2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Cabriolets add top-down freedom to superb line of coupes.
The second-generation Mercedes-Benz CLK now includes a full line of convertibles. The CLK coupes and cabriolets offer comfortable, luxurious accommodations and sporty performance. They look stunning even when sitting still, and are a delight on the road. They sit at the head of their class for looks, performance and passenger space.
In many ways, the CLK line is in a class by itself, sporting sleek lines carefully sculpted to make a statement different from sedan-derived coupes like the BMW 330Ci. Completely redesigned last year, the current CLK models replace the first-generation (pre-2003) CLKs. The CLKs are all about style, and from Mercedes' point of view, their direct competitors aren't even on the road yet.
The CLK models offer excellent handling and are a joy to drive. They feel taut, like a true sports coupe, and don't lean in corners. The ride is firm but comfortable. The CLK500 is more exciting to drive than the CLK320 and its interior seems nicer.
Three models comprise the CLK line and each is available as a two-door coupe or cabriolet. Each offers progressively higher levels of performance, but are otherwise similarly equipped.
The CLK320 coupe ($44,350) and cabriolet ($51,400) are powered by a 3.2-liter V6, which develops 215 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 221 pounds-feet of torque at 4600 rpm.
The CLK500 coupe ($52,800) and cabriolet ($59,850) get a 5.0-liter V8 that produces 302 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 339 pounds-feet of torque at 4250 rpm.
The CLK55 AMG coupe ($69,900) and cabriolet ($79,500) are limited-production models with an ultra high-performance 5.4-liter V8 rated at 362 horsepower at 5750 rpm and 376 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm.
All three engines are mated to a smooth-shifting five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission, which features software to adapt its shift points to suit the driver's style. The transmissions also allow the driver to shift manually. The CLK55 AMG transmission lets the driver choose between Formula 1-like buttons on the back of the steering wheel and the shift lever to select gears when in the manual mode.
All CLK models boast a long list of standard equipment including: 10-way adjustable power seats with three memory settings; ABS with emergency brake assist; electronic stability control; and dual-zone climate control with pollen and dust filter. All boast extremely well-equipped and attractive interiors, with two-tone leather and aluminum trim available as an option on the CLK500 and an exclusive, monochromatic black interior on the CLK55 AMG.
A notable addition to the line's robust list of standard features is Mercedes' Tele Aid system, which calls an emergency response center and gives the car's location in the event any seatbelt tensioning retractor or airbag deploys. The cabriolet also boasts a new design of side-impact airbag mounted in the front seat that adds head protection to the usual chest protection expected from such systems.
Options include a navigation system combined with a computerized management system for stereo and air conditioning ($2,170); Distronic, an adaptive, radar-based cruise control ($3,010); a Comfort Package available only on the CLK320 and CLK500 and consisting of ventilated seats and multi-contour front seats ($1,200); a keyless automatic-unlocking and engine-start system ($1,040); and Parktronic, a park-assist system ($1,060). The CLK320 can be spruced up with an appearance package featuring 17-inch wheels, low profile tires and various chrome and brushed-aluminum exterior and interior trim pieces ($1,080).
The Mercedes-Benz CLK raises the ante for automotive elegance. The design is restrained and sophisticated and simply reeks of high-end European class.
One particularly welcome touch is Mercedes' return to the big proud three-pointed star in the grille. That emblem was a hallmark of previous Mercedes coupes, making them immediately identifiable on the highway, and suggesting that drivers of lesser cars skedaddle into the right-hand lane. The coupe disposes entirely of the B-pillar, another attractive element reminiscent of an earlier age of sporty coupes. The rear windows slide all the way down into body, providing an exceptionally open environment.
In silhouette, the cabriolet is indistinguishable from the coupe, with only the barest hint of a break in the roofline where it meets the trunk lid. The fabric top is fully lined and insulated and tucks neatly into the boot, where it fills up about a third of the trunk's limited space, which already gives up almost 2 cubic feet to the coupe's. Rearward vision is impressive for a convertible, although not the equal of the coupe.
