Preview: 2003 Benz CLK Cabriolet (4/6/2003)
Stuttgart’s four-seat convertible rejoins the lineup.
Luxury coupes are inevitably a compromise. Buyers are seeking sexy sports-car looks and performance combined with luxury sedan comfort and spaciousness. The basic formula is to take a sport sedan’s chassis and match it to a new, sleek coupe body, but each automaker does it a bit differently.
While the former and all-new CLK follow the same formula of combining the C-Class’s excellent underpinnings with more fashionable design cues and sexy, flowing lines, the new 2003 CLK makes fewer sacrifices in the name of fashion. With a classier, higher roofline, resulting in an attention-getting, more upright coupe shape (which has some likeness to that of the CL coupe), combined with a revamped interior design, the new CLK is much more spacious inside than the outgoing model.
It’s not only the silhouette and some design cues that are borrowed from the automaker’s upscale models. The new CLK has a frameless door design that completely foregoes B-pillars in favor of just a thin piece of weatherstripping. Through a little sideways magic, both the front and back windows open. Just as you begin to open a door, the window glass automatically drops a fraction of an inch, to clear the deep channel that allows the CLK to have its unique frameless doors—and the rear window drops slightly to the side to allow space at the back of the door. It’s a very clever setup, and the open-glass area all the way from the front pillar to the back pillar kept making us falsely think we were in a hardtop convertible.
Following the exterior theme, the CLK’s interior is warm and curvaceous, flaunting but not flashy, tending away from the starkness of Mercedes-Benzes past. Dash vents are now round, and the theme echoes throughout with lots of semicircles and curved edges. The CLK has some unprecedented (for Mercedes-Benz) textures inside, including a soft, textured surface that covers the top of the dash and the sides of the center console. It feels quite upscale and different than the hard plastic that dominates the C-Class sedan and wagon. Everything fits together well, and we didn't notice any creaks or rattles.
Cabin more upright, comfortable
In the driver’s seat, the view has improved—meaning that the seating position is no longer as sunk-in. Ten-way power seats for driver and passenger are standard, and the steering wheel now both telescopes and tilts. An extra 1.7 inches of roofline height allows for the higher position. In back, the seating arrangement is completely new. Two average-height adults can now sit in the back in relative comfort, while taller occupants in the back will still find themselves quite cramped. It’s still better than most coupe competitors, though. The rear seat now has a 60/40 split for pass-through access to the trunk.
But the instrument panel is a mixed bag. In following the displays of the new S-Class and C-Class, the speedometer is slightly recessed, and the outer rim of the center dial, with the middle of that dial a multi-function digital display. A rather large analog clock is on the left, while the tachometer is on the right. All of those displays are very easy to read. On the down side, though, the small, bar-graph-type digital gauges for fuel and temperature are very hard to read, especially during the day when they tend to fade to a poorly contrasted mix of gray and dark gray.
There are a total of five models in the CLK family: the V-6-powered CLK320 and the V-8-powered CLK500, and Cabriolet versions of both, plus the powerful, race-tuned CLK55 AMG Coupe. Though the CLK55 AMG is unmistakable, the differences are subtle between the CLK320 and the CLK500. The 500 has AMG five-spoke wheels instead of seven-spoke wheels, along with a larger-diameter chrome-tipped tailpipe.
The CLK320’s engine is quite familiar: The 3.2-liter V-6, the same three-valve-per-cylinder, twin-spark engine that’s used across the M-B board on everything from the C-Class sedan to the ML-Class SUV, develops 215 hp at 5700 rpm and 221 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm. As the figures would indicate, this isn’t an engine that has a tremendous amount of low-end grunt; it’s one that you where the power really kicks in past 2000 rpm and builds all the way up to redline. It’s only matched to one transmission choice: a five-speed automatic.
Stronger, stiffer, heavier
The body has been strengthened and stiffened throughout, and this tremendously tight body helps boost ride, handling, and crash protection. A crash-box construction allows easier collision repair. The downside of all this additional strengthening is that the steel-bodied CLK is about 250 pounds heavier than last year’s model.
Due to that weight increase and the same 215-hp rating as the previous CLK, the new version isn’t any faster. The CLK’s 215 hp is trumped by the Infiniti G35’s 280 hp and even the base Acura CL’s 225 hp. M-B says the zero-to-62 dash takes 7.9 seconds, which is respectable, but it's certainly no top sprinter among luxury coupes.
