiters, which help reduce injuries. The Tele Aid system, which comes standard, detects an accident and summons police, fire, and emergency services to the scene whenever an airbag deploys and the driver
No matter the model, the CLK delivers a smooth, luxurious ride, while its classic rear-wheel-drive layout gives it sports car handling.
At low speeds, the CLK320 feels stately, like a Mercedes-Benz. The ride quality is firm. It smoothes bumps and uneven pavement yet leaves the driver feeling connected to the road. You will hear and feel bumps, however; Mercedes doesn't soften them as much as Lexus.
Drive the CLK harder and you'll discover the handling is sporty with little understeer, that phenomenon of the front wheels sliding before the rear wheels that's so prevalent in the cars from Japan. Charge into a corner a bit too fast and lift off the throttle and you'll get some trailing-throttle oversteer. In other words, this car handles like a sports car. The CLK320's tires feel smooth and quiet. However, for hard driving, the 205/55HR16 Continentals do not offer the ultimate in high-performance grip on dry pavement.
ESP, the electronic stability program, works phenomenally well. It helps keep skilled and unskilled drivers on the road, in dry or slippery conditions. Go into a corner too fast for the conditions and the anti-skid system maintains handling balance the way a highly skilled driver would. ESP can detect an impending spin or slide and prevent it by applying selective braking (to one wheel) to keep the car going where the driver is pointing it. And ESP in no way diminishes the sporting character of the car, the way some anti-skid systems do. A switch on the dash allows the driver to turn the system off, but few will ever wish to do so and in few situations. Even on a race track, I might be inclined to leave it on for the familiarization laps. We tried it out on dry corners and on icy patches where it made the car far easier to handle, adding to our confidence.
ESP works with the rest of the CLK's standard active safety features, which sound like alphabet soup but can save your life. These systems are particularly well engineered by Mercedes and are among the best in the world. ASR provides straight-line traction control, helping the driver accelerate on slippery surfaces by selectively applying one of the rear brakes or reducing power whenever it detects a rear wheel is spinning.
The brakes are excellent, easy to modulate. CLK320 and CLK430 use the same four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system. ABS allows the driver to brake and steer at the same time in an emergency stopping maneuver. Brake Assist applies full braking in an emergency stop if it detects the driver is incorrectly easing off the brake pedal when he or she feels the anti-lock brakes pulsing through the brake pedal, a common driving mistake.
The CLK's five-speed automatic transmission is smooth and responsive, always in the right gear, and you may never feel the need to use its Touch Shift feature. Standard on all models, Touch Shift allows the driver to manually select all five gears by pushing the lever slightly left to downshift or right to upshift. It stays in the Drive selector position, so it isn't necessary to move it over into a separate gate like with most of these auto-manual shifters. The CLK's five-speed automatic is adapted from the strong transmission used in the V12 S-class models. CLK320 models use a different set of ratios than the V8-powered CLK430 and CLK55 AMG.
CLK320's 3.2-liter V6 engine is smooth and quiet. It delivers more than enough performance to satisfy even spirited driving enthusiasts. Producing 229 pounds-feet of torque from 3000 to 4600 rpm, it can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds, performance on par with some V8s. While driving it, we did not feel we were missing out by not having the CLK430's powerful V8.
CLK430's 4.3-liter V8 sustains 295 pounds-feet of torque over a large plateau from 3000 to 4000 rpm, giving this car tremendous punch. The result is 0-60 mph in just 6.1 seconds.
CLK55 AMG rockets to 60 mph in a scant 4.9 seconds (5.9 seconds for the Cabriolet) with its 5.5-liter
The Mercedes CLK-Class is a line of coupes and convertibles beautiful to behold and a joy to drive. They are comfortable and luxurious.
No one truly needs more power than the smooth, highly efficient 3.2-liter V6 that comes in the CLK320 models, however. And for most of us the powerful 4.3-liter V8 found in the CLK430 is more than plenty. If there is a flaw in the CLK-Class, it is that 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.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.
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