Who could have foreseen a decade ago the
svelte, curvaceous shapes on todays Mercedes-Benz products? Mercedes vehicles used
to be conservatively drawn, solid and sober. Someone must have liberated the designers to
create these gorgeous cars. Even their advertising flaunts a younger and hipper edge.
As on the big CL, the CLKs nose carries peanut-shaped twin
light headlamp covers at each corner surrounding a low, horizontal grille. The Mercedes
cars of yore had massive chrome noses, but today aerodynamics rules. A soft, friendly
feeling pervades the body and works its way into the interior too.
2004 brings no significant changes to the year-old CLK coupe, but a
new CLK cabriolet (convertible) is getting all the attention this year. Regardless of its
top, however, there are no plain Jane CLKs. The three available levels are based on engine
size and power.
The starting point is the CLK 320, with a proven 3.2-liter V6 engine
that puts out 215 horsepower. In the middle is the CLK 500, with a potent 302-horsepower
five-liter V8 engine, which is shared with the high luxury SL 500 and CL 500. At the top
of the pack is the mighty CLK 55, which pours out an amazing 362 horsepower from its
handbuilt 5.5-liter V8.
My test vehicle, a Brilliant Silver CLK 500, wore standard
seventeen-inch AMG wheels, and an AMG design sculpted front air dam, side skirts, and a
rear apron. The CLK 500 also receives bigger brakes and some other goodies.
Putting a big engine into a modestly proportioned car makes for some
rocket like performance. While the CLK 320 can go from zero to 60 in 7.4 seconds, the CLK
500 can do it in just 5.7 seconds. The Environmental Protection Agency touts mileage at 17
city, 22 highway, but I averaged 16.7.
All CLK coupes and cabriolets receive the same electronic five-speed
automatic transmission. Like so many other gearsets these days, you can manually shift it
if youd like using the Touch Shift system. All you have to do is push the lever from
side to side instead of forward and backward.
The CLK 500 can go fast, but even if you spend most of your driving
time in commute traffic you can enjoy your time behind the wheel. The handsome burl walnut
interior trim on the console and doors is restful on the eyes, and is surrounded by a
delicate chrome edge that gives it the look of handmade jewelry. Shiny metal also graces
the gauges, air vents, long arching glovebox handle, shifter surround, and the famous logo
on the steering wheel.
For comforts sake, the automatic dual-zone climate control has
a dust/charcoal filter to remove the unpleasantness of large trucks and aged vehicles
ahead. Its sun sensor optimizes air distribution throughout the interior. The heavily
padded doors and dash, along with the firm, form-fitting seats, promote inner peace on the
interstate. Those seats adjust ten ways electrically. The car even hands you your seatbelt
with a presenter. With the CLKs long doors, thats a real pleasure. My
cars interiors harmony-inducing Pacific Blue, along with a brilliant
eight-speaker Bose audio system, helped me sail above the tide to work and back.
The CLK offers steering wheel access to a complex grid of
information and controls. You can sort through a series of menus and then single pages of
information within them all displayed one at a time in the center of the instrument panel.
This is handy for selecting preset radio stations on the radio, as well as displaying a
range of useful data, including distance to an empty fuel tank and average fuel economy.
You can also set features that relate to how the car works, for
example, how you want the alarm system or automatic seat pull-back to function. There is
engine condition feedback, too, such as engine oil life. Emergency messages display as
required, along with suggestions like Fasten Seatbelt and Low Fuel. You can use two
buttons on the right side of the wheel to change the volume or answer the phone (if so
I got a kick out of the rain-sensing automatic windshield wipers,
which are handy on those days where it never seems to rain the same amount from one minute
to the next. I also appreciated the pillarless coupe shape, which is a rare thing today.
Of course, safety and security are priorities at Mercedes-Benz. You
get dual stage front airbags, front and rear side airbags, head protection curtains, and
the BabySmart Child Seat Recognition system. The Tele Aid emergency calling system comes
with the car, and, Mercedes pays for 24-hour roadside assistance.
The CLK 500 is a premium vehicle, and carries a commensurate price.
Starting at $52,800, my tester added the Brilliant Silver paint ($670), a CD changer
($410), and a glass sunroof and rear window sunshade ($1,410), as well as destination
charges ($720), and a Gas Guzzler tax ($1,000) to come to $57,010. To get much of the
enjoyment with less power, the CLK320 starts at $44,350. To go whole hog and postage, the
limited edition CLK55 begins at $70,620.