NAVARRE BEACH, Fla. – It’s making everyone sick. For weeks I’ve been bragging about my new getaway on the Emerald Coast of Florida, an impossibly perfect stretch of shoreline punctuated by a national park, the occasional school of dolphins, and a population density that makes eastern Wyoming look like Calcutta.
When a friend found out our next jaunt to the panhandle paradise would take place behind the wheel of the latest Benz V-8 convertible, he pointed out: “If it got any better, your head would be even balder from the excitement.”
Balder, yes, and redder because the entire trip through rural Alabama begs for top-down driving. And because the CLK’s fluid grace and massive V-8 power eggs even expedient drivers on to the narrower, windier byways, a normal five-hour journey is usually turned into something vaguely resembling Gilligan’s tour of duty -- minus only a CD changer powered by two coconuts, that is.
The CLK is the middle child in the world of Benz convertibles, too grown-up to be mistaken for the cutesy SLK-series roadsters and way too vigorous and youthful to get confused for the aging SL-Class dowagers. It’s also the only four-place convertible in the Mercedes lineup -- a practical novelty that almost makes it socially acceptable to splurge on a nearly $60,000 car.
Regular readers know our fondness for the Benz CLK coupes in all versions – especially the 342-hp rifle shot that is the CLK55. That ardor goes equally for the Cabriolet versions of the same platform, but in a different way. Somehow, slicing off the roof transforms the more businesslike CLK430 into a ragtop with a matchless grace.
The top is operationally simple, but mechanically complex. Twist a handle on the windshield header and press a console-mounted button, and it first pops off the rear part of the top and raises a body-color panel behind the rear seats. The top folds away into the hold, and the panel closes to fit nearly flush with the trunk lid.
2001 Mercedes-Benz CLK Class
Aesthetically it’s a major high-five. Top down, the CLK looks like something from the pages of Town and Country magazine, very sleek and quietly rich. Even with the top up, the glass rear window and thickly woven ragtop make the cabin a comfortable, relatively noise-free abode. However, the folding mechanism just destroys trunk room; a laptop bag won’t fit vertically in the space underneath the top stack.
The convertible conversion makes this roomy and airy, not at all quivery. There is a very slight shudder, like the one I get when I surf by The Geena Davis Show, but it’s inevitably brief and minor. If you’re expecting an automotive lambada and a reason to harpoon this one from your shopping list, it won’t be for body flex.
The Cabrio is also linked to its hardtop cohorts by virtue of its virtuous powertrain, a 275-hp V-8 entwined with a five-speed automatic and Touch Shift control. The two work in beautiful concert, trading complementary actions like cartoon chipmunks Chip ‘N Dale. Building speed is effortless behind this team: Benz says it’ll go 155 mph and hit 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, but they don’t offer how smoothly and invisibly it accelerates in its midrange. Even on a challenging road, you’ll be able to pick off passes nonchalantly. The Touch Shift control is a mild surprise – you’ll become addicted to slapping from gear to gear with a quick whack on the shift lever.
The Cabrio’s handling leaves nothing off the menu. Braking and steering are standouts. Every manufacturer should study how Benz builds efforts into controls that make their cars feel easy to drive. Responses feel natural, especially in the steering, which needles through Alabama two-laners with the abandon of Junior Johnson. The shocks are damped ideally, even considering the Cabrio’s extra weight and less rigid body.
2001 Mercedes-Benz CLK Class
Seating room is an issue if you’re trying to initiate four adults into the windblown fraternity. My in-laws fit in the Cabrio’s rear seats rather easily, but leg room wasn’t luxuriant. In front, there’s virtually no issue, however. Plus, there’s a button on the dash that lowers and raises the rear headrests, a nifty gadget that provides a good 15 minutes of fun for even the most jaded drivers.
While the breezes stay manageable in the cabin thanks to clever engineers, a few quibbles waft into the interior. Why does German logic make the tranny so sweet and the radio controls so maddening? It’s no CL-Class, what with that car’s minuscule buttons and the pushing and fiddling just to change bands. But the Cabrio’s steering-wheel controls for the trip functions and the radio would be best left unintegrated. Toggling through menus is a unique frustration best left to Bill Gates, isn’t it? Then there’s the cupholder, an elegant piece of fluid movement that is nonetheless practically useless for water bottles and anything you’d prefer to keep vertical.
Down in paradise, the Cabrio makes perfect sense. Crossing the Pensacola Bay Bridge, aqua blue and sky blue separated by a thin band of white concrete, it’s hard to imagine a better life. Then again, there is a CLK55 Cabrio in the offing – one reason to go back home, I suppose.
Mercedes-Benz CLK430 Cabriolet
Price: $56,500 base; $59,565 as tested
Engine: 4.3-liter V-8, 275 hp
Transmission: five-speed automatic with TouchShift control
Length: 180.2 in
Width: 67.8 in
Height: 54.3 in
Wheelbase: 105.9 in
Curb weight: 3566 lb
EPA (cty/hwy): 18/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, Electronic Stability Program
Major standard features: Leather upholstery, AM/FM cassette with CD pre-wiring, five-speed automatic transmission, leather seating
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles