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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.
CLK320 Coupe ($42,550) CLK320 Cabriolet ($49,600) are powered by a lightweight and sophisticated 3.2-liter sohc V6, delivering 215 horsepower and 229 pounds-feet of torque. Like all CLKs, it comes with a five-speed automatic transmission, which makes for a superb combination. The CLK320 offers a perfect balance of ride and handling, smooth high-speed cruising, and responsive acceleration performance. CLK320 comes with seven-spoke 7x16-inch forged light-alloy wheels with 205/55HR16 tires.
CLK430 Coupe ($50,250) and CLK430 Cabriolet ($57,300) are powered by a 275-horsepower 4.3-liter V8; it's basically the V6 with two more cylinders. They wear 7.5x17-inch front and 8.5x17-inch rear alloy wheels with 225/45ZR17 front and 245/75ZR17 rear tires.
CLK55 AMG ($68,450) and CLK55 AMG Cabriolet ($79,000) boast a 5.5-liter V8 producing 342 horsepower and a humongous 376 foot-pounds of torque.
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.