With this C-class platform, Mercedes has at long last switched to rack-and-pinion steering. That was in part to improve the crash crushability of the front structure. The side benefit is much-improved steering sharpness. There’s a precise, straight-ahead feel now when cruising on the interstate, and twisty-road behavior is less woolly. Body-roll angles are minimal. The low, 45-series front tires (even lower-profile 40-series in back) give right-now heading adjustments. The suspension quickly forgets the bumps so there is none of that floaty, where’s-this-going-to-settle-out feeling after impact. This bus will boogie.
Just remember, before you set out to commit cornering, to punch off the electronic stability program. If you forget, you’ll notice there’s nobody home in the engine room the first time you push deep into a turn and try to hold the drift with a touch of throttle. The fun peters out with a short scrub of the tires.
When you give the ESP the afternoon off, the CLK gets downright frisky in the twisties. You can trust it to understeer, but not too much. And you can go very quickly with no audible protest from the tires. On the skidpad, grip measures a healthy 0.82 g.
Mercedes is known for its stern approach to luxury, the polar opposite of Lexus plushness. The CLK500 has firm seats with a sporty helping of lateral support. We think few will find them too confining. The somber, all-black interior of the test car is enlivened with gestures in burled wood and pleasingly delicate touches of chrome. Bezels surrounding the instruments and dash vents are thin enough to pass for chrome pinstripes.
The instrument cluster consists of three black-face dials, one of them devoted to the analog clock, and two vertical bar graphs. The narrow-stroke markings are clean and precise. Those who drive through dark country nights will find the dials don’t dim nearly enough.
And maybe this last complaint is a comment on the way some of us fidget around while stopped at reds, but we found that an adult male’s left knee often contacts the door-mounted seat buttons, nudging the driver’s bucket into a new position.
Traditionally, hardtops sacrificed rear-seat space to accentuate the close-coupled coupe roofline. The new CLK is longer and taller than the previous generation. It has adult-size space in back, and only modest gymnastic talents are required to crawl back there. Moreover, the split rear seat folds forward to expand the cargo hold.
So, if the droopy-denim dudes aren’t impressed with the hardtop’s uninterrupted roofline, just tell ’em you need the extended space in back to haul home the long green.
Since our polling capabilities are no match for Gallup’s, we can’t tell you exactly how alluring this CLK500 looks to adolescents of today’s droopy-dungaree generation – maybe it moves their needles not an angstrom – nor can we assess its gotta-have-one quotient among males in their later 20s and 30s who actually have disposable income. They seem to be aroused by SUVs as much as anything.
But to those of us who were swept into car-cuckoodom in the ’50s, when Bel Airs and Bonnevilles set the style, this sweetly curvaceous two-door hardtop triggers a significant rise in boiler pressure.
It’s like coming across an old love who’s been to all the right plastic surgeons.
“You doing anything tonight?” (pant-pant)
This number has the look of a hard body, with smooth muscles that know how to run. It’s dressed for aero motion, and it wears just enough jewelry to be classy. The Benz star in the grille is a suggestive choice, a reminder of those past SLs and SLRs that earned respect against all comers.
The CLK’s shape is more than just a look – it works, the aero drag coefficient is a low 0.28.
Two-door hardtops are a throwback to the days before air conditioning. Summer was a time for windows down. With no door pillars to visually chop up the roofline, the hardtop convertible, as it was called originally, had the look.
Against the old benchmarks, this new-for-’03 CLK500 is something of an extremist. It packs very reasonable room for four adults into a package that’s downright compact, not quite 183 inches long, nearly a foot shorter than a Camaro. Extreme, too, is the 5.0-liter V-8’s thrust; 0 to 60 in 5.7 seconds will get you the last word in most exchanges. Back on those long-ago summer nights, this Benz would have shown its taillights to all the bad boys on the blacktop and had the girls paying for rides.
Today? Well, when’s the last time you saw a hardtop with all the side windows down? Air conditioning is pretty much standard equipment on anything priced over $20,000, and if you really want fresh air, convertibles have never been better.
Although hardtops have been an American fascination, Mercedes-Benz is one of the few foreign makers to regularly have had them in the lineup over the past 40-some years. This one replaces the previous CLK originally introduced in 1997 as a ’98 model. With sales of 19,423 units (coupe and convertible) last year, each one ringing up $40,000 plus on the cash register, it has been a winner. This second-generation two-door, which debuted in August, will be followed soon by the 362-hp CLK55 AMG and a convertible in 2003. All are built on the latest C-class (small sedan) platform first seen in the U.S. two years ago.
So you won’t get the wrong idea, let us plainly state that the CLK500 doesn’t depend on windows-down motoring to satisfy. The mood here is ” sports coupe.” The hood ramps down smartly, serving up a great view of the road on what looks like a thin body-colored tray. The 302-hp V-8 responds to the toe with a disciplined ripping sound and a serious push in the back. The five-speed automatic presents you with the most perfectly simple manumatic shifter yet invented. Forget prepositioning the lever into some “manual” slot, the usual requirement in other brands. Once you’ve got this Benz in D, a tug leftward on the lever gets you a downshift, a nudge to the right changes up. You’ll feel taut suspension muscles, not to Porsche levels, but about as firm as anyone with $53,000 to spend on a four-seater will tolerate.
It’s no secret that we’re predisposed around here to prefer hard-edged to civilized (read “BMW M3”). But at the risk of provoking snickers among my colleagues, I am duty-bound to confess that the new CLK is well-conceived to satisfy about 95 percent of my daily-driving whims and urges. It only begins to be a little reluctant at the outer limits, where reason erodes and red mist rises. The CLK is smooth, powerful, and engagingly competent. It exudes just the right degree of aural menace when the driver opens all the holes, and it looks exceptionally good whether it’s in motion or at rest. Factor in ample room for four, and what’s not to like?
For days, the stereo in the CLK would make no sound — no matter what buttons I pushed on the COMAND system. I once got it to play music by pushing several buttons at random, including the “Z+,” the “DETR,” and one that has no marking at all. Music blasted forth — startling me quite badly. It went inexplicably and inextricably mute three more times. The system is so inelegant and complex that you can’t tell whether it’s broken or not. It’s pitiful, because the rest of the car is elegant. Its body has the lithe musculature of a distance runner (the previous CLK had a sprinter’s bulk). It’s a graceful — if sometimes obstinate — cruiser.
So much to like here: kick-ass power, the perfect manumatic, the luxurious interior and the top-notch quality of its materials, and the first-rate nimbleness of this smallish Mercedes. On the downside, the styling feels overwrought. There are about three character lines too many in the sheetmetal, and the rear architecture is soft and round, not the no-nonsense, squared-off look we’re used to. It’s a snazzy look, but it feels a bit out of place for a Benz. The price is no help, either; at 53 grand, it lets in too many competitors with pedigrees, such as the Audi A6 4.2 Quattro and the BMW 540i, and both those cars have comfortable back seats.
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