In real-world driving, you won’t feel like a hotfoot, but the CLK320 feels plenty fast for any public roads, thanks to the responsive five-speed automatic transmission’s ideal ratios. Lightning-quick downshifts help make the most of the power. A manumatic feature allows you to tip the shift knob to the left or the right to control the shifts for yourself.
Our test car’s five-speed automatic transmission quite consistently made lumpy, hesitant upshifts on gradual acceleration, though, especially into second and third gears. Yet with a little more throttle they were buttery-smooth. Perhaps this was due to the driver-adaptive software that governs how the throttle (by-wire) and the transmission behave together.
Despite the added weight, the new model feels like a rather light car, thanks to excellent steering and suspension design. For those who’ve driven the last-generation CLK, or if it’s been a few years since you’ve driven any M-B product, one of the first things you’ll notice behind the wheel is the entirely new steering feel. It’s the last vehicle in the M-B lineup to make the conversion to a rack-and-pinion steering gear. It still has the same dead-heavy-on-center feel that’s typical for Benzes, but less so. Go rapidly around a tight corner and you’ll find the feel is quite different. The weighting is more naturally progressive, there’s good feedback. Better yet, the new steering is much better at centering itself out of tight corners.
Simply put, the CLK’s ride and handling manners are impeccable. The CLK has, without question, the best ride of the mid-size luxury coupes, and its reflexes in quick maneuvers are sharp enough to satisfy on just about any public-road situation. Potholes, ruts, and patchy pavement surfaces didn’t break its firm but absorbent ride composure. As with other M-B models, the CLK feels progressively more hunkered-down as you pass legal speeds, inviting the speedometer to tease into triple digits with the ride and noise level still absorbent and well hushed.
Which means that the CLK320 is an excellent long-distance highway car, one of our top choices for a long haul involving several different types of roads. Few cars provide this much isolation and comfort while at the same time keeping sharp reflexes and feeling at least remotely sporty.
Another class-leading attribute is cabin noise—or lack thereof. Inside, if you turn off the sound system and climate control, even on coarse pavement you’ll find the interior peaceful, save for the faint sounds of the engine.
An unusual and seemingly unnecessary feature in the CLK: upon closing the door, a seatbelt loop holder extends out a few extra inches, thanks to an electric motor. Perhaps it’s useful for people with short arms, but to me it seemed like something that might be easily broken by some overzealous back-seat occupants. It reminded a passenger of the cobbled-together early 90s motorized-track seatbelt systems.
The last-generation CLKs—and other C-Class variants—were known to have rowdy back-end behavior (only when pushed hard), but an all-new multi-link rear suspension setup and wider tires in the back than the front (225/55HR16s, versus 205/55HR16s in the front) should help cure that. Combined with Mercedes-Benz’s excellent ESP stability control system, the CLK should feel composed in almost all situations.
Worth mentioning, we experienced a couple of unexpected glitches during our weeklong experience with the CLK. On our test vehicle, which had about 8000 miles, the turn signal lever had already lost its ability to cancel, and intermittently after startup a ‘taillight out’ warning would flash on the instrument panel, during which a quick glance outside could not find any lamps out.
High-tech options list
There are some pretty useful high-tech features on the options list worth checking out. The COMAND screen-based interface system and a GPS navigation system are available together (for $2125). The Parktronic parking assist system ($1035) helps show the distance to the next vehicle, front or back, and Distronic adaptive cruise control ($2950) subtly adjusts the set speed to follow vehicles ahead. Keyless Go ($1015) uses only magnetic cards to allow access and to the vehicle without a conventional key.
It will suffice to say that with the CLK, you’re covered on the safety front. A side-curtain airbag system—which protects from head and neck injuries, dropping from the roof/pillars and spanning the full length of the side windows—is standard on all CLKs, plus separate side-impact airbags for front and rear passengers, in addition to dual, two-stage front airbags and electronically controlled seatbelt tensioners.
If you’re in the market for a luxurious compact coupe with a light, sports-car-like feel, then you’d probably want to look at the Infiniti G35 coupe, BMW 330Ci, or Audi TT first. But if you’d like something a little more classy and grown-up — but by no means stodgy — then the CLK is a perfect choice.
Price: $43,900 base, $48,990 as tested
Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 215 hp / 221 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 106.9 in
Length x width x height: 182.6 x 68.5 x 55.4 in
Curb weight: 3515 lb
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 19/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, dual front side airbags, dual rear side airbags, full side curtain airbags, ESP stability control system, Brake Assist, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Dual-zone climate control, ten-way power adjustable front seats w/ memory, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, cruise control, eight-speaker AM/FM/cassette sound system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles