Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - CLK-class - CLK430 Elegance coupe
Effortless performance, V8 growl, muscular yet understated appearance
Room for improvement
Cramped rear seats, largish steering wheel, wooden-feeling accelerator
23 Oct 2001
TO call Mercedes-Benz's CLK 430 a yuppy hotrod would be doing it a disservice - but what the heck, it's not a bad description.
The Benz blaster has all the ingredients to make a performance junkie's mouth water - potent V8 engine, rear-wheel drive, muscular coupe body and chunky alloys with fat tyres. Boulevard cruisers will also find plenty to like, including the classy interior and undoubted prestige that goes with the three-pointed star on the bonnet.
The CLK first graced our shores in October, 1997, but the initial lineup was topped by the V6-powered CLK 320, which offers brisk but by no means earth-shattering performance. The entry-level model was the downright wheezy CLK 200.
A transformation took place when Mercedes shoehorned its 4.3-litre V8 powerplant under the suave coupe's bonnet to create the CLK 430 - a car quite different in character to its four- and six-cylinder siblings.
It now offered genuine sports coupe performance - the sort of grunt that meant you needn't shy away when a BMW M3 driver casts a sideways glace at you at the traffic lights. You wouldn't beat the M3, mind you, but you'd certainly give it a good fright.
And while the M3 driver would be furiously rowing through the six-speed gearbox, the Benz pilot need do no more than mash the throttle into the plush pile carpet.
So this, then, is the essence of the CLK 430 - an opulent, serenely refined package that can dish up brutal performance when the driver's mood calls for it.
What sort of buyers is the car pitched at? Given the six-figure price, they've got to be affluent for a start.
It may not be cheap but the CLK 430 represents a unique proposition as no other premium European marque offers a sub-$150,000 V8-powered coupe.
In fact, the only cheaper V8 coupe for now is the Ford Mustang. Holden's Monaro - which will be available with a 5.7-litre V8 - joins the fray at the end of 2001 but isn't really in Benz's prestige class.
The lack of V8-powered coupes is somewhat surprising given Australian drivers' passion for "bent-eights". The fact Mercedes-Benz is one of the few representatives in this category shows the German car-maker is keen to cater to all segments of the market.
The CLK's 4.3-litre powerplant is a particularly fine example of a V8. It is fairly conventional in design except for the fact it has three-valves per-cylinder rather than the more common two- or four-valve configuration. The raw figures are 205kW at 5750rpm and 400Nm from 3000 to 4400rpm - impressive numbers for a compact coupe.
On the road, this translates to the sort of acceleration reserves that make nipping into gaps in traffic a piece of cake. Overtaking on the highway is also a snack. That semi-trailer will be a dot in the mirror before you know it.
But perhaps the best part about working the V8 hard is the glorious, barrel-chested bellow that emanates from the big-bore exhaust. Mercedes-Benz has wisely opted not to muffle the CLK 430 as much as its V8-powered sedan siblings so drivers can revel in its aural artistry.
While the CLK 430's straight-line punch is impressive, it doesn't mind being thrown at corners either.
Push hard and you will discover it tends to understeer progressively at the limit - but you can induce tail-out oversteer by switching off the ESP (Electronic Stability Program) and traction control system. However, few Benz owners are likely to be so inclined - they tend to be a more refined breed.
The recirculating ball steering is reasonably accurate, but it does not provide the sort of feedback provided by a good rack-and-pinion set-up. What's more, the steering wheel is also a bit larger than it needs to be - in typical Benz fashion.
Adequate stopping power is not a problem as the four-wheel disc brakes are reassuringly strong, wiping off speed without fuss or fade - time and again.
In keeping with the car's sporting aspirations, ride quality is on the firm side, albeit never uncomfortably so. The low-profile tyres and relatively stiff spring rates mean occupants are not totally insulated from undulations, but that is the price you must expect to pay in a car that delivers fast, flat cornering capability.
In terms of practicality the CLK scores well if you are single or a couple unencumbered by offspring.
Front-seat occupants are well catered for, but leg and headroom is at a premium in the rear. The back seats are okay for smallish children but adult-sized beings will find themselves uncomfortably hemmed in.
The boot can swallow up to 350 litres of luggage, which is not too shabby for a coupe. A golf bag and buggy can be easily accommodated.
Overall, the CLK 430 is a worthy proposition for someone seeking a fast, civilised coupe. It offers bags of performance without compromising refinement or reliability. The coupe's menacing, yet understated stance is visually appealing and its classy cabin is also a pleasant place to be.
If you insist on nitpicking you could fault the token rear seats and steering that falls short of being pin-sharp - but beyond that you'd be clutching at straws.
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