In the event of an imminent collision or roll-over, two roll bars stylistically integrated into the rear seat head restraints deploy fully and lock in place within 0.3 seconds.
A nice touch is the absence of any visible antenna for radio, cellular telephone or navigation system. This is made possible by replacing the conventional steel trunk lid with a composite design that allows the integration of the antennae into the lid's structure.
It's a tribute to the CLK's design that the car looks much smaller than it actually is. The CLK shares its platform with the C-Class, and despite its compact appearance it's actually longer than the C-Class sedan.
Several details distinguish the three models. The CLK320 has neutral-tinted glass and gray vanes on its grille; the CLK500 gets blue-tinted glass, high-gloss black vanes with chrome trim on its grille and an AMG styling package comprising a front valance with mesh grillwork and three separate sections and unique rocker panels, rear valance and alloy wheels.
The CLK320 comes standard with 16x7-inch front wheels with 205/45HR16 tires and 16x8-inch rear wheels with 225/40HR16 tires; 17-inch wheels and tires are optional, though they are slightly taller than the CLK500's setup. The CLK500 gets 17x7.5-inch front wheels with 225/45ZR17 tires and 17x8.5-inch rear wheels with 245/40 ZR17 tires. The CLK55AMG softens the rear tires with a 45 aspect ratio.
The 2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK is almost 2 inches longer than the previous generation, and all the benefits accrue to interior space. Mercedes claims to have increased interior space by 2 inches, but it feels like considerably more. The first-generation CLK coupe and cabriolet were classic in both exterior appearance and a relatively cramped cockpit. The new CLKs offer generous room even for tall drivers.
Even better, the back seat actually does have enough room for two adults to travel comfortably farther than the end of the driveway. You might not want to take a couple friends for a daylong jaunt, but no one is going to get out of the backseat looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Rear-seat knee room, for example, has grown 1.5 inches in the coupe and 1.7 inches in the cabriolet.
For some reason, the front seats in the CLK320 did not feel as comfortable as those in the CLK500.
Mercedes made ingress and egress to the rear seat easier with handy quick-release front seats that slide forward and up. Seatbelt 'presenters' automatically extend forward from behind the door opening to make the seatbelts handy for front seat occupants, then retract. The coupe's rear seats are split 60/40, providing access to coupe's capacious 10.4 cubic-foot trunk.
The interior materials are the finest in any recent Mercedes. Soft polyurethane sprayed onto the dashboard provides an attractive appearance and a luxurious feel. While there have been complaints about the use of plastic in the M-Class and C-Class, it's hard to imagine anyone not being seduced by the look and feel of the CLK interior. Nice touches of wood, gathered leather on the doors panels make for a very attractive cabin. The cup holder on the passenger side is attractive but cantankerous, and was the only thing negative we could find in the interior.
The instrument panel is a departure for Mercedes, but it works admirably. A large round speedometer and tachometer dominate the center of the gauge cluster. Two small vertical gauges for the fuel level and coolant temperature flank them. Those two gauges resemble nothing so much as an old mercury thermometer. While they take some getting used to in a brief test drive, the design has the look of something so intuitive for daily use that it's a wonder nobody else uses it.
The cabriolet has a beautifully lined top.
The Mercedes-Benz CLK is a luxury two-door you can drive hard without even realizing it. The chassis has the kind of stiffness Mercedes has only graced its upscale SL roadsters with in recent years. Torsional rigidity has increased a very welcome 40 percent in the coupe and 10 percent in the cabriolet compared with the previous-generation CLKs.
In mixed driving along a stretch of Detroit's Woodward Avenue that varied from 1900-style brick to pool-table smooth asphalt, the coupe's suspension swallowed unpleasant bumps without complaint while communicating steering input fluently back to the steering wheel.
A few miles north of downtown Detroit, on the winding lakeside roads of Oakland County, the coupe handled curves at speed with the easy grace of a thoroughbred horse stretching out in the home stretch.
