Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class Review


2008 Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class CLK350 Convertible

Throughout most of the 1980s and '90s, Mercedes seemed to focus strictly on the business side of the luxury spectrum by producing sedans, sedans and, well, more sedans. With the exception of one stratospherically priced roadster, style seemed to be a secondary concern, and there was nary a two-door to be found.

The Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class put an end to that. Born as a coupe first and a cabriolet (convertible) second, the CLK combined a curvy, low-slung body with four-seat practicality at a price digestible to the moderately wealthy masses. To no one's surprise, it was a hit.

Like its competitors, the Mercedes-Benz CLK traces the majority of its mechanicals to an existing sedan -- in this case, the compact C-Class. However, Mercedes has always tried to position the CLK as a higher entity than its entry-luxury source material. To that end, the company has offered the CLK with engines and transmissions from the more upscale E-Class, and the first-generation CLK even went so far as to crib its front styling from the E-Class of the time. Unfortunately, Mercedes has also felt that this higher pedigree deserved higher pricing, too.

But the sum of the CLK's parts has mostly gone over well with us. Both CLK generations offer refined road manners, a sufficient amount of sportiness and the expected levels of Mercedes-Benz luxury, safety and prestige. And while the CLK's interior control layout might be too complicated for its own good, this coupe and convertible pair does a passable job of seating four adults -- and remains the only two-door Benz besides the ultra-expensive CL-Class that can make such a claim.

Most Recent Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class

While the design of this current (second-generation) Mercedes-Benz CLK only dates back a few years, engine changes have altered the names of every family member during the model cycle. Currently, both the coupe and convertible come as a CLK350 powered by a 3.5-liter V6 with 268 horsepower and a CLK550 powered by a 5.4-liter V8 with 382 hp. A seven-speed automatic transmission drives the rear wheels of all CLKs.

For buyers needing still more, Mercedes' AMG in-house performance division offers a CLK63 AMG coupe and convertible. The CLK63 convertible is the more mainstream of the two -- that is, if you can call a car with a 475-hp 6.2-liter V8 mainstream. The AMG coupe, known as the CLK63 AMG Black Series, is an altogether different animal. In addition to getting an even 500 hp from its 6.2-liter, this special car incorporates a fully adjustable, track-tuned suspension and numerous weight-saving measures (including the removal of the backseat). Both AMG cars use modified versions of the seven-speed automatic.

Major standard equipment on the CLK350 includes 17-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, power seats, dual-zone climate control and a power tilt-telescoping steering wheel. Interior accommodations are airy in CLK coupes, thanks to their B-pillarless design; CLK convertibles have a quick-acting power-operated cloth top. In addition to their extra power, CLK550 models add a body kit, different-colored interior pieces and paddle shifters for the automatic transmission.

The Mercedes-Benz CLK63 convertible adds a sport-tuned suspension, performance exhaust, laterally bolstered front seats, seat heaters, two-tone leather, aluminum trim and an upgraded stereo. Compared to the CLK63 convertible, the Black Series coupe features harder-edged running gear including larger brakes, lightweight wheels and stickier tires. Inside, it's outfitted more like a racecar, dispensing with the typical myriad of power seat adjustments in favor of true sport seats with manual fore/aft adjustment. It also does without side airbags, but otherwise has all the safety equipment of other CLKs, including stability control.

We've generally been pleased with the driving character of the current Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class, although in non-AMG form, it's definitely more of a grand touring car than a sport coupe. The steering is slower than we'd like, but it's more precise than that of the previous model, and overall, the CLK350 and CLK550 handle fairly nimbly while riding comfortably. They're plenty quick, too.

As you'd expect, the faster CLK63s are firmer-riding on the expressway, but there's a payoff in balance and grip through the corners. The CLK63 AMG Black Series coupe is a particularly impressive machine in this environment and that's no surprise considering its origins: It's basically a street-legal version of the Formula One pace car and is, without a doubt, Mercedes' most serious performance car besides the SLR McLaren. A limited run of 700 cars worldwide should ensure instant collectible status.

Black Series aside, there's a lot to like in the Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class, though there are two major caveats for would-be buyers. First is its high price tag, which leaves the CLK thousands of dollars out of whack from its closest competitor, the BMW 3 Series, but still unable to equal the more elite 6 Series in either performance or prestige. The second issue is that despite the CLK's formidable power, it simply isn't as engaging to drive as either of these Bimmers.

If you're interested in purchasing a used, second-generation CLK, there are a few changes to be aware of. This line of CLK originated in 2003. First came the coupes, which at the time were a CLK320 with a 215-hp 3.2-liter V6, a CLK500 with a 302-hp 5.0-liter V8 and a CLK55 AMG with a 362-hp 5.4-liter V8. Convertible equivalents to all three joined for 2004.

In 2005, the CLK500 switched from a five-speed automatic to the current seven-speed automatic transmission. This was also the last year the CLK55 AMG was available in coupe form, and the year the navigation system switched from a CD-based to a DVD-based unit.

The following year, the CLK320 became the CLK350 (and also adapted the seven-speed), while 2007 was when the CLK500 and CLK55 converted to the current CLK550 and CLK63 AMG, respectively. During the transition, the CLK63 convertible adopted a sport-tuned version of the seven-speed transmission. An AMG coupe also returned for '07, albeit only in limited-edition Black Series form with a six-figure price tag.

Past Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class Models

The first-generation Mercedes-Benz CLK was produced for the 1998-2002 model years in coupe form. The convertible was available from 1999-2003. Each debuted as a CLK320 powered by a 215-hp 3.2-liter V6. The CLK430 variant, motivated by a 275-hp 4.3-liter V8, arrived a year later. The high-performance CLK55 AMG coupe and its 342-hp 5.4-liter V8 joined the line in 2001. Its convertible equivalent followed in 2002, and both went away at year's end.

All models had standard leather, dual-zone automatic climate control, SmartKey keyless entry, a Bose cassette stereo, power seats with memory, front seat side airbags and antilock brakes. CLK430 models added 17-inch wheels, aero enhancements and different-colored interior items. CLK55 AMGs went further with a stiffer suspension, performance exhaust, xenon headlights, a sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, multicontour front seats, front seat heaters and a rear sunshade.

The first changes came for 1999, when stability control became standard on the CLK430 and optional on the CLK320. In 2000 this safety feature became standard across the board, as did Mercedes' new TeleAid emergency communications system. Also, the five-speed automatic transmission on all models gained a manual mode.

The original Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class didn't drive as nicely as the current one. Power wasn't the issue, as all CLKs of this generation were fine performers. In reviews at the time, we took issue with the transmission, which often second-guessed the driver's intentions and delivered badly timed shifts. In addition, the brake pedal was on the spongy side, and the CLK's old-fashioned recirculating-ball steering setup was numb and heavy. On the highway, the car always felt solid and composed, however. Actual braking distances were excellent, too. Besides that, the CLK55 AMG coupe was then the quickest production Benz in history, hitting 60 mph in 5 seconds flat.

Our gripes on the inside concerned the lack of a tilt steering wheel, limited rear-seat headroom and the complexity of many of the controls. CLK Cabriolets suffered from cramped rear legroom, mediocre rear visibility and a power top that wasn't fully automatic (all of which were improved on the second-generation CLK).

In general, we still think the BMW 3 Series coupes and convertibles of the time were more rewarding cars to drive, not to mention less expensive. Still, if we were buying a CLK, our choice would be either the CLK320 or the CLK430. The Mercedes-Benz CLK55 AMG, as fast as it was, didn't offer a big enough performance enhancement to justify its price hike.


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