A spirited romp along the California coast and through the Golden State's coastal range in the cabriolet was similarly impressive and more enjoyable. Unlike many convertibles, the CLK feels solid, like it's carved from one thick piece of rigid material. Extensive use of high-strength steel alloys of varying thickness in the cabriolet's unibody panels and structure combine with liberal reinforcements of transmission tunnel, cross struts and rear bulkhead to add torsional stiffness and bending resistance and minimize vibration. Mercedes claims, in fact, that the stiffness of the cabriolet's body is equal to that of the coupe. All of this contributes to its precise handling and taut but comfortable ride quality.
The CLK's front suspension combines two low-mass lower control arms with a strut, coil springs, dual-tube shocks and a stabilizer bar. Mercedes chose to use the two lower control arms to improve impact absorption for better wheel control and damping. The rear suspension is the latest refinement of Mercedes proven multi-link design. It has been tuned for improved absorption of vibration and more predictable handling when driven hard. The CLK has very little squat or dive during hard acceleration or braking.
The CLK320 feels softer than the CLK500. We're not sure it has to do with the tires or the suspension tuning, but it wanders a little and floats a bit at high speeds. It just doesn't have that same level of Gibraltar feel of the CLK500. The steering in the CLK320 felt lighter on center, with a little more play. Transient response (left, right, left) and turn-in response for corners wasn't as crisp.
Another welcome improvement to the new CLK is the addition of rack-and-pinion steering. It was the last Mercedes car to abandon the automaker's old recirculating-ball system, and the steering response and feel are a massive improvement over the previous model.
Mercedes continues to improve its electronic stability program. In the CLK, the system is virtually transparent, intervening unobtrusively to prevent wheel spin, but without the heavy-handed reduction in power that marred some of its early applications.
The brakes on the CLK are superb. They're easy to modulate for smooth stops in normal, everyday driving, and respond very linearly.
The Mercedes V6 and V8 engines perform admirably and both benefit from a five-speed automatic transmission. The 215-horsepower CLK320 has all the power most drivers need, accelerating ably from a stoplight and driving the car smoothly through the gears.
The 302-horsepower CLK500 is a refined German muscle car, offering pin-your-head-back acceleration with barely any deterioration in handling due to its greater weight. The CLK500 cabriolet can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 6 seconds, according to Mercedes. The automatic transmission is very responsive. The engine exhaust makes a pleasant sound.
Drop the top on the cabriolet and all your cares are whisked away. This is an easy convertible to live with. Buffeting from the wind when the top down is fairly low with the windblocker in place. Put the top up and t.
The 2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK hits the market as the best in its class. It marks a gracious return to style and elegance. It blends two body styles into a common, unified expression of refined, eye- and seat-of-the-pants-pleasure. The CLK is a rolling statement of style and taste, and a design that's likely to age well.
The CLK marks a further evolution of the specialty coupe and cabriolet, one that rises above some of the limitations that undid the market for personalized transportation in the past. The CLK may not match a small sports sedan for passenger room, but nor does it have the cramped cockpit and impracticality of older coupes and cabriolets.
We liked the CLK500 best. It's an absolutely superb automobile in every respect. The CLK320 is a good car, too, but suffers somewhat by comparison to the CLK500; it just isn't as involving. And the interior doesn't seem quite as nice. If the CLK320 is a car you climb into, the CLK500 is a car you put on. The CLK55 AMG is a car for serious enthusiasts. As driving enthusiasts, we can certainly understand the desire for more performance, but it's hard to imagine really wanting more performance than the CLK500 offers.
Mercedes-Benz CLK320 Coupe ($44,350), Cabriolet ($51,400); CLK500 Coupe ($52,800), Cabriolet ($59,850); CLK55 AMG Coupe ($69,900), Cabriolet ($79,500).
Options As Tested
metallic paint ($670); electronic trunk closing ($490); and xenon headlamps and washers ($975).
Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Cabriolet ($59,850